The Double-O Years: Another Lost Decade

Roberto Bissio Coordinator, Social Watch International Secretariat

We refer to “the eighties” and “the nineties” to designate the closing decades of the 20th century, so how should we baptise the first decade of the new century?

In 2000, at the start of this inaugural decade of the third millennium, there was universal optimism, but now when we came to assess what was really achieved perhaps we should call it “the double-O decade” because the results have been exactly that: “nothing whatsoever”.

The “double-O years” began with the Millennium Declaration in which over a hundred presidents, monarchs and prime ministers from all over the world made a solemn commitment: “We will spare no effort to free our fellow men, women and children from the abject and dehumanising conditions of extreme poverty, to which more than a billion of them are currently subjected.” The first of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) is that by 2015 this figure would be reduced by half, and since the MDGs were established they have come to be recognised by the international community as a target to strive for.

However, in September 2008, at a meeting in Accra, Ghana, ministers from around the world who had come together to evaluate the effectiveness of aid, officially stated that, “...1.4 million people –most of them women and girls- still live in extreme poverty...” and in January 2010 the World Bank announced that, “Due to the crisis, an estimated 64 million more people will be living in extreme poverty by the end of 2010.”

With around 1.5 billion people in extreme poverty in 2010 (1.4 billion in 2008 plus the 64 million added by the 2009 crisis), the promise to reduce poverty by half seems almost impossible to achieve with just five years remaining. In fact, according to a report by the Secretary General of the United Nations, the number of people living below the $1 a day poverty line “...went up by 92 million in Sub-Saharan Africa and by 8 million in West Africa during the period 1990 to 2005”.

The eighth and last of the MDGs calls for the establishment of global partnerships around  trade, aid, debt cancellation and technology transfer in order to enable developing countries to achieve the other seven goals for heath, education and sanitation.

All things considered, the situation as regards Goal 8 is discouraging. Some progress has been made in cancelling the bilateral and multilateral external debts of some of the poorest countries, but this is far from enough to alleviate the external debt burden of these countries as a group. In the realm of trade there have been no positive moves at all.  In September 2001 the so-called development round of trade negotiations started in Doha, Qatar, but its development-promotion component is insignificant and is still a long way from being concluded. Technology transfer has been made even more expensive by the strict enforcement of intellectual property regulations. Foreign development aid has not increased at all; in 1992 it stood at 0.44 per cent of the income of the donor countries and in 2008 it amounted to 0.43 per cent. This lack of progress towards the Millennium Goals is the combined result of the developed countries’ failure to meet their agreed obligations and the uneven distribution of resources in developing countries.

In his report on the MDGs to the United Nations General Assembly, Ban Ki-moon, the Secretary General acknowledged “...there has been a failure to deliver on the necessary finance, public services and technical support...” and that this failure was “...aggravated by the global food and economic crises, and the failure of various development policies and programmes”. During the “double-O” years, many developing countries enjoyed high levels of economic growth but poverty reduction and employment creation lagged behind, and thus “...improvements in the lives of the poor have been unacceptably slow, and to make matters worse some hard-won gains are being eroded in the crisis”. 

“If the poor were a bank, they would have been rescued.” Many people have made this sarcastic comment since the additional money needed to achieve the MDGs (estimated at around $ 100 billion a year) is compared with the trillions of dollars disbursed in recent months in the richest countries to rescue their failed banks and try to stimulate their ailing economies.

But this idea is not as crazy as some people might think. In its 2009 report, the Social Watch non-governmental network showed that investing in the poor through social services or even direct cash transfers makes for a better stimulus package for an economy as a whole than subsidizing people who are already rich. There is a simple reason for this match of the ethical imperative with economic good sense; in times of crisis affluent people save as much as they can and this risk-aversion stance discourages investors, whereas the only thing that those living in poverty can do is spend any support they get... which generates a virtuous circle.

In practice, though, the less privileged in rich and poor countries alike not only suffer the direct consequences of the crisis in the form of loss of jobs, savings or even their households, but are also required to pay for the rescue and stimulus packages through higher taxes and reduced salaries and social benefits. 

In this context, to call for “more of the same” is not the answer. More aid money and better trade terms of trade for developing countries are an ethical imperative now even more than . But, to face the dramatic social and environmental impacts of the current multiple crises, we need to move beyond what is being done already. Now, when preparations are being made for the MDG summit conference to be held in New York next September, Social Watch proposes “that we need to start work towards a comprehensive justice programme”.

This programme should include:

Climate justice (the recognition of “climate debt”, and investment in clean technologies and the promotion of “green economies” that generate decent jobs).

Financial, fiscal and economic justice (the financial sector should pay for the crisis they  created, through a financial transaction tax or similar mechanism, speculation needs to be regulated, tax havens restricted, and the race to the bottom in tax policies ended or reversed as these lead to cutting social services to attract investment).

Social and gender justice (to achieve the MDGs, promote gender equality, universal basic social services and “dignity for all”), and lastly...

Plain old justice, with effective judges and courts to demand and ensure that basic social rights are maintained and respected.

In times of unprecedented crisis, leaders must have the courage to take audacious and innovative measures. Ten years ago the Millennium Declaration promised “A more peaceful, prosperous and just world”. It is time for these promises to be kept and not just add up to a lot more nothing.