MDGs Show the UN's Continued Legitimacy


Former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva of Brazil launched his Zero Hunger strategy in 2003, prioritizing food security across the government. Through initiatives such as public procurement from small farmers and school feeding programs, Zero Hunger has had positive results; 93% of Brazilian children are now able to eat three meals a day. John Kufuor, former president of Ghana, was another crusader against food insecurity in his country. His leadership substantially increased public investment in the agriculture sector, leading to the creation of a robust agricultural extension service and school feeding programs. As a result, Brazil and Ghana have both achieved the first UN Millennium Development Goal of cutting the level of global hunger in half. Both of these heads of state will be awarded the World Food Prize in Des Moines, Iowa in October for their ambitious leadership.

On a broader level, Lula da Silva and Kufuor represent a fundamental paradigm shift in international development: the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) have led developing countries to embrace the task of confronting poverty within their borders, rather than simply relying on wealthy countries’ aid. Thus, the MDGs are precisely why the United Nations as an institution remains a pivotal force in international relations today.

The MDGs, established in 2000, encompass eight areas: hunger and poverty; education; gender equality; child health; maternal health; HIV/AIDS; environmental sustainability; and a global partnership.

The opportunity for country-led development through the MDGs signals a promising approach to combating issues plaguing poor countries. Following World War II, the goal of poverty reduction centered around the idea that Western governments and international financial institutions would provide aid to poor countries. I think that approach has largely failed. As Dambisa Moyo writes scathingly in Dead Aid, government-to-government aid has only bred African countries’ dependence and corruption. And the structural adjustment programs implemented by the World Bank —demanding that African countries remove public investment in certain sectors as a condition for loans — turned out to neglect particular local circumstances, a problem that contributed to the 2003 Ethiopian famine. 

The Millennium Development Goals, in effect, pose a challenge to that old model. When the MDGs were approved by UN member governments in 2000, it signaled that all heads of state would have to go back to their countries and take on critical poverty issues.

Indeed, the diversity of areas highlighted in the MDGs evidences the importance of multi-sector and multi-stakeholder approaches to poverty alleviation. For example, global agricultural development leaders are realizing the need to pay attention to linkages between food production, nutrition, environmental sustainability, and the gender dimension. This inevitably means that different government ministries and different parts of the value chain will have to collaborate and that governments, NGOs, and the private sector will also have to collaborate.

Some people have strongly criticized the international community’s lack of progress on certain MDGs, particularly MDG #1 on hunger. Yet it would be unfair to discredit the United Nations itself for those failures, given that much of the food insecurity persisting today can be attributed to the inherent economic imbalance between wealthy and poor nations. Such an uneven playing field enables the industrialized world to respond to resource scarcity and climate change in ways that increase the vulnerability of the world’s poorest, as I wrote in a recent PolicyMic column.

In fact, the MDGs can serve as the foundation for a rallying cry by developing countries determined to fight back against the industrialized world’s unjust land practices such as biofuel production and land grabbing. Developing world leaders can say to the global north: The world’s governments agreed to work toward eight poverty reduction goals, and your actions shouldn’t compromise these goals. Using the MDGs to promote global justice is therefore an effective way to promote the human right to essential resources.

Overall, the MDGs suggest that a new era of international development is upon us. African leaders should use the MDGs as an opportunity to confront critical challenges and to stand up to wealthy countries.

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