Ten years ago at the United Nations Millennium Summit, 189 world leaders came together to make the most important commitments of our generation. The political climate for change was just right. The economies in the western world were strong and progressive leaders like Bill Clinton, Kofi Annan, and Nelson Mandela were centre stage. Coupled with the symbolism of the millennium, conditions were perfect for a framework that would eliminate extreme poverty as we know it by 2015. We are now beginning the race to the finish line. With only five years left to fulfill these commitments, leaders sat down earlier this month at the UN’s Millennium Review Summit.
The Millennium Declaration back in 2000 stated that all leaders would strive to “free our fellow men, women and children from the abject and dehumanizing conditions of extreme poverty”. Despite widespread pessimism, this objective was possible within the 15-year time frame the leaders put forward. With 10 years of broken promises and negligible progress by most measures of the Millennium Development Goals, we can still do it. We have the ability to drastically reduce poverty by 2015.
To put things into perspective, according to a recent Oxfam International press release, providing comprehensive education for children in all the poorest countries would cost US$16 billion per year. In total, all the rich countries’ combined donations are sitting at US$4 billion per year. A recent article in the Toronto Star calculated that Canada’s recent corporate tax cuts will cost our country $12 billion in foregone revenue each year. In 2008, Canada doled out $4.73 billion in official overseas development aid. This is about one-third of the aid we committed back in 1970. In fact it was Canada with Lester B. Pearson at the helm which called on the world to make the same commitment 40 years ago. The Millennium Development initiative has held on to this benchmark ever since. In short, there is enough money, resources, and skills available to accomplish these goals. What is lacking is the will.
I am not going to ignore the fact that many countries in the developing world, specifically in sub-Saharan Africa have systematic corruption and internal conflict. This, however, is not a good enough reason to turn our backs on the possibility for progress. Spending time in Uganda, India, and Southeast Asia with several development organizations, I witnessed many of the obstacles to development. In the vast majority of cases it is due to the lack of long-term commitments and far too much money being channelled through governments with no mechanism of accountability. Divert this through grassroots, community-based organizations and the situation becomes much brighter. To dig further into the roots of corruption we can look at the rifts generated during the Cold War. Don’t forget the massive multinational grab for resources by massive corporations. When accosting corrupt dictators, we have to ask who is signing their cheques.
I have seen top performing elementary schools in Uganda operate for only a few thousand dollars per month. I have met tons of incredibly gifted Ugandans with the skills and willingness to seize their destiny and work tirelessly for a brighter shared future. With unprecedented wealth and technology, we have everything necessary to put an end to the 50,000 preventable poverty deaths that occur each day. It’s high time to bury the skepticism that is plaguing the mandate of the Millennium Declaration.
With the net increases in the world’s wealth, I am more optimistic than ever that progress is possible. As citizens of a historically and geographically privileged country, we have an incredibly opportunity to join the movement for change. Within a few clicks of a mouse, you have the e-mail address for your member of Parliament and, with that, the power to lend your voice to an incredibly powerful movement. There are many groups, associations, and on-line actions to join. From hitting the streets to joining a local advocacy group, it’s time to stand up and make some noise for the Millennium Development Goals.
Scott Andrews is an avid human-rights activist and long-time volunteer with Oxfam Canada. After returning from Uganda last year, Andrews became involved with Bridge to a Cool Planet and other climate-change activism with Oxfam. More recently, he was one of the founders of the Vancouver Peoples’ Summit as coordinator of the local Make Poverty History coalition. Andrews maintains the blog Third Wave Activism.