Goals and Penalties

In September the UN adopted seventeen Global Goals, intended to build a better world by 2030 (www.globalgoals.org). These include such aims as ending poverty and hunger, promoting clean water and renewable energy, achieving gender equality and combatting climate change. All very worthy, and at least the global nature of problems and solutions is recognised, but let’s step back a bit and look at the background and history of such efforts.

The Global Goals are a follow-up to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) set by the UN in 2000 (www.un.org/millenniumgoals), though with 1990 often taken as a benchmark. There were just eight MDGs, from eradicating extreme poverty and hunger to reducing child mortality and combatting HIV/AIDS. For a discussion of one aspect of this, see Material World in the August Socialist Standard.

The UN’s report on the progress of the MDGs was published in July this year. This speaks of ‘profound achievements’, but, even if we accept the claims at face value, what emerges is at most a series of qualified successes. Among the achievements (all quoted from the report):

•    The number of people living in extreme poverty has declined by more than half, falling from 1.9 billion in 1990 to 836 million in 2015

•    The number of out-of-school children of primary school age worldwide has fallen by almost half, to an estimated 57 million in 2015, down from 100 million in 2000

•    The global under-five mortality rate has declined by more than half, dropping from 90 to 43 deaths per 1,000 live births between 1990 and 2015

•    Since 1990, the maternal mortality ratio has declined by 45 percent worldwide, and most of the reduction has occurred since 2000

Yet as the report also notes, ‘the poorest and most vulnerable people are being left behind’. For instance (again quoted from the report):

•    About 16,000 children die each day before celebrating their fifth birthday, mostly from preventable causes

•    In the developing regions, children from the poorest 20 percent of households are more than twice as likely to be stunted as those from the wealthiest 20 percent

•    About 800 million people still live in extreme poverty and suffer from hunger

•    In Latin America and the Caribbean, the ratio of women to men in poor households increased from 108 women for every 100 men in 1997 to 117 women for every 100 men in 2012

•    By the end of 2014, conflicts had forced almost 60 million people to abandon their homes – the highest level recorded since the Second World War

Thus it would seem that the fifteen-year project established in 2000 was so successful that another fifteen-year project, covering many of the same aims, was set up when it came to an end. Extreme poverty, for instance, was reduced but it had certainly not been eradicated, as the goals had it.

As far as hunger was concerned, the true aim was not that nobody should go hungry but that the proportion in developing countries suffering from hunger should be halved between 1990 and 2015. The reduction allegedly achieved was in fact from 23.3 percent to 12.9 percent, which is not quite a half. This was against a background of higher food prices, extreme weather events, natural disasters and the economic recession. Much of the reduction was in China, as the economy there saw short-term expansion and the country became a source of cheap labour power for global capitalism. But progress was much slower in the Caribbean, Oceania, Southern Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. South Asia alone has 281 million undernourished people.

So what conclusions do we draw from this? That the new Global Goals will not deliver either? That the whole enterprise is a charade intended to cover up the continuation of poverty and inequality? That the UN is hardly the best organisation to oversee such projects? That yet more such projects will be needed subsequently?

A more appropriate response would be to say that in technological terms it is perfectly possible to meet the real goals of ending poverty and so on, and to do so straightaway: that the planet and its inhabitants are perfectly capable of growing enough food for everyone; that maternal mortality can be significantly reduced if the required resources are put to it; that no child needs to grow up hungry or stunted or illiterate or abused; that the environment can be properly nurtured. In other words, the current suffering and premature deaths are quite simply unnecessary. But it will take a revolution to achieve all this, not tinkering within the present system.      


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