May 17, 2007

Civil Society Speaks – Millennium Development Goals not our Panacea but must be Engaged with

Filed under: Theorising Practice_May 2007 — newritings @ 4:45 pm

Samir Amin’s useful critique “The Millennium Development Goals: a critique from the South” [1] has inspired our response. He views MDGs as “part of a series of discourses that are intended to legitimize the policies and practices implemented by dominant capital and those who support it, i.e., in the first place the governments of the triad countries, and secondarily governments in the South”. For Amin the real goals include: extreme privatisation “aimed at opening new fields for the expansion of capital”, fundamentally questioning national state property; placing even agricultural land to the vagaries of rapacious market forces, i.e. the bosses; and deregulation of the national and regional markets to the powerful economies of the North. Yet to ignore without analysis and debate, is simply capitulation to the dominant ideological / ideas and political forces of the day. While we welcome Amin’s critique, it needs also to talk about how forces on the ground engage with various stratagems and initiatives thrown at them and use them as an opportunity for the struggle.

This was the case on the occasion of the UN 5 year review to re-assert our perspectives of struggle and comment on the government’s report to the UN on progress on achieving the MDGs. The SANGOCO, COSATU and SACC report, submitted under our one coalition’s name The Peoples Budget Coalition (PBC) carried the title head South Africa Civil Society Speaks.

In “Our goals and visions”, PBC clearly outlines that the report is both a statement of our visions as well as a commentary on the MDGs, where we essentially criticised them holistically. Thus, Civil society speaks begins with the assertion that “as progressive civil society in South Africa, we have the following concerns about the extent and nature of the 8 goals”. Our aim is not to present the report here but rather to elucidate some of the key opening and central concerns of our engagement with the MDGs. It is real, honest struggle on the ground and hopefully will make some theoretical contribution to the thinking on ending poverty and inequality. In the report we argued our case as follows:

1) The MDGs are merely the barest minimum for a development programme. On their own they are insufficient to tackling the gigantic task of eliminating poverty and inequality and the democratization of our societies that is much needed. Whilst we broadly welcome initiatives to substantially realise these goals, we do not believe that the indicators represent what really could be achieved in eradicating poverty and human suffering if every life did in fact count equally.

2) The simplicity of the articulation of the MDGs obscures the complexity of the causes of poverty, inequality and exclusion. Poverty can only be eradicated in a sustainable way if people have access to decent work. This in turn means commitment from countries to regulate the labour market to protect workers against exploitation and growing normalization which degrades rights that have been hard-won by workers internationally. We believe that the indicators to certain goals should be revisited to address this weakness in the MDGs.

3) Likewise, the MDGs have the potential to displace homegrown commitments to political and economic rights earned sometimes through the blood, sweat and tears of years of struggle. In the context of South Africa we refer to the documents and policies that were developed through inclusive and democratic processes and which reflect the collective vision of the country for a just society. These include the historic Freedom Charter (1955), the Reconstruction and Development Programme (early 1990’s) and the South African Constitution (1996).

4) We recognize that the MDGs represent a compromise and an accumulation of diverse demands. Many of these have however been better represented in earlier documents and commitments, whilst more recently again, the UN has watered down even minimum comments for the world leaders to unite for human rights, development and security, leaving developing countries with much less than they had hoped for. The attempt in “In Larger Freedom” (March 05) to link human rights and human security issues was better done in global commitments made much earlier in particular the 1995 UN Social Summit. This summit put people at the centre of development and called for “direct(ing) our economies to meet human needs more effectively.” Full employment and social inclusion was key to sustainable democracies. It placed civil society actors like unions and NGOs as part of the solution to tackling poverty and inequality.

5) We agree with Social Watch when they argue that poverty is not a statistic and should not be defined by USD 1, or even USD 2 a day. Further, as South African civil society we call for newer and more liberating tools of analysis to be developed with the active participation of the working class and those living in poverty and their organisations. We also agree with Social Watch, that the structural causes of poverty and exclusion need to be addressed in order to effect permanent change. Poverty eradication policies need to address the totality of the impact of poverty and be human centred, developed in consultation with people living in poverty and being informed by their voice.

In a rebuttal of Jeffrey Sacks (May 11, 2005, How To End Poverty: Making Poverty History And The History Of Poverty) Vandana Shiva makes the point more aptly when she argues that this measurement is indeed absurd: “In a world of plenty, 1 billion people are so poor, their lives are in danger. The indigenous people in the Amazon, the mountain communities in the Himalaya, peasants whose land has not been appropriated and whose water and biodiversity has not been destroyed by debt creating industrial agriculture are ecologically rich, even though they do not earn a dollar day.” She points out that even with “five dollars a day” suffering may persist given that “people are poor if they have to buy their basic needs at high prices.”

Proof of Shiva’s argument are Indian peasants that have been made poor and pushed into debt over the past decade to create markets for costly seeds and agrichemicals through economic globalisation, who are ending their lives in thousands.

We further argued that:

6) We believe that time bound targets are good for all as they lay down a fixed time-table for ensuring delivery on real social targets. It is thus imperative that we argued for Statistics bureaus and departments be staffed by high quality personnel committed to contribute to the eradication of poverty and inequality and the promotion of human rights. We also called for baseline statistics and yardsticks for assessing progress towards the attainment of goals must be agreed upon by all stakeholders, and the monitoring and evaluation processes must be transparent and inclusive. The trend to portray government achievements in the best possible manner, through – amongst others – the selective use of data and the suppression of other indicators, must be stopped and addressed as a matter of urgency.

Instead, as civil society organizations we affirm that our commitment to fighting for:

1) The total and unconditional debt write-off for all of Africa.

2) The doubling of international aid from developed countries. The G8 countries must be compelled to meet the 0.7% GNI target for international development assistance and front load those commitments without donor imposed policy conditionality.

3) The WTO and international financial institutions must allow for all countries to have the right to choose their own development paths. The World Trade Organization must recognise the right of developing states to redress and to protect their fragile economies without losing their right to access industrialized countries markets.

4) It follows that for this to succeed the OECD market access constraints must be removed and an end be made to subsidies that lead to dumping of products in developing countries and the crowding out of local producers.

We register deep concern about the process by which the state’s Report was drafted. To date there has been no real consultation with any social partners by government in the drafting of the report, despite numerous frustrated attempts by civil society. We believe that this goes against the spirit of the entire Millennium Project, and unless corrected through the adoption of a transparent participative partnership with civil society for the remained of the Millennium Project, this unilateral approach of government will threaten the successful attainment of the MDGs. This unilateralism undermines not only the democratic process of governance but also the prospects for working collectively for a just society where exploitation of one group by another is a thing of the past.

Despite our criticisms of both the content and the process we believe that it is essential to contest these initiatives on the ground, and struggle in such a manner that we hopefully succeed to open up space to re-asserting the real agenda and solutions for fighting poverty and inequality which Amin speaks of. Tackling these battles through progressive ideas and alternatives to mantra of the market, and good, democratic mass struggle will go some way to ensuring the inequality, poverty and state of underdevelopment the poor and working class have been subjected to. Only if people are placed at the centre of the process can the outcomes be relevant and sustainable. Thus, the organisation of working peoples in the urban and rural areas – and the broad sectors of marginalized that are expelled from capitalist societies like ours – must be truly a key part of the decision making meant to benefit them such as those aimed at halving hunger or the number of slums and poverty by 2015. All this means building or rebuilding and strengthening mass organisations of our people in various formations seeking to make maximum impact in our war on want. Though modest in goals and targets, we must begin to take up the MDGs and demand delivery on even these modest demands. As the first step of a long process, this will help build organisation and the necessary power needed to make us stronger to ensure that the system that breeds poverty and inequality is finally and permanently relegated to the dustbins of history.

Part of this struggle is to ensure that we use this opportunity and others to hold our own government accountable to its commitments and to support it and others who want genuine transformation of the global power architecture such as the UN, the WTO and others. In our Civil Society Speaks document South African civil society we further endorsed:

(The) African Civil Society Statement entitled “MDGs are not possible without a bold overhaul of global governance” (19 August 2005) drafted and adopted in Nairobi, Kenya. In particular we recognise the need for UN reform, which will discuss and address Africa’s under representation in key decision-making structures such as the Security Council. We share the view also that the Security Council should be expanded to ensure equal geographical representation, transparency and accountability.

We believe that the public service in many developing countries has been decimated by structural adjustment programmes imposed by the World Bank and the IMF, and is in need of urgent resources and rehabilitation to become a truly quality and accountable public service. This is a critical vehicle for creating both peace and solidarity as well as contributing towards anti poverty and inequality goals of the world.

We call on African leaders arguing for real UN reforms to put Africa first rather than their own nation states. Similarly the United Nations (the) and other multilateral institutions must involve meaningfully civil society organizations in their reform processes.

All our comments on the goals must be read with the above perspectives in mind.”

We also reiterated that ours was not a shadow report but an engagement at the relevant occasion to reiterate our historical mandate contained in our own history of struggle, which includes amongst others the Freedom Charter, the Reconstruction and Development Programme and the countries own constitution. Thus, far as regarding the MDGs as a panacea, we used the framework and the occasion to rededicate ourselves to arduous struggle and international solidarity to achieving our mandate. Thus, it explains why trade activists affirmed views contrary to those intended by the dominant forces behind the original conception of the MDGs and that the South African NGOs working on disability insisted on adding an additional goal: goal 9 – people with some form of disability constitute about 5% of the SA population. The Census 2001 statistics indicate that there were 2,255,982 people with various forms of disability, and thus the need to truly mainstream disability for them was paramount. Their articulation was expressed thus:

We believe the following inclusive guidelines will assist in including people with disabilities within mainstream economic activities. These are:

– Break invisibility and affirm the rights of disabled persons – that is why we have created this goal, and for this to work government must take the lead in policy making as well as effective implementation of laws and policies;

– Provide good pay and working conditions for service providers and the retention of staff, all social workers and those NGOs that work with the disabled;

– Obtain supportive devices to lessen the burden; and

– Create Quality Jobs and Justice Building Capacity.

The report also included a commentary on the South African Government Millennium Development Goals Country Report. In the main, we explicitly reiterated government’s accountability to its constituencies and condemned the failure to consult and share the report with the range of civil society actors prior to its submission to the UN. The problems – besides the general recalcitrance of governments to truly negotiate and engage civil society – lay in how the report was being drafted by the government of South Africa. The Statistician General’s words has it that the “department of foreign affairs is the official overseer of the MDG process, while Stats SA is the lead agency responsible for managing the process”. For many of us this resulted in the marginalisation of some departments really involved in tackling poverty such as Social Development – whose social grants are widely acknowledged as one critical intervention in the war against poverty.

Kofi Annan’s “In Larger Freedom” was inclusive of a whole package of reforms that included the UN itself, as complicated and messy as it may be, which the Amin piece did not address. The left in general must deal with these issues in a coherent manner, which we believe Ubuntu is proposing.

The Ubuntu Forum also used the space created by MDGs to influence groups on the need not only to reform the UN but all the system of international institutions. The “World Campaign for In-Depth Reform of the System of International Institutions” was launched in August 2002 within the framework of the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg. [2] As far back as 1 April 2004, in its London Declaration a call was made on “all the citizens of the world, all its peoples and, particularly, its political leaders, to give their full support to promoting a process of in-depth reform of the system of international institutions in order to establish a framework for fair, democratic global governance that can safeguard present and future generations from war, poverty, injustice, the tendency towards cultural uniformisation and environmental degradation.”

Meant as a starting point in a long struggle to reform the international multilateral institutions, Ubuntu used the momentum and the range of activities and mobilisations running to the Summit to create awareness and popularise the movement around the Manifesto. This initiative for us, like the SA case, uses in part the occasion of the MDGs to broaden the agenda on people’s terms, and not as template of repression or a channel / stratagem to control people’s energies, as it goes beyond tinkering and suggests that as a general rule, the reforms and policies envisaged “should ineluctably be accompanied by international strengthening of democratic rule and measures to prevent impunity at the international level in criminal, civil, economic, social and environmental law. To this end, we should advance towards ensuring global rule of law, ensuring compliance with current international treaties, strengthening existing international legal institutions and establishing those necessary in other areas, and providing all these tools with the appropriate and necessary executive mechanisms.”

In addition, the campaign around the Manifesto further calls for the system of international institutions to “also urgently begin taking measures to establish a framework guaranteeing plurality of information in the world.” The Manifesto ends with a call for gender equality to “impregnate all these proposals (…) towards another possible world.”

To conclude, we have tried to demonstrate some of the ways some civil society groups have responded to situations not of our making. We hope that through this process we have begun to reflect how the valid concerns raised by others as well as Amin are contested in both the street and the meeting halls, boardrooms which the powerful inhabit.

* By Hassen Lorgat and Marta Garrich. Hassen Lorgat works for SA NGO Coalition, he has also worked for various trades unions in SA. Marta Garrich works for Ubuntu Forum – World Forum of Civil Society Networks and the Secretariat of the World Campaign for in-depth Reform of the System of International Institutions.

[1] Publish in Monthly Review, Volume 57, Nr 10



We, citizens of the world, determined to safeguard future generations from war, poverty, injustice, cultural uniformisation and environmental degradation,

DECLARE the particular seriousness of the problems and challenges facing humanity and, in particular, that

  • the globalisation process is increasing the interdependence and complexity of world problems and widening the gap between rich and poor people; whilst markets become increasingly global, the influence of political institutions required for their democratic, equitable and effective functioning decreases every day
  • the weakening and marginalisation of the system of international institutions as regards peace and security issues has led to unilateral use of force in recent armed conflicts (Iraq…), than promoting conflict resolution collectively and in accordance with processes and protocols established through the UN.

In this state of the affairs, we citizens proclaim that a fairer world is possible, and we reclaim our democratic entitlement to participate in global decisions that affect our lives every day. To this end, we

PROPOSE in-depth reform of the system of international institutions to guarantee:

  • democratic governance of globalisation to contribute to resolving the grave problems and challenges that face our world;
  • the eradication of poverty and the promotion of more equitable development and respect for cultural, natural and gender diversity;
  • world peace and security, embracing human and environmental security, based on justice and freedom; and
  • the establishment of mechanisms to enable the world’s citizens and civil society organisations to achieve direct representation and participation in global decision-making processes.

The pursuit of these goals requires a stronger, more democratic UN, placed at the centre of a consistent, democratic, responsible, effective system of international institutions. More specifically, we need to democratise the composition and decision-making procedures of UN bodies and agencies to ensure that they are effective and democratic. And we need to reform and integrate within the UN all other global multilateral organisations (IMF, WB, WTO, etc.). To achieve these objectives,

WE PROMOTE a process of:

Mobilisation of the world’s citizenry based, for example, on citizens and world organisations’ support for this manifesto so that it comes to the formal attention of the United Nations General Assembly, with a request to call a world conference on the in-depth reform of the system of international institutions.

[1] The campaign at this stage has been supported by a range of organisations from trades unions, social movements and NGOs as well as prominent individuals such as former Secretary General of the UN Boutros Boutros Ghali, Javier Pérez de Cuéllar, Samir Amin, Noam Chomsky and Susan George. For more information about the World Campaign, please visit the site, where you can read the “Manifesto for In-Depth Reform of the System of International Institutions”, which spearheads the campaign. This website enables supporters of the campaign to sign both the manifesto and this declaration so that the proposals contained in them can, in the future, be submitted for consideration by the United Nations General Assembly.

1 Comment »

  1. […] by Zukiswa Wanner · Creating an Enabling Environment for Social Justice, by Thamsanqa Mabandla · Civil Society Speaks – Millennium Development Goals not our Panacea but must be Engaged with, by Hassen Lorgat and Marta Garrich · Is the African Peer Review Mechanism at Risk of Losing its […]

    Pingback by Contents of Theorising Practice, May 2007 issue « newritings — April 9, 2009 @ 11:50 am | Reply

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