MDG campaign: a compact of treacherous silence

Although anti-poverty campaigners in Bangladesh agree that the MDG poverty benchmark of Tk 14 is farcical attainment of poverty reduction according to that framework would be meaningless they have yet to raise these questions publicly. Their assessments and monitoring reports regularly publish false figures and implicitly validate the government’s position. This silence is tantamount to betrayal of the masses they call stakeholders. It is time these organisations spoke out and began to lobby the government to bring about a meaningful change, writes Tanim Ahmed. Republished from NewAge, October 9, 2007.

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Photo: NewAge.

THE catchy slogans make for good headlines. ‘Speak out against poverty and inequality’ and ‘Make poverty history’ are part of a global campaign against extreme poverty. Campaigners at home and abroad proclaim that the year 2000 was a significant one for their fight against poverty. In September that year, at the millennium summit of the United Nations, 189 nations agreed to the landmark Millennium Declaration. The heads of states and governments solemnly declared, ‘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. We are committed to making the right to development a reality for everyone and to freeing the entire human race from want.’ They also committed to upholding the principles of equality, equity and human dignity. The declaration was translated into eight development goals with 48 time-bound targets and thus, as the campaigners say, provided for a benchmark based on which people could make demands of their governments around the world according to their commitment. This was the first time that the world at large committed to something so concrete. As part of the campaign, the Global Call to Action against Poverty will hold human chains and street marches in almost 50 countries across the world where people will ‘Stand Up’ and ‘Speak out against Poverty’ on October 17.

Although the spirit that can be interpreted from the text of the landmark declaration is laudable, the devil is in the detail. The UN development goal targets deal strictly with numbers and statistics, so much so that, when considered in isolation, these would appear to be completely devoid of the moral grounding, which led to their formulation, at best and farcical at worst, attempting to provide further occasion to turn development into a full-fledged business and setting un unreasonably low benchmark for poverty, which would surely be easily attainable. Given the latest available data, the development goals presume that people in Bangladesh would be able to buy at least 2,200 kilocalories worth of foodstuff with Tk 14 every day. That is what the ‘dollar a day’ poverty benchmark transpires to. According to the targets, governments will have to halve the proportion of population earning below a dollar every day between 1990 and 2015. The ‘dollar’ in the poverty benchmark is not quite the market dollar, which is equivalent to about Tk 70, but is measured in purchasing power parity. According to the Human Development Report 2007, a yearly publication of the United Nations Development Programme, Bangladesh’s GDP per capita in purchasing power parity is $1,870. Data in these reports, as the UNDP mentions, are at least three years’ old and even older in some cases. According to the Economic Survey of Bangladesh 2004, the GDP per capita, in market dollars, is $444. Taking in the dollar value against that of taka in 2004, the poverty benchmark comes to Tk 13.95.

While this definition of poverty (ability to earn Tk 14 every day) is farcical there is another flaw in Bangladesh’s target for poverty reduction. A joint progress report prepared by the UN and the Planning Commission falsely claims that the proportion of Bangladesh’s population earning below ‘dollar a day’ was 58.8 per cent in 1990, and thereby sets a target of 29.4 per cent – reducing the proportion by half – by 2015. Interestingly, 58.8 per cent was the proportion of population living below the national poverty line in Bangladesh, which is calculated on the basis of ‘cost of basic needs’ and is not in anyway an indicator of income poverty that it has been turned into. In fact, Bangladesh does not even measure poverty in terms of income, and quite rightly so. The other method of calculating hardcore poverty by the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics is direct calorie intake. The World Bank calculates the ‘dollar a day’ figure in its annual World Development Report. According to the latest report, which draws its data on the last survey in Bangladesh, the proportion of population earning less than a dollar a day is 36 per cent and below $2 a day is 82.8 per cent.

While this manipulation of data, statistics and figures completely dilutes the spirit of the landmark declaration, there is an even more serious moral issue involved in achieving the target for eradicating extreme poverty and hunger. The targets stipulate that these scourges, as they are, should be halved by 2015. Since failure would naturally mean a loss of face and presumably ascribed to as a lack of commitment of those governments towards human development, the governments are more likely to leave out the remotest pockets of extreme poverty and focus on those groups that are more accessible or closer to the ridiculous poverty benchmark and high up in their direct calorie intake. This urge to meet the goal and attain the target would understandably leave out the other half in an even worse condition than they were before this grand millennium project was taken up.

While no one or no project should assume to have the moral right of deciding which half to let be in misery and subhuman conditions, poverty cannot be measured by a number or an arbitrary income figure, which was borrowed from the World Bank and that is enough to doubt the rigour of the entire exercise that led to the ‘dollar a day’ benchmark. Although the term is relative, it is undeniable that an individual’s lack of access to the justice system, the political process, or even one’s inability to provide for reasonable leisure or entertainment would also contribute to one’s poverty. It is not merely the summation of costs required for procuring one’s organic needs that are considered the basic rights of citizens.

This landmark international compact brought in another significant component that was also hailed around the world. The eighth goal proclaimed to ‘develop a global partnership for development’ as a part of which the industrialised and rich nations promised to pay out 0.7 per cent of their national income for the attainment of the development goals. Furthermore, these rich countries also promised to promote fairer trade providing privileges to the poorest countries and thereby helping them to trade their way out of poverty. The goals stated that the special needs of least developed countries, landlocked countries, small island economies would be considered by the larger and stronger trading partners.

When these were translated into targets their indicators were kept rather vague, except perhaps the proportion of income that would have to be paid out as assistance, a pledge that the developed economies are yet to fulfil and appear to be least bothered about. As far as trade is concerned, the development goals are not binding and the countries, both developed and advanced developing countries, hardly try to meet these obligations even in a token manner. The hard negotiations at the World Trade Organisation under a so-called ‘development round’ and the shamelessly selfish approach of large economies not conceding any ground to the poorest traders of the world is proof enough of their real commitment towards emancipation of their fellow beings living in ‘the abject and dehumanising conditions of extreme poverty.’

This aspect of the development goals, however, could prove to be rather beneficial in reducing inequality and inequity as 70 per cent of global inequity is explained by the disparity among countries rather than within countries. The share of global trade of the least developed countries in the world is decreasing and stands at a mere 0.4 per cent of the global trade. While this may be ascribed to undue and wholesale liberalisation of the economies that has been brought about by corporate globalisation, critics point out that the Millennium Development Goals themselves are meant to gradually liberalise the basic social sectors of education and health.

Besides the moral question of allowing disparity to increase, it is rather needless to say that, at least in the case of Bangladesh, there are serious anomalies in the data and national target as far as MDG attainment is concerned. Although it has been pointed out several times that the government set target is flawed and the poverty benchmark unacceptable in the context of Bangladesh since it severely undercounts the poor, citizens’ organisations, non-governmental organisations or campaigns based on the development goals hardly ever mention the anomaly. In other countries similar organisations have lobbied their governments to change the poverty benchmark and set a more acceptable one applicable for that country. The Philippines is such an example where the government modified its poverty benchmark. In Bangladesh, however, the so-called civil society organisations, their networks or platforms, appear rather keen not to give any indication regarding the poverty benchmark and how much ‘$1 PPP’ is in the local currency. When asked, the campaigners appear to remain content by terming the MDG minimalist development goals, but hardly take up any initiative to lobby the government about its target or the benchmark.

As far as the preposterous benchmark and the anomalies are concerned, taken together they merely appear to make it as easy as possible for Bangladesh to attain the target of ‘halving poverty’ in every way possible. Firstly, the national poverty line has been touted as an income poverty line of ‘one dollar a day’ in purchasing parity. Secondly the poverty benchmark has been set at a ridiculously low level and the value of the PPP dollar has been broken down into the taka to point out how much it actually amounts to. In fact, it would be much of a surprise and quite a bit of news if a countrywide survey proved that 25 per cent of Bangladesh’s population earned less than Tk 14 per day. Presuming such a scenario to be near impossible, Bangladesh has perhaps already reached its target for poverty reduction. But that is hardly meaningful or significant. Attainment of such a meaningless target, as should be clear, would not contribute to the country’s development or emancipation of the poorest of the poor. Nor would it mean anything to the people. It would indeed provide the government the scope to give pat on its back for having successfully achieved a poverty reduction target.

What is even more preposterous is the compact of silence by the citizens’ organisations. As part of their campaigns, these non-governmental organisations, claiming to represent civil society, and their networks solemnly pledging to fight against poverty, regularly publish ‘monitoring’ reports and assessments and the status of Bangladesh’s achievement of the development goals. In doing so they regularly publish the government fixed targets and thereby validate the very anomalies that they are expected to question. Even non-governmental organisations, their platforms or networks including the organisation that acts as the secretariat of the People’s Forum on MDGs and the Global Call to Action against Poverty, and its partners, are all guilty of validating the government’s flawed target by printing them in their respective publications but refraining from questioning the poverty benchmark or the target. Although the office-bearers of these organisations readily agree that the UN development goals would not be much of an achievement, that the benchmark is a farce, that the poverty reduction goal is inherently inequitable, not a single organisation campaigning against poverty has till date publicly criticised the given framework; thus, they have neglected their responsibility vis-à-vis increasing the awareness of the people on the one hand, and betrayed them on the other by allowing their establishments as well as that of the state to propagate and perpetuate a farce. The global compact to reduce poverty and attain development has turned into a compact of silence in Bangladesh. To make an understatement, it is utterly shameful.

These campaigners will hold elaborate functions and events on October 17, International Day for the Eradication of Poverty. They will urge the citizens to ‘stand up and speak out against poverty.’ The campaigners would do themselves and the people justice, if they themselves stood up and spoke out.

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