By Sandhya Venkateswaran,Womens Feature Service
The Big Apple – the metropolis of opportunity and hope – saw the world gather to review whether opportunities and hope existed in any manner for those who were falling off the world’s radar screen. This two-day UN Summit on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that began in New York on September 20, marked a full decade since the countries of the world had committed themselves to the MDGs. The intervening years had seen a great deal of activism and energy; witnessed many commitments, plans and negotiations. It was now time for stock-taking. Time to look at the world’s poor in the eye and assess if the promises made in their name had been upheld.
Governments, civil society groups, and concerned citizens found their way to New York, home to the UN office, to collectively review progress on the MDGs and chart a plan for the remaining five years. For social activists, particularly, it had been a very long walk. They had worked all these years to make the MDGs more meaningful and had constantly reminded their own governments as well as global leaders to deliver on their commitments, even if those were well below what were required.
This decade of hope, however, culminated in disappointment, frustration and anger, as the innumerable meetings and talks gave way to very little concrete or meaningful action. As Irungu Houghton of Oxfam put it, “The governments wrote a cheque and it bounced.”
The feeling of promises made but not delivered ran strong across most civil society groups who had gathered at New York. They had come hoping that a breakthrough plan will be delivered; that the commitments made in 2000 actually meant something; and that an honest effort would be made to see how the world might get back on track with respect to the goals that had been set. Quite apart from actually making such an effort, even the interest in making any sort of effort seemed to be missing.
Civil society activists also noted with despair how the outcome document that came at the end of the process reflected little commitment to using the next five years to ensure some progress. The language in the outcome document prepared by the UN has been so diluted that it meant nothing. Where the initial document in 2000 spoke of ‘sparing no effort’ in reducing poverty, the document in 2010 merely talked of a ‘matter of deep concern’. Asked Roberto Bissio of Social Watch, “What happened to the efforts that were not to be spared? Would the poor have been rescued if they had been a bank?”
Several civil society leaders rated the summit a ‘C’, in its diluted language from the earlier document, in its inability to articulate and outline tangible actions for the remaining five years and in its failure to reflect any real concern or commitment to the world’s poor. The absence of a human rights perspective was particularly disappointing.
Missing also was any reflection on the feminisation of poverty and its many manifestations and causes. This has been a matter of deep concern from the time that the MDGs came into being and many women’s groups had, in fact, been critical of the MDGs precisely for their complete lack of understanding and reflection of gender as a social justice issue. This lag has continued and many women’s groups, who had not embraced the MDGs, were conspicuous by their absence at the Summit. The few women’s groups that did participate attempted to bring attention to such critical issues, but it was disappointing that other civil society organisations did not embrace women’s issues in any meaningful manner. Overall, women’s groups were right in feeling that the outcome document had failed to outline any mechanism for the implementation of gender justice. Even where some governments, such as the Norwegian government, were vocal about the need for gender equality, there was little bite in the bark. The UN Secretary General’s strategy on women’s and children’s health has been welcomed, but the absence of reproductive health rights components in it caused deep concern.
The formation of UN Women, with the recent announcement of Michelle Bachelet, a strong leader and former President of Chile as its head, has brought some hope and energy for a refocus on gender justice issues. We will have to see if this happens. But, clearly, at this much-awaited Summit, the lack of leadership for social justice was palpable. It is only to be hoped that the next decade will see leaders emerge who bring attention back to delivery and democratic development as well as ensure that there are renewed efforts to enable citizens to hold governments accountable.
Hopefully, too, the five years to the deadline year of 2015, when the commitments on the MDGs have to be met, will see a fresh emphasis on Goal Eight, which has received the least attention until now. Many social activists in New York felt that while Goal Eight – which talks of global partnerships – is critical in driving the other MDGs, it is the one goal that has no indicators and tangible deliverables.
Thus while there was complete clarity that it is the governments that have to be held accountable to the progress on commitments, it was also simultaneously recognised that much more needs to be done by different actors coming together. The recognition of the need for universal access to services and social protection floors is an opening to build upon.
That the review summit did not achieve anything tangible has been a disappointment for most civil society participants at the New York Summit. But since civil society lives on hope and commitment, it is unlikely that its own energy will be diluted. Whether governments come on board or not, concerned citizens will continue to find ways to hold their leaders accountable to the last citizen, to promises made and those that need to be made. As the world heads for the deadline year of 2015, when the MDGs are to be achieved, the involvement of social activists and citizens would be crucial.