A Problem of Priority, Not Scarcity

"A home of plenty: clothed and fed our sturdy children play;
While other children cry for bread not half a world away."

-- Bishop Timothy Dudley-Smith

With the wealth of resources at the world's disposal, for this hymn above to represent the truth in 2015, the target year for achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), would be a shame to humankind. It is not fair, therefore, to ask today whether the MDGs are achievable. It is not fair for the 925 million people who do not have enough to eat and the 1.4 billion who live in poverty. But most important, it is not fair because the world has what it takes to achieve the MDGs. What is lacking is a sense of urgency, the urgency that unceasingly drives the lives of those who suffer.

While many regions are not on target for achieving the goals, there is so much to be hopeful for. There is much we have done, yet so much more we can do. And let us ask the crucial question -- why is there still room for hope?

Hope can be found in the fact that while progress has been slow, progress has been made. The latest World Bank report How's the World Doing? states that forty-five out of eighty-four countries are on track to meet the goal of cutting poverty in half by 2015 and, compared to 1990, 27 per cent fewer people would be living in poverty in 2015. By forgiving the debts of poor nations, more money has been freed for development. Before debt relief, under the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries Initiative, eligible poor countries spent more on debt services than on health and education combined. 1 Also, rich nations are doing more to meet their commitments: in 2009, for example, leaders of the group of eight industrialized nations, the G8, pledged $20 billions to help their poor counterparts with investments in agricultural development.2 These are just small steps, but the world is heading in the right direction.

According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the world spent $1.531 trillion on defence in 2009, a 49 per cent increase since 2000, while aid commitments made in the 1970s were still far from fulfilled. We have more resources if we choose to use them. Ours is not a problem of scarcity, but one of priority.

Change is in the air, and that is another reason to be hopeful. Innovation has driven us to better means of finance, action, and awareness. UNITAID, an international facility hosted by the World Health Organization for the purchase of drugs against HIV/AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis, and funded largely through small fees added to airline tickets, has raised $1.5 billion since 2007.3 The microfinance revolution, through organizations such as the Grameen Bank and Kiva, has brought entrepreneurship to the poorest with exemplary results in reducing hunger and poverty.4 Within the United Nations there are also winds of change, with increased momentum in implementing the proposals made in Delivering as One, a report by a high-level panel to make UN agencies more cohesive and efficient in fulfilling the MDGs.5 Technology is leading this change as well. Social media and the Internet make disseminating ideas easier, transferring funds safer, and development more inclusive. As we learn from the mistakes of the past, technology is helping us climb the steep learning curve faster.

Eradicating hunger and poverty is a massive challenge, and when setbacks such as the recent food and financial crisis wipe away years of hard-won progress, hope can fade quickly -- but hope should not be lost.

More massive than the challenges we face are the opportunities we have, and developed nations can do so much more to help. Hunger and poverty cannot be fought effectively if trade barriers restrict entry into lucrative markets. The estimated annual cost of these trade barriers is over $100 billion, which is much more than what developing countries receive in aid.6 Tax havens are another serious problem for some developing countries, which lose an estimated $124 billion in revenue from these offshore assets.7 Not acting promptly is to encourage those corrupt elite in some developing nations to continue cheating their populations with impunity. The rhetoric of developing nations taking a lead in their development will remain just rhetoric unless they are given access to markets and corruption is fought effectively.

The Millennium Development Goals are interlinked and mutually reinforcing. This gives reason for hope, as we have multiple approaches to tackle problems. Achievements in one goal will drive further achievements in other goals. In its report Progress for Children: A Report Card on Nutrition, the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) states that the cost of malnutrition to national economic development is estimated at $20-30 billion per annum and, according to the World Food Programme, eradicating iron deficiency can improve national productivity levels by as much as 20 per cent. With equal access of girls to education, more women could add to the growth of this critical sector and educate the generations after them. Action on any of the MDGs can reinforce the others and uniformly achieve the promise made at the Millennium Development Summit of "making the right to development a reality for everyone and freeing the entire race from want."8

Many battles along the way will be lost. There will be new challenges, but as we maintain hope the war against hunger and poverty will not be lost.


1 IMF, "Debt Relief Under the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) Initiative," 30 July 2010, http://www.imf.org/external/np/exr/facts/hipc.htm.

2 WFP, "G8 Leaders Step Up Fight Against Hunger," 10 July 2009, http://www.wfp.org/stories/record-level-hunger-looms-g8-agenda.

3 Philippe Douste-Blazy, "Millennium Development Miles," Project Syndicate, 1 September 2010, http://www.projectsyndicate.org/commentary/dousteblazy1/English.

4 S. Leatherman and C.Dunford, "Linking health to microfinance to reduce poverty," Bulletin of the World Health Organization 88, no.6, (2010): 470-471, http://www.who.int/bulletin/volumes/88/6/09-071464/en/index.html.

5 E. Lwanga, "Achieving the MDGs in Africa: A Race Against Time," UN Chronicle, Vol. XLIV, No.4 (2007): 31.

6 "Puppets on purse strings," Down To Earth (Centre for Science and Environment) 10, No.23, 30 April 2002.

7 O. De Schutter, "Democratizing the Millennium Development Goals", Project Syndicate, 18 September 2010, http://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/odeschutter1/English.

8 UN, The Millennium Development Goals Report (UN DPI, 2005), http://millennium