Mobilising against poverty, hunger and inequality

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

This article is part of our special report Nutrition and Child Survival.

People are losing trust in their leaders. What the bottom half of humanity sees is a new apartheid that divides a global rich and predatory minority from the overwhelming majority’s growing poverty, joblessness and social inequality, writes Jay Naidoo.

Jay Naidoo, a former South African minister of reconstruction and development, is the chairman of GAIN, the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition, in Geneva. This commentary was originally published here and is reprinted with the permission of the author.

"The drought is brutal in the north of Kenya around Lake Turkana. The rains seldom come and the lake is drying up. So is the hope of the Turkana, a proud people. They are mainly pastoralists. But the grazing lands are fast disappearing as are the fish in the rapidly receding lake.

Heavily armed marauding bands of bandits from the Horn of Africa regularly raid lands and seize the cattle of the Turkana. As one herder said, “They take our wealth and our food. Our cows are our bank. We are alone. There is no government here to protect us. It is the rule of the gun. Our homes are torched, our innocent are murdered. They want to drive us from our land. Our children are not safe. They must go to the city.”

Here poverty is driven by climate change, a precursor to the new resource wars to be fought over water, land, food and competition over scarce resources. The poverty is chronic, systemic and leaves many in despair, abandoned by the political and economic elites of the world.

That story is repeated in the many villages I have been to in the India subcontinent, in the slums of Africa and Asia where families live in a space that is barely bigger than the bathroom of middle class families. In these communities people feel that God has forsaken them.

While we have undoubtedly made progress, when I see the official reports suggesting “Enormous progress has been made towards achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Global poverty continues to decline, more children than ever are attending primary school, child deaths have dropped dramatically; access to safe drinking water has been greatly expanded…”

I wonder when these gains will trickle down to the billion people I encounter at the edges of our humanity.

The World Bank 2011 World Development report on Conflict, Security and Development, the Advisory Committee on which I sat on, found that at least 1 in 3 people live in conflict ridden countries and that no country that has experiences serious conflict will achieve any MDG goal. A country that goes through a civil war will take at least 25 years to recover its pre-conflict GDP. In places like the Great Lakes of Africa the primary victims of conflict are women where rape is used as an instrument of war that also forces thousands of children in the brutal game of soldiers of war.

Last week, Irish President Michael Higgins described global hunger as a gross human rights violation and the greatest ethical challenge facing the global economy. In illustrating the failure of the global development system he said further: “What is required is a robust regulatory framework which protects our fragile and threatened environment and which respects the right of small landholders to remain on their land and retain access to water sources.”

President Higgins has his hand on the pulse of the rising anger in a world. People are losing trust in their leaders in political, economic and even in civil society. What the bottom half of humanity sees is a new apartheid that divides a global rich and predatory minority from the overwhelming majority’s growing poverty, joblessness and social inequality.

The high-level panel, appointed by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, is expected to submit its final report on a post-2015 development agenda when it meets in New York at the end of May. There is an urgency to develop an alternative vision of the world we want.

The Millennium Declaration in 2000 promised that “Men and women have the right to live their lives and raise their children in dignity, free from hunger and from the fear of violence, oppression or injustice. Democratic and participatory governance based on the will of the people best assures these rights.”

The current ferment in the world demonstrates that patience is running out. The `youth bulge’ in the developing world is alienated by the corruption in our political and economic systems. Citizens are demanding voice and transparency. They want jobs and social protection, safety and justice – all issues that were not included in the original MDGs.

We need to go beyond measuring progress as a set of narrow input and output indicators. We need to address the underlying drivers of poverty and that the data has hidden a growing social and economic inequality which has risen dramatically in the world.

Let us disaggregate the laudable goal we set of the reduction of poverty by half by 2015. Development bureaucrats claim victory in many of the discussions I have attended. Poverty has been defined as an income of less than $1.25 a day. Because figures are not disaggregated what is ignored is the fact that China accounts for the bulk of this success.

Sub-Saharan Africa, on the other hand, is not on track on its poverty reduction and will fall short of nearly all the goals.  But more importantly, can we answer the question that many pose to me “Name one Minister or bureaucrat in any global institutions who can support a family on $1.25 a day. In fact there are only a few that go into power in Government and come out poor.”

We need a new framework that addresses sustainable development holistically; human rights, economic, social and environmental rights. At its core it has to place human well-being and the fact that our consumption patterns have pushed the world to the limit of its planetary boundaries. Therefore a top-down, donor driven and intergovernmental process that led to the MDG`s is unlikely to work today.

We need a bottom up process also which co-creates the vision of our future world. That creates the tools that allows communities at a grass root level ensure there is transparency and accountability of those in power.

We need reliable data in our countries to be able to measure progress. But we need to unpack our morbid fascination with evidence that just that satisfies `bean counters’ in foreign capitals and concentrate on data that meets the needs of the poor and improves the capacity and quality of service delivery.

So how can we legitimise the process towards a new future we hope to agree? We need to recognise the need for:

  • An inclusive and participatory process in which he voices of the poor are heard in the corridors of power.
  • Bold leadership at a local, national and global level and a set of shared rights and responsibilities across the public, private and civil society sectors.
  • The universality of human rights and its inter-connectedness to environment and poverty.
  • That growing inequality within countries is fuelling corruption and social tensions.
  • The need for Open Data networks that building accountability from the bottom up that creates tools for citizens to hold the leaders accountable.
  • Comprehensive development framework that integrates the discussions for a post-MDG agenda and ‘Sustainable Development Goals’ (SDGs) as agreed at the Rio+20 summit in June 2012.

In a world where over 1.3 billion people today have no access to electricity. What is the value of universal education when kids are taken out of school to go and find firewood or herd the family livestock?  

Mary Robinson, the former Irish president and UN high commissioner for human rights, has often said to me: “Scientists now agree that we are on a trajectory of a 4 degree rise in temperature, unless we radically change direction. People all over the world have a right to development. We need a smart collaboration between the developed and developing world, between government, business, civil society and the UN system to avoid violent and extreme fluctuations in weather patterns, leading to declining food production and greater social and political tensions. The poor will continue to pay the heaviest price unless show courage today.”

I am reminded that Nelson Mandela once said, “Overcoming poverty is not a task of charity, it is an act of justice. Like slavery and apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings. Sometimes it falls on a generation to be great. YOU can be that great generation. Let your greatness blossom.”

Now is the time to act."

  • Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition: Homepage

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