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The open veins of the south | Race-Talk

The open veins of the south

Filed under: Featured,World |

By Wendy Ake,

Last week’s UN Summit on the Millennium Development Goals concluded with the adoption of another action plan intended to put the target date of 2015 back on course and strengthen commitments for women, children and other initiatives.  In September 2000 when the MDGs were first penned, they were adopted through acclamation, rather than the orthodox and lengthier process of preparation in committee, by the UN General Assembly and were largely the product of the triad countries: US, Europe and Japan.

In his thorough analysis of the MDGs “The Millennium Development Goals: A Critique from the South” Samir Amin (2006) reminds us that the document was drafted by Ted Gordon, a well-known consultant for the CIA. Prior to this task, in 2003, Ted Gordon, then representing the UN Millennium Project, collaborated with Jim Dewar, Director of RAND Corporation’s Center for Longer Range Global Policy and the Future of the Human Condition and Ged Davis, former head of Shell International’s scenarios project coordinated to launch the National Intelligence Council’s 2020 Project in 2003 which sought to engage “broad-guaged discussion with intelligence community analysts” about how they thought about the future with respect to lessons from regional globalization and recent future studies.

The project was far-reaching, convening six regional conferences on four continents. The UN Millennium Project is the one of five organizations listed among the “numerous organizations and individuals” consulted on the aspects of the project.

In addition to being authored and sponsored by these cast of actors, the MDGs were co-sponsored by the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Given the paramount role these institutions played in the devastating role of structural adjustment programs throughout the 1980s and 1990s, which in coordination with the legacy of colonialism, natural resource exploitation and the Trans-Atlantic slave trade had ushered the global south into their current economic situation of acute poverty, the stated goal of MDGs to act instruments to guide aid distribution to alleviate poverty was viewed with suspicion.

It was thought by some that these international actors might be cloaking aid tied to further economic exploitation and manipulation in the guise of social progress, poverty alleviation or democratic progress. Certainly the banner of aid is more appealing than the explicit barefaced economic reforms demanded under structural adjustment. And, poverty alleviation has become quite popular in the global north, and rightfully so. Individuals should be interested in alleviating the suffering of others; this appeal should resonate within our collective conscience. And, because attention is being given to funding vaccination programs, for instance, Africa-wide malaria deaths have fallen by half.

Estimates state that six million lives have been saved by the skyrocketing levels of measles and tuberculosis vaccinations. One would have a difficult time arguing against these points as successes. At the same time, the maintenance of these programs in the long-term is unstable and these successes begin to appear as approaches which deal with the effects rather than the problems at hand. This is a very short-sighted and limited way to approach what are very urgent problems for individuals. When the funding stream or aid stream dries up, during a global financial crisis, for instance, vaccination levels dip and lives again hang in the balance, measles vaccine funding is down and deaths could rebound by as much as 1.7 million.

At this past week’s conference, Ban Ki-moon was praising China’s involvement in Africa for stabilizing some amounts of overall funding in Africa, but many grassroots activists criticize China’s hands-off approach to the internal function of African governments particularly on human rights issues.

However, despite these poverty alleviation aid gloss and the very real advances that are being made by individuals in the global south in overcoming the material reality of poverty, whether or not it is correlated to the articulation of the MDGs, the insidious consequences of tied aid weave themselves through the nation’s fabric, forever altering its texture, character and potential. Many of these larger economic rationales are at diametric odds with the some of the shorter term successes that have been declared as a consequence of the MDGs.

Despite these roots, the meetings organized throughout the 1990s called together civil society representatives meeting in parallel to state actor meeting in “official” conferences, e.g. where decisions were taken and where power is thought to exclusively reside. Due to this structure, the MDGs are argued to reflect the voice of civil society, their participation.

However, this unofficial meeting structure does not allow for meaningful democratic participation in the articulation and framing of the final MDGs for those ‘outside’ the seated official meetings to trickle up into the meeting, let alone to influence the final wording of the conference document. The role for participation of individuals ‘outside’ official proceedings is not limited to influencing conference documents.

For instance, in the opinion of Patrick Bond, the single initiative that has saved more lives anywhere since the end of apartheid was the campaign waged by the Treatment Action Campaign and its allies against President Thabo Mbeki, the world’s leading pharmaceutical corporations and the US government to free up the ability to produce generic anti-retroviral drugs in South Africa that used to cost 10,000 USD per year per person but are now free.

This development was not brought about due to the MDGs as the MDGs do not specifically address access to anti-retroviral drugs, although they do separately address HIV/AIDS and “access to affordable essential drugs in cooperation with pharmaceutical companies”. In recent years, many African countries have made advances in education. For instance, Burundi and Tanzania have suspended school fees and enrollment is nearly universal.

Zambia is close to suspending school fees. Mauritania has increased state budgets for education which resulted in greatly increased enrollment for girls. Ethiopia raised their educational budget, funded the production of school texts in local languages and built rural schools. In Tanzania additional teachers were recruited, a second shift was added to the teaching schedule. In Gambia teacher training was invested in.

Deeper study is required to know what role the articulation of the MDGs played in these advances or to exactly what extent these actions are effective towards greater social progress the state actors claim they are play a role.

Amin points out that those whose voices were heard in the MDGs, left out phrases of women’s rights, preferring “gender equality” and “empowerment”. The MDGs discussed the need to eradicate poverty and hunger by half without engaging in any way the causes of poverty or denouncing those causes. The need for access to healthcare and education is emphasized without mention of its historic incompatibility with privatization which is germane in the context of aid, particularly when international aid agencies are involved. Amin also highlights Goal 7 which deals with environmental sustainability which is consistently weak and lacking in specificity.

If you take the final MDG document as the starting point, the document itself sounds quite laudable. However, if you take the MDG as a historical artifact, its flaws become more apparent. Those who we feel a deep resonance with the principles of the Millennium Development Goals, should be moved to inspect the regime of practices in the global aid system that undermines the mentalities of the MDGs. There are many aids in conducting such an analysis, many have come before us. Aid’s only purpose should be to alleviate poverty and should not carry with it other economic conditions, regardless of whether those conditions are generated by the recipient or donor. Trade policies must be corrected and terms of trade must be improved for producers, governments must be able to intervene on their behalf.

In 1986, coffee producers were paid nine billion dollars and all coffee consumers paid twenty billion for this same coffee. In 2006, coffee producers pay six billion and consumers thirty billion. (Amin, 2006) Given our current global economic crisis, and stories of Wall Street Bonuses and bailouts it is common to hear the phrase “the rich get richer and the poor poorer” and think about that phrases’ application at a domestic scale. When Bolivian President Evo Morales took the stage at the UN Conference last week, he took that phrase and applied it at the global scale: “If we wish to make progress, it is our obligation to reach the Millennium Development Goals. And in order to reach these goals, the South has to stop financing the North. This millennium should see the closure of the open veins of the South that are bleeding towards the North.”

Wendy Ake is a Graduate Research Associate at the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity and a Graduate Student in the Department of Environmental and Natural Resources at Ohio State University.


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