ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, April 22, 2007
Vol. 41 - No 47

The Millennium Development Goals: Broken promises

By Jeffrey D. Sachs

The Millennium Development Goals are the world's agreed goals to cut poverty, hunger, and disease. Established in 2000, their targets were to be met by 2015. We are now at the halfway point. So far, despite endless words about increasing aid to poor countries, the rich G-8 countries are reneging on their part of the bargain.

Cynicism abounds here. At the G-8 Gleneagles Summit in 2005, member countries pledged to double aid to Africa by 2010. Soon after the summit, I was invited to a small, high-level meeting to discuss the summit's follow-up. I asked for a spreadsheet showing the year-by-year planned increases, and the allocation of those planned increases across donor and recipient countries.

The response I received was chilling. "There will be no spreadsheets. The US has insisted on no spreadsheets." The point was clear. Though the G-8 had made a clear promise, there was no plan on how to fulfill it; indeed, there were clear instructions that there would be no such plan.

The G-8 is now reaping the consequences of its inaction. For the first year after the Gleneagles meeting, aid numbers were padded by misleading accounting on debt cancellation operations. With those debt cancellation operations largely completed, the data are now revealing the stark truth: development aid to Africa and to poor countries more generally is stagnant, contrary to all the promises that were made.

Specifically, between 2005 and 2006, overall aid to Africa, excluding debt cancellation operations, increased by a meager 2%. In fact, total official development assistance to all recipient countries, net of debt cancellation, actually declined by 2% between 2005 and 2006. Even the World Bank, which usually takes the donors' point of view, recently acknowledged that except for debt cancellation, "promises of scaled up aid have not been delivered."

Private reactions among senior government officials in the G-8 are surprising. One senior G-8 official told me that the aid promises are all lies anyway. I don't agree with that, but the cynicism that such a view reflects is alarming. It shows the nature of discussions at the highest reaches of the G-8.

All this would seem to be insurmountable if the basic economics were not clear. We are not talking about unachievable financial goals. Indeed, the sum of money is minuscule. The G-8, representing nearly one billion people, has promised to increase aid to Africa from $25 billion in 2004 to $50 billion in 2010 - a difference that represents less than one-tenth of 1% of the income of the rich donor world!
To put it in perspective, the Christmas bonuses paid this year on Wall Street - just the bonuses - amounted to $24 billion. Spending on the Iraq war, which achieves nothing but violence, is more than $100 billion per year. So the G-8's commitment could be honored, if rich countries cared to honor it.

To salvage its credibility, the G-8 needs to make crystal clear — once again — that it will honour its commitment to increase aid to Africa by $25 billion per year by 2010. That way, cynics within the G-8 governments can understand their assignments. Moreover, unlike in 2005, the G-8 needs to present a plan of action. The lack of specific commitments by specific countries is a shocking display of governance at its poorest.

Finally, recipient countries need to be informed about the year-to-year increases in aid that they can expect, so that they can plan ahead. The increased aid should be directed at building roads, power grids, schools, and clinics, and at training teachers, doctors, and community health workers. All of that investment requires plans and years of implementation. Aid cannot be a guessing game. It must be committed in clear terms over a period of several years, so that recipients can use it in a sensible and accountable manner.

Admittedly, part of the problem with the G-8 is not simply lack of good faith or political will, but basic competence. The US government doesn't really know what it is doing in Africa, because over the years America's aid agency has been largely emptied of its leading thinkers and strategists. Moreover, the Bush administration politicized the delivery of aid by channeling it through private religious groups that are part of the administration's political coalition. That's the reason that much of the US funding on AIDS follows religious strictures rather than science.

Fortunately, what needs to be done is not complicated. African countries have already identified their high-priority investments in health, education, agriculture, and infrastructure (including roads, power, and internet connectivity). These investments could be increased systematically during the period from now until 2015, in order to enable these countries to achieve the Millennium Development Goals. The plans are already on the table, or at least on the shelf, waiting for the G-8 funding to arrive.

It's time for the rich countries to stop giving lectures to the poor, and instead to follow through on their own words. And G-8 citizens must hold their governments accountable for what they have pledged but not delivered. - Project Syndicate

(Jeffrey D. Sachs is Professor of Economics and Director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University. He is also a Special Advisor to United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan on the Millennium Development Goals.)

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