International Affairs — 22 December 2010
A Promise is a Comfort to a Fool

Salim Fredericks

There is an epidemic of obesity in the western world today. The reasons that so many individuals are becoming overweight are complex and multifaceted. Many of the world’s best medical minds are currently grappling with this problem. However, we can be certain that CEOs within the fast food industry are not. We would not expect KFC, McDonalds and Pizza Hut to draft a joint strategy document on how to bring an end to obesity within the next 15 years. Their very raison d’être is to make money out of selling fattening foods. We would not expect them to pledge themselves out of existence. Similarly, we would be surprised to hear that Cadbury, Mars and Nestle had framed an agreement to bring an end to childhood tooth decay.

So, are we surprised that the world’s most exploitative governments had pledged to end poverty within 15 years? On one level perhaps we should be; based on reasons analogous to those just mentioned. However, on a deeper level, that takes into account the complexities of world politics, perhaps it is understandable.

In September 2010 world leaders converged on New York for a UN Summit that adopted a document called; Keeping the Promise. This was a reaffirmation. They committed themselves to meeting the goals by 2015 that were first laid down in New York ten years earlier. In 2000, they met to issue a declaration, promising to halve the proportion of people suffering from extreme poverty and hunger by 2015. They also pledged to halve the proportion of people without safe drinking water and sanitation; move toward universal and full primary schooling for children; reduce child mortality by two-thirds and maternal mortality by three-quarters; and combat HIV/Aids, malaria, and other diseases. These pledges were dubbed the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

These are noble notions. However the ‘business’ of these influential nations is to expand their business. That means increasing their influence in the world; be it political, or economical, or both. The wealth of numerous powerful nations has been acquired at the expense of poorer nations. Historically, the poor have paid the price in loss of resources, both human and material, to exploitative empires. Many of the signatories to the pledge had built their nations on poverty creation, rather than poverty cessation. So why would US and UK promise to potentially put them out of existence? The short answer is public relations. A pledge is merely a hollow empty meaningless piece of paper.

There is great benefit in being seen to sign up for a pledge that is altruistic good and pure. There is less benefit in following through on the promise. This is similar to the manner in which fast food organisations would promote their healthy lifestyle credentials. McDonalds sponsor sports events such as the FIFA World Cup. But nobody believes David Villa Sánchez scored those five goals for Spain in South Africa fuelled by a diet of Big Macs and a sugar sweetened soft drink that rhymes with stroke. Similarly, very few believe that these governments are going to maintain their trophy winning status by eradicating poverty. However, there are some who do believe, or at least want to believe, that some good will come of the MDGs. This is understandable. We are all rational thinking humans. Who from among us would not find the notions of: stamping out disease, eradicating hunger, educating children and improving maternal health appealing?

So will they fulfil their promise by 2015? We cannot answer questions about future fulfilments. But we can reflect upon what exactly has been achieved in last 10 years. There is an old Jamaican phrase ‘a promise is a comfort to a fool’. So, it is to Jamaica that we can turn to provide predictions on this promise. Jamaica recorded the largest decline in the world in the detection and treatment of tuberculosis; down from 79% (1997) to 41% (2006). There has been a significant increase in HIV infection of the same period. Primary school enrolment, which was at 97% in 1991, has now fallen to 87%. IMF policies forced on Jamaica as “conditionalities” attached to aid loans virtually destroyed Jamaica’s key agriculture sectors (bananas, dairy, potatoes, etc) by opening them up to competition with heavily subsidised US products and the cheap labour markets of Latin America.

This led to increased unemployment and dependency on other countries for basic foods. Food prices in the market place are high. The IMF advised imposing VAT on almost everything, including hard dough bread, a staple for Jamaica’s poor. Another Jamaican favourite, banana chips, are now made with imported bananas. How would all this affect the dignity of the Jamaican farmers? Restoration of dignity was not one of the MDGs. Jamaican dairy farmers had to literally let their milk run into the mud and send their cows off to be made into hamburgers (Although not McDonald’s hamburgers; they use US beef).

Jamaica is one of the world’s most indebted countries, with interest payments on debts up to 40% of GDP, but it is too “rich” to be considered for debt relief. In such desperate circumstances, Jamaica had to go to the IMF this year. Jamaica borrowed a further $1.3bn from the IMF in February 2010. Jamaicans should look north to make sense of their banking problems. The American author Mark Twain explained: “A banker is a fellow who lends you his umbrella when the sun is shining, but wants it back the minute it begins to rain”. Jamaica is the birth place of the fastest track runner on Earth. It is also where we should turn to evaluate the 10-year track record of the MDGs.

It may be that Jamaica is an isolated extreme example. There may be scores of success stories. It is only through our bias, one-sided, subjective, opinionated comment that we are purposely ignoring them. In our defence, we argue this point because of the geopolitical context. Jamaica is in Uncle Sam’s backyard. Since the implementation of the Monroe Doctrine the US has pledged to fervently protect its interests within the areas west of the Atlantic Ocean. The political perception is that The Americas are America’s. So Jamaica is actually a good test case for assessing the success of the US’s contributions to the MDGs.

So where are the success stories? According to a recent Gallup survey (September 2010) an estimated 1 billion adults struggled to afford food in 2009, when asked a direct question on purchasing food. The survey shows that in 22 countries, more than half didn’t have enough money to buy food at times. In most of these countries, the percentage of those that could not afford food increased by 10 percent between the years 2008 and 2009 (e.g. Cameroon, Ecuador, Philippines and Uganda). Things are just getting worse. In Nigeria, the number of people living on less than $1.25 a day in 1990 was 49 percent which elevated to 77 percent of the population in 2008. In northern Nigeria, about 220 children under the age of five years die for every 1,000 born, or roughly one in four, according to a new report by UNICEF. Incidentally, in southern Nigeria, the number is nearly three times lower, about 80 per 1,000 births. So are they keeping their promise?

To be fair, the original 2000 document was not intended as a comprehensive ground plan. The Bush and Obama administrations, in particular, never really committed funds and contributions, or even the sentiments of the millennium goals. Obama offered no new aid money to meet the MDGs, despite promising this as a candidate running for the oval office. So, we assume some people voted for him based on this promise. A promise is a comfort to a fool.

Many are asking what will happen if the goals are not reached by 2015? Are they merely going to say ‘sorry about that’? Who is going to punish them for not attaining these goals? The United Nations, actually, acknowledges that only two of the targets, might actually be met: cutting in half the number of people who lack safe drinking water and halving the number of people who live on $1.25 or less daily. So if they predict a success rate of 2 out of 8, why renew a promise that they intend to break?

As suggested earlier, the real reason for these major powers subscribing to this endeavour are for the long term, perceived benefits, not to the meek and destitute. It is for, themselves. This sentiment was summed up in the speech of the British deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, representing Britain at a UN summit in New York, when he said; it was in the country’s “enlightened self-interest”. Forget the enlightened part. This is not a liberal democratic philanthropic gesture, in the Lloyd George tradition; it is a basic capitalistic, opportunistic, pragmatic strategy to look after Britain’s self interest. He went on to say; “If the rest of the world is poor, susceptible to extremism, susceptible to conflict … it affects us”. “It affects the safety of British families on British streets, it affects the people who come to live, or seek refuge in the United Kingdom, it deprives us of economic opportunities”. Nick Clegg said the money would help to stop areas “steeped in conflict” producing “80 per cent of all asylum seekers to Britain”. This is where we take issue with the word ‘enlightened’. If he were really that enlightened he would have figured out that most of the regions that are “steeped in conflict” are in this state largely as a result of British and American foreign policies.

On that point, war is one of the key causes of poverty-creation. One has only to look to the Palestinian territories for an illustration of this. Not to mention, the countries of sub-Saharan Africa, in which, hunger was either exacerbated by conflict, or where it is the direct result of war. So called policies of waging war on poverty are incompatible with waging war on Muslims. Be these economic wars or physical wars. With regards to ‘ensuring environmental sustainability’ (MDG No. 7) war here also has a significant impact. The human costs of the horrors of the battlefield are obvious. But what of the environmental costs; with scarred trees, burned fields, bomb craters and poisoned water systems.

The US military carried out a massive herbicidal programme in Vietnam for almost a decade. 72 million litres of chemical spray were used to defoliate the forests. Can all of the MDGs repair this damage? People exposed to the spray suffered; headaches, vomiting, diarrhoea, weakness and chest complaints. Agent Orange’s carcinogenic dioxin irrigated the soil, washing into the sea, and entering the food chain. Children born since the war have consumed high levels of dioxin; and many fathered by men exposed to the spray (many of whom are now dead or suffering from cancers) have spina bifida and other congenital abnormalities. Similarly, chemicals, depleted-uranium, etc were dropped on the Iraqi people throughout the 1990s. A revolt in southern Iraq was crushed by draining the marshes on which the rebels lived and depended. So can the MDGs on health and the environment repair these disasters?

On health goals, after 10-years, they have not even come close. Maternal mortality is falling, but not fast enough. More people with HIV/Aids are getting inexpensive anti-retroviral drugs and their life expectancy has increased, but universal access is still far off, and the disease is still spreading. Progress has been made in reducing malaria and measles, and the rate of child mortality has fallen partly as a result, but the goal of a two-thirds reduction in malaria is unlikely to be met; based on the rate of improvement. Modern healthcare is dominated by the pernicious influence of the pharmaceutical and diagnostics industry. These sectors are more interested in treating important western ‘diseases’ such as erectile dysfunction, acid reflux from the stomach, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorders. These are the areas which generate the big money in the west rather than diseases of the developing world like malaria and dengue.

It is the overarching political and economic systems that have created the world’s mal-distributions of wealth. It is only by dismantling the whole global economic system, or at least those of the world’s most powerful nations that any form of useful goals can be achieved regarding poverty, hunger and education. Are these nations going to pledge to put themselves out of business by 2015? Are they going to pledge to stop exploiting the resources of other nations? Are they going to pledge to stop waging wars merely to protect their own economic interests? If not, then we should not be so naive as to believe that they sincerely want to fulfil the MDGs promises.

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