The Bottom Line
UN’s top anti-poverty campaigner heads to Monterey this week.
Thursday, September 29, 2005
Five years ago, the member states of the United Nations adopted the Millennium Development Goals, a set of eight targets meant to improve life for the world’s poorest people by 2015. Among the goals are reducing by half the billion people who live on less than $1 a day, achieving primary education for all, and reversing the spread of HIV/AIDS.
Two years later, at a conference in Mexico, nations gathered to discuss how to pay for the Goals. They struck a deal, the Monterrey Consensus, whereby poor nations would take an active role in improving their lot and boot corrupt, aid-looting leaders, while rich countries would change trade rules, forgive debt and raise aid spending to .7 percent of their gross national incomes.
After Monterrey, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan tapped former Dutch Minister for Development Eveline Herfkens to serve as the conscience of the donor nations. As executive director of the Millennium Development Goals Campaign, Herfkens travels throughout rich countries reminding citizens of what their governments have promised and what they’ve actually delivered.
The US record is spotty. In the run-up to the UN summit earlier this month, Ambassador John Bolton tried to have all mention of the Millennium Development Goals expunged from a key document on UN reform, and the US has consistently refused to embrace the .7 percent spending target.
The Weekly caught up with Herfkens in New York at the summit. She speaks at the Monterey Institute of International Studies on October 4.
Weekly: Do you see a disconnect between the response of ordinary citizens to the Millennium Development Goals and the government’s response?
Herfkens: In many cases, yes. I come from Northern Europe, where a lot of governments are doing a lot on this. If you go to my country, one out of three people would know what the Goals are and what their government is supposed to do and has promised. In the US the knowledge is very little, both about the Goals but also about what the US government actually does in terms of development aid. If you look at public opinion polls, people in the US think like 15 or 17 percent of your federal budget is spent on aid. Well in fact, it’s less than 1 percent.
Weekly: Why the low level of awareness?>
Herfkens: Well, I think one thing is the larger the country, the more inward-looking. Where I come from, if you just drive a little too fast, you are abroad, you have to speak a different language. That makes citizens more open to what happens elsewhere, I guess.
Weekly: What is it about Northern European societies that makes them so generous with aid?
Herfkens: It is not only in Northern Europe. You know that recently all of the European Union promised to actually double aid in order to achieve the .7 percent of national income spent on development cooperation well in advance of 2015. All rich countries except for the US for the last 30 years have been promising to spend .7 percent of their national income. The US government never made that promise.
The US is the largest donor in the world. But it’s also the largest economy in the world, so if you actually look at what does the United States give per person, it is among the lowest in the world.
Weekly: There was a lot of attention paid to the fact that at the UN summit George Bush said the US supports the Millennium Development Goals and the Monterrey Consensus. Does anyone actually believe the US is going to now meet the .7 percent target?
Herfkens: No, I don’t believe that. What people do hope is—you know that President Bush did promise in Monterrey in 2002 an additional 6 billion [in aid] a year by 2006. He promised in the State of the Union address two years ago $15 billion additional to fight AIDS. President Bush also promised to do more for malaria and at the G-8 to do more for Africa. So if the US would just implement these promises, that would create a tremendous increase in US efforts.
Weekly: There’s a lot of emphasis in this country on the responsibility of recipient countries to prove they are using aid wisely. Do you think this is a legitimate concern, or is it political cover for stinginess?
Herfkens: Absolutely that’s a crucial concern. I was the minister of development cooperation in the Netherlands; I was accountable to my own taxpayers for that money. I’m absolutely in agreement that it’s the primary responsibility of developing countries to achieve these goals—halving poverty, getting all kids to school—and that they have to clean up their governments, fight corruption.
<>But the other side of the coin is we acknowledged in the Monterrey Consensus that poor countries simply cannot do it unless we are more generous.>
Weekly: The trade barrier thing seems to go one way, where poor countries are supposed to implement market reforms and drop their trade barriers and yet the US does not drop its trade barriers, particularly with regard to agriculture.
Herfkens: I agree with that, but I must add immediately that as a European, I’m very ashamed to say that we are the biggest villains on the issue of trade and agriculture subsidies. The US is sitting on this too. There is more money spent on supporting cotton production in the United States than on aid to Africa—while the support for cotton production here has led to an oversupply and destroyed cotton prices on the international market, and some of the poorest countries in West Africa are totally dependent on the export of cotton.
Weekly: Are the goals on track to being met?
Herfkens: Well, we’re not exactly on track today. That’s one of the problems. But what inspires me is that even in the poorest countries of sub-Saharan Africa, the continent which on average is totally off track, that within that continent if you look behind the averages you see individual countries that are actually on track for some of the individual goals. There’s still 10 years to go. We can do it.
Weekly: If the .7 percent target were reached tomorrow, how much extra money would that mean?
Herfkens: Like $50 billion, which is still peanuts in the greater scheme.
<>Weekly: Compared to defense spending.><>>
<>Herfkens: Exactly. Or agricultural subsidy spending.>
Weekly: What is getting rich countries in gear to start prioritizing this?
Herfkens: What really was the case in Europe the past decade is citizen mobilization, to the degree that politicians in Europe feel they will lose votes if they are not outspoken in favor of more international generosity.
Weekly: Is this simply an outpouring of compassion?
Herfkens: Well, I am totally convinced that the American people are at least as generous as the European people. It is only a question of, do people know what their government actually does? There is a report by the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development), you know, the organization of rich countries, which literally says that the highest priority should be given in the US to battling this inflated notion of what actually is happening in the United States. But as a UN official I would never dare to say anything like that.
Weekly: What is at stake here?
Herfkens: We are the very first generation that actually has the resources and the knowledge to put an end to extreme poverty. And we might not see the opportunity. And if you translate that in numbers, that would mean hundreds of millions of kids again in half a generation not having even primary education. It would mean 40 million babies dying from easily preventable diseases or for lack of safe drinking water.
Weekly: One can imagine a great deal of political instability springing from such environments. Do you think fear of that scenario is going to become a greater motivator for rich countries?
Herfkens: Ultimately I don’t like to say, ‘You’d better do this, otherwise, you know, they’ll hit you.’ I don’t think it’s necessary, either. In all my speeches, I always find that for audiences the moral imperative is as such sufficient.
Weekly: That’s encouraging.
Herfkens: Yes. So it’s not stinginess but ignorance that has to be battled.
HERFKENS AND GLOBAL EXCHANGE FOUNDING DIRECTOR MEDEA
BENJAMIN SPEAK AT 7PM TUESDAY, OCT. 4, AT THE MONTEREY
INSTITUTE OF INTERNATIONAL STUDIES, IRVINE AUDITORIUM, 499
PIERCE ST., MONTEREY. FREE.