We need to realise we are not an island

2013-03-05 00:00

FEW noticed the hive of high-level discussions in South Africa last week on what is to happen when the global Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) lapse in 2015. These discussions brought together senior United Nations officials, the Pan-African Parliament, the South African government, civil society formations and other interested parties. It opened a precious opportunity for South Africans and Africans to join what has become a truly global debate held in every corner of the world about what should guide global efforts to fight poverty, inequality and underdevelopment when the MDGs cease to exist.

It might be that we were pre-occupied by the budget speech and how it impacted our own households, careers and businesses. We hoped that the speech would outline how government would use resource allocation to eradicate poverty, end inequality and overcome unemployment. This seemed a lot more pertinent for us than discussions on global goals.

But South Africa is limited in what it can do on its own to deal with these problems, for they are transnational and structural challenges linked to the state of the global economy and development. Thus, the coincidence of the budget speech and this global consultation in Johannesburg provided a perfect opportunity for us to link national efforts with a global framework. I cannot say our government took the consultations any more seriously than citizens and civil society organisations. It is ironic, given that we see ourselves as a global actor and were recently elected into the Economic and Social Council of the UN. We cannot claim to have been excluded, nor can we claim ignorance, when final decisions are made.

The UN MDGs were the culmination of a decades-long search for a development consensus, especially as a large number of its new members in the fifties and sixties — former colonies — had very high poverty levels. A number of summits between 1970 and 1995 focused on specific aspects of solutions, including food security, health, education, social security, child and mother mortality, gender development, and youth development. On this basis, the UN gained wisdom into what were fundamental problems to overcome, and developed what is now the preferred index for measuring development, called the UN human development index. As the millennium approached, the UN convened a mother of all summits, the Millennium Summit, to decide a common development for the 21st century.

This is how the eight goals that the world must realise to free people from poverty, came about. The agreement by 190 countries was to eradicate poverty, achieve universal primary education, achieve gender equality, reduce child mortality, improve maternal health, combat infectious disease, achieve environmental sustainability and enter global partnership by 2015.

This helped galvanise the world into action on the same measurable priorities affecting most communities. It simplified citizens’ oversight of governments and international agency on their development efforts. It forced all to focus on improving the lives of people rather than vague things like GDP and inflation rates.

In Africa and South Africa, we need to achieve these goals with the assistance of international pressure. We could be contributing on improving ways to force our society to completely end child mortality, by improving health care and public knowledge, for instance.

Governments are only going to take service provision seriously and corporations are only going to take drastic steps to help develop poor areas if we put pressure on them internally, while holding them to account to the world for their commitments. We need synergy between internal and external pressure for improved policy action. We can protest, complain and litigate internally, but will realise limited results until we influence what the international community also holds the country to account for.

The danger is that corporations are again being left out or are sitting on the sidelines as the successor to the MDGs is being discussed. Hardly any government can achieve development without a complimentary role by the private sector, which makes the needed wealth.

Judging by the tone of global consultations, it is likely that the MDGs will come back improved, with a greater emphasis on sustainability and partnerships. But the exact nature of these goals and partnerships will be determined by those who participate.

The sooner we realise that we are not an island, the sooner we will take seriously that which is happening in the world that has a bearing on our ability to achieve development.

• Siphamandla Zondi is the executive director of the Institute for Global Dialogue.

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