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Rights: Insuring against statistical illusions in the new development agenda

World Bank statistics, using a definition of poverty based only on income, and with a very low extreme poverty line (currently estimated at US$ 1.25 per day), substantiate the claim that the first Millennium Development Goal (MDG) had already been achieved in 2010.

That partial success is mainly due to China’s economic boom and based on broad assumptions. For 75 countries out of 161 categorised as ‘developing,’ there is simply not enough data available to assess the evolution of this indicator. Yet progress for this indicator has been construed as a success of the whole MDG strategy, in spite of major shortcomings when it comes to most other targets.

Yet according to several studies examining in detail the evolution of key social indicators, the speed of progress of the corresponding outcomes, such as infant mortality or primary school enrollment, has slowed down since 2000 rather than being boosted by the political commitment expressed in the MDGs.

Moreover, progress on the MDGs is completely out of step with the growth of aggregate indicators on trade and wealth in the world. Total world exports have multiplied almost five times in the last 20 years, growing from a total value of US$ 781 billion in 1990 to US$ 3.7 trillion in 2010. Over the same period, the world’s average inhabitant more than doubled her income, from US$ 4,080 per year in 1990 to US$ 9,120 in 2010.

At the same time, the Basic Capabilities Index (BCI) computed by Social Watch (averaging infant mortality rates, the number of births attended by trained personnel and enrollment rates in primary school, all of which are key components of the MDGs) moved up only seven percentage points between 1990 and 2010, which is very little progress. And over this period, progress was faster in the first decade than the second – the increase was 4 percentage points between 1990 and 2000 and barely 3 percentage points between 2000 and 2010. This slowing-down trend for social indicators can only be expected to worsen as the impact of the global financial, economic, food and energy crisis is gradually registered in internationally comparable statistics.

Increased inequalities between and within countries are the obvious explanation of this mismatch between a growing economy (in the past decade) and slow social progress.

Adjusted for inflation, 30 cents in 1973 amounts to US$ 1.60. Yet the new line is set at US$ 1.25. It is quite clear that this amount is not enough for ‘the elimination of malnutrition and illiteracy, the reduction of infant mortality, and the raising of life-expectancy standards to those of the developed nations’, as McNamara wanted. What it might achieve is merely to keep a person from starving, which is the new definition of ‘extreme poverty’.

The World Bank’s flawed statistical definitions on poverty have other deleterious repercussions. According to the World Bank’s own projections, there is a great likelihood that the proportion of people living under the US$ 1.25 line will be less than 10 per cent by 2030 if current growth rates are maintained and inequality does not worsen. The message to the governments of the world is, therefore, that nothing needs to change for this war to be won.

Of course, it only takes a look at the main newspapers any given day to realize that we cannot expect fireworks celebrating that humanity is (or will soon be) finally free from want any time soon. Much to the contrary, poverty as perceived by the public is very different from the poverty measured by the Bank under a fixed line, remaining fixed even as people rise above it.

If the poverty line moved according to income, and if we assume that the very low line of US$ 1 per day was correct in 1990 (the baseline date for MDG1), this line should currently be located far above US$ 2, as the world per capita income has more than doubled between 1990 and 2010. Which means that a much larger proportion of the world’s population than that estimated by the World Bank lives below a level of ‘essential decency’. Yet to substantially improve the lives of this section of the population would still be an achievable goal, since average global income now equals about US$ 30 per day per person.

There is a risk that if the post-2015 agenda lowers the bar even further and is perceived as being focused only on a few countries while failing to address inequalities on a global scale, public frustration with development efforts will ensue. For a global agenda to obtain the public’s support, which is at the root of political commitment, both the poverty extremes and the inequalities that account for mass mobilisations, from the ‘indignados’ of Europe to the Arab Spring to the Occupy movement in the US, need to be addressed.

But, will the global community today be able to agree on such an ambitious agenda? If the non-starvation level as defined by ‘extreme poverty’ line is inadequate, how can ‘essential decency’ be defined internationally?

The good news is that this agenda – namely, the human rights agenda – has already been agreed upon and is already legally binding. As early as in 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights combined the aspiration of freedom from fear and that of freedom from want. With the exception of sustainability, which can be constructed as the rights of future generations or the rights of Mother Nature, all other goals currently under discussion are already spelled out in the human rights instruments. This includes all civil and political rights, equality between women and men, rights of the child as well as the right to food, water, housing, health care and education, the right to work and rights at work, and the right to social security.

The definition of what constitutes a minimum social floor may differ from country to country, but international agreement is needed to identify obstacles beyond national jurisdiction that need to be removed, such as the impact of climate change or the threats posed by financial instability.

Nonetheless, as expressed in a letter by two dozen special rapporteurs of the UN Council to the negotiators preparing for the Rio+20 Summit on sustainable development, ‘commitments will remain empty promises without effective monitoring and accountability.’

Such accountability, I want to argue, should be both international and domestic. Moreover, monitoring should be carried out through the Universal Periodic Review of the Human Rights Council or a similar ad hoc mechanism. Nationally, independent monitoring bodies should be created or strengthened, bodies ‘that enable civil society participation not only in defining the indicators to measure progress, but also in providing information to evaluate implementation’.

Unless a set of rigorous monitoring and accountability mechanisms are integrated into the new framework, we are likely to witness an ineffectual development agenda that fails to deliver.

Roberto Bissio is the Executive Director of Social Watch. This blog is an abridged version of Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation’s Development Dialogue Paper Series No. 1.

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