50 cries for global justice

Benin acquired a special significance for OneWorld on November 5th. Publication of a Country Guide contributed by volunteer Dan Gerber brought the number of Guides in the OneWorld range to 50, completed over a period of 14 months. Guides are written by volunteers with the aim of providing a quick online introduction to relevant development issues in each country, with plenty of links to more detailed material.

Benin is a chastening subject country, fitting indeed for the milestone. Having spent 15 years overhauling its economy and governance to meet the prescriptions of its global paymasters, poverty indicators remain stubbornly at rock bottom with “a quarter of the population unable to meet its own basic food requirements”. Vital cotton markets have been protected by rich producer countries which are typically to be heard advocating free trade.

Climate change menaces the low-lying major city of Cotonou as well as the vital trunk road to Nigeria which hugs the coastline. Meanwhile the donor community has failed to respond decisively to a country which abides by most of the rules.

So much for the story of one country. As Editor of OneWorld Guides it has been a privilege to build up a picture of global development issues through individual pieces of the jigsaw such as Benin, rather than the more typical overviews. Many of the texts have been disheartening: the setbacks to democracy in Nepal and Togo, the legacy of wars in unexploded ordnance in Cambodia, Bosnia, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan, and the exodus of African health workers to pamper old ladies in European nursing homes.

Accounts to cheer have been harder to find but all the more uplifting for that: countless millions lifted out of poverty within a relatively short period in Vietnam and China, the possibility of reconciliation in Aceh in Indonesia, and the chaotically peaceful overthrow of a dictator in Kyrgyzstan.

What reflections can be drawn from all 50 Guides, a genuinely random selection driven by availability of volunteers? Is there common ground amongst the unfathomable diversity of the struggles of the poor from North Korea to Burkina Faso, from Armenia to Bhutan? One message is clear and consistent; that progress within individual countries is invariably uneven and, more importantly, that the tools we use to measure progress are failing to register the resulting inequality.

Three separate but related profiles of inequality are emerging; firstly the familiar broad divide between rich and poor, at its most extreme in Brazil, and which is unerringly trailing in the wake of the liberal economic model. Secondly, regional divides such as in China, the country deemed to be the success story of the last decade, but which itself concedes that wealth has concentrated along its coastal belt leaving the interior dangerously close to active dissent. And thirdly the urban/rural divide which has become almost universal, the clearest example being India where consistent government neglect of 400 million people dependent on the land led to a surprise election result in 2004.

Target-driven approaches such as underpin the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) fail to address this polarisation of poverty. To oversimplify the point – a country could achieve the Goal of halving poverty through strategies which focus successfully on the favoured half of the population whilst ignoring the rest.

Likewise, a claim of economic growth of 5% pa is hollow if it reflects a 10% improvement for the emerging middle classes and zero for the poor. To borrow the words of the Guide to Nigeria, a country boasting 10% growth: “this is growth without a human face, as it is not reflected in the life of the ordinary citizen.” Some would argue that a development model that places such value on headline economic growth needs shaking up; certainly its progress indicators are inadequate.

The second broad message emerging from these 50 developing countries is less explicit and more difficult to pinpoint. It is that the cake of international aid is being sliced in irrational and inefficient ways. A year of extreme natural disasters running alongside exceptional food insecurity – has of course highlighted the faultlines in humanitarian relief and the unpredictable nature of both public and government response to appeals. Eritrea, Mali, Malawi and Pakistan are countries for whom the term “aid fatigue” offers little consolation.

Long term development aid can be no less baffling. Donor governments and the multilateral agencies repeatedly stress that beneficiary countries must be accountable for democratic governance, respect for human rights and sound financial management to qualify for support; yet Bangladesh and Vietnam remain magnets for donors whilst a cluster of compliant West African countries that includes Benin, Ghana and Mali are relatively starved of funds.

Final thoughts are derived from omission. Each Guide begins with an assessment of prospects for achieving the MDGs but it is clear that the texts have been able to draw on little substantive material beyond the formal reports published by individual governments. Five years down the line the MDG programme has made a desperately slow start.

Most of the progress reports have taken nearly 5 years to compile, detailed costings are hard to find (only Bangladesh and Tajikistan within the OneWorld range), and there is evident difficulty in superimposing the Goals on to Poverty Reduction Strategy Plans (PRSPs) and other existing national plans. The recent New York summit commitment to produce national development strategies accommodating the MDGs during 2006 comes across as a belated afterthought of the 2000 summit and betrays the inertia of the Millennium Declaration.

An even more deafening silence from the Guides is climate change. There is reference to the melting snows of Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, glacier melt in Nepal, floods in Bangladesh and the very survival of Maldives but with no specific linkage to poverty and development. Likewise the two global summits in 2005 addressing MDGs and a future Kyoto Protocol are quite separate affairs. Obvious connections seem to be missing here. Both agendas are at best stuttering; the first is driven by concern for the poor requiring action by the rich; – the second is driven by concern for the rich requiring cooperation of the poor. If sustainable development was a business, these two enterprises would be merging tomorrow.

Similarly, campaigners for global justice and climate change could perhaps usefully spend more time together in 2006. And for OneWorld, Benin as the 50th Guide may have put down a marker for our Guides to take a closer look at the role of climate change in the fight against poverty.


this article was first published by OneWorld UK