The Millenium’s Promise: International Security and Poverty Reduction

Written by  John W. McArthur

President Obama’s recent national security strategy places a significant emphasis on development in the poorest countries. This is partly anchored in an ambition to promote American values, and partly in an ambition to address pragmatic concerns that human suffering in any corner of the world can ultimately threaten the wellbeing of Americans. The risks of violent conflict are much higher at the lowest levels of economic development, and there is significantly higher risk in African countries exposed to major climate stress.

The focus on development is consistent with the President’s stated objective of backing the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and a vision to eradicate extreme poverty in a generation. The MDGs are the internationally agreed targets that were established in 2000 to tackle key challenges in hunger, education, health, access to safe drinking water, and income poverty, with a general aim of cutting each problem by half by 2015, compared to a baseline of 1990. The Goals draw attention to 1.4 billion people still living on less than a dollar a day, and to the simple and low-cost interventions that can make a dramatic difference in their lives. A $10 modern anti-malaria bednet can protect two children for five years. A $50 bag of fertilizer can help a poor farmer double her crop and start to earn an income. A locally produced school meal can entice a child to attend classes and have the energy to focus and learn while there.

Five years remain until the Goals’ 2015 deadline, and this September the UN will convene its last major checkpoint summit to map out a course for the home stretch. More than 150 world leaders are said already to have confirmed their attendance, so the breadth and caliber of participation should be high. Expectations were set last September, when President Obama used his first speech to the General Assembly to assert that he would approach the 2010 MDG Summit with a “global plan to make [the Goals] a reality.”

The US Government’s commitment to a successful MDG summit outcome unlocked a cascade of ambitions throughout the international community, driven by a desire for the US to take a proactive global leadership role for sustainable development, rather than what had previously been perceived as a reluctant if key role on specific issues of interest, in particular global health. Nonetheless, the recent MDG movement in Washington has been sympathetic but gradual as foreign policy players have navigated a thicket of policy urgencies plus an internal review of strategies and institutional arrangements. As a result, a little over two months away from the summit, the world is still waiting to learn the US’s suggestions for an action plan.

The previous official international hurrah around the MDGs took place five years ago, at the 2005 Gleneagles G8 Summit in the United Kingdom and then the UN World Summit in New York. At Gleneagles, leaders of the wealthiest countries made extremely high profile and solemn commitments to double their collective investments in African development by 2010 and to increase their global development support by $50 billion over the same time period.

Since Gleneagles, the UK has been the one country that made major promises and also held steady to its word. Canada and the U.S. made modest commitments and generally met them too. But in the end the G8 has fallen roughly $20 billion short of its collective pledge, due mainly to shortfalls from France, Germany, Italy, and Japan, thereby defaulting on its joint commitment. Even worse, at last month’s G8 Summit in Canada, leaders declined even to mention their Gleneagles commitments in their public communiqué, as if erasing a reference at the deadline would somehow erase the commitment itself.

It is remarkable that even the richest and most powerful countries cannot coordinate to hold their word for dollar values that amount to near rounding error when compared to national security budgets and economic stimulus packages. Twenty billion dollars would easily fill the global budget gaps for bednets or fertilizer, while the Wall Street bonuses in New York state alone were more than $20 billion in 2008, the same year the financial sector melted. Such explicit shortcomings of G8 collective responsibility undermine the legitimacy of any of their future promises, and indeed undermine anyone’s desire even to hear more promises. This, in turn, forms an indirect threat to global security and stability, since intergovernmental agreements are anchored in trust, compliance, and an understanding of shared responsibility.

A loss of faith in global commitments creates diplomatic costs well outside of the development community. For the well-governed but poverty-stricken countries, development priorities like farm productivity and disease control are first order political priorities wherein donor shortfalls cause direct local repercussions, fueling resentment to be aired on other international issues. For the less well-governed developing countries, a lack of accountability among the rich countries creates opportunities for “spoilers” to foster sympathy coalitions other issues, fueling a cycle of mistrust in international negotiations.

All of this points to the imperative for US leadership on the Millennium Development Goals, and for a strong action-focused outcome at the UN this September. There is a global leadership gap at the intergovernmental level, and the world is hungry for the U.S. to be out in front on the Goals. Developed and developing countries alike will respond very positively to suggested global policy and planning recommendations for agriculture, education, child survival, maternal health, infrastructure, and basic environmental management.

This summit is therefore not just an opportunity for the MDGs. It is a moment to build system trust – and thus a significant opportunity for advancing national security, even if not typically appreciated as such. Where development budgets might not be immediately available amidst fiscal pressures, great gains can still be made if the appropriate mechanisms are launched, like a global education fund that can sow the seeds of development for a generation. The world will need to continue well beyond 2010, and ongoing success will hinge on contributions from all parts of foreign policy community, including government, business and non-profit organizations. This blog looks forward to exploring these themes in more detail over the weeks ahead.

John W. McArthur is the Chief Executive Officer of Millennium Promise, the leading international non-profit organization solely committed to supporting the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals to halve extreme poverty by 2015. In this capacity he oversees the Millennium Villages project, which supports integrated social and business development services for more than 400,000 people in rural communities across 10 countries in Africa. Dr. McArthur is also a Research Associate at the Earth Institute at Columbia University, where he previously served as Policy Director, and teaches at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs.