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U.N. fight over Israel overshadows poverty negotiations

A very long decade ago, the world’s leaders got together at the United Nations here in New York to agree on something pretty remarkable: that they were going to do their best to end poverty by 2015. In just over a week, they’ll come back — now with two-thirds of that time gone by — to ...

A very long decade ago, the world’s leaders got together at the United Nations here in New York to agree on something pretty remarkable: that they were going to do their best to end poverty by 2015. In just over a week, they’ll come back — now with two-thirds of that time gone by — to see how well we’ve done.

Sounds very nice, but the negotiations to settle on an answer to that question have been far less glamorous. A draft of the final outcome document, dated Sept. 8 at 1:00 p.m. EST, gives a hint at where the sticking points were: language about foreign occupation and blame where progress has lagged behind.

In the first case, the reference to foreign occupation is largely an allusion to Israel and Palestine, and the draft document shows that the so-called G77 group of developing countries has suggested a different set of language than the United States on four different occassions. For example, the draft indicates that the United States would like to delete a point that reads:

"We acknowledge that the persistance of foreign occuapation is a major obstacle to the realization of the Millennium Development Goals for people living under such occupation. We underline the need to take  concrete and concerted actions in conformity with international law to remove the obstacles to the full realization of the rights of peoples living under foreign occupation, so as to ensure their achievement of the Millennium Development Goals."

The latter point of blame — is it the donor-countries who have failed to give enough, or the poor countries who haven’t done enough with the money? — seems to have been settled; the draft declares that "committments [to poverty reduction] by developed and developing countries in relation to the MDGs require mutual accountability." (Not much on specifics here, leaving some to wonder whether the pledges that world leaders will no doubt bring with them to the summit in New York later this month will be more than words alone.)

Aside from the sticking points, the document is a pretty comprehensive list of everything left to do before 2015. It’s essentially a catalogue of everything that the international community has learned about "development" over the last six decades. The laundry list includes a lot of general philosophies about that assistance to the poor — that communities have to "own" their own empowerment, that every sector needs to be targeted, that technology needs to be used to boost the speed and efficiency of anti-poverty measures, that good governance matters, that everyone from the private sector to governments to NGOs to the U.N. has to be involved — and so on. It’s common sense stuff. But again, getting 192 countries to agree on it isn’t so simple.

And by the way, are we going to succeed in our lofty goal? The short answer is kind of. The world will probably meet some of its headline figures when you average the sum of all countries worldwide. But the detailed picture is less upbeat: the incredible progress of countries such as China and India (as well as Vietnam, Rwanda, and other impressive gains) has brought up the global average, covering weaknesses in the many countries lagging behind. As the document puts it, while there have been some success stories, "We are deeply concerned however, that the number of people living in extreme poverty and hunger surpasses one billion and that inequalities between and witihin countries remain a significant challenge."

In other words, we haven’t eradicated poverty among the poorest; we’ve just made the middle a little bit better. Five years to fix it starts now.

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