Adrian Hamilton: Global poverty isn't what it was

Gordon Brown says he feels "anger" at the failure of some rich countries to stump up the money for the Millennium Development Goals decided at the UN 10 years ago. Nick Clegg, attending the conference in New York of 140 countries to review progress, yesterday called "on others to show equal resolve" to Britain in "honouring their commitments."

You can understand their frustration, particularly for Gordon Brown, who has invested so much of himself and his claim to history on the great cause of ending world poverty by 2015. Two-thirds of the way through the programme, "we are," as the Norway's Prime Minister, Jens Stoltenberg said, "on track not to reach any of the development goals." At the meeting this week, there is a growing fear that the whole impetus is being lost as recession takes hold and governments turn their attention towards unemployment at home rather than poverty abroad.

There's no point in just getting hot under the collar about countries, such as Germany and France, who fail to deliver on what they promised. Nor is it very helpful to go on and on, as rocks stars and advocacy groups do, about the obligations of the rich and their grievous sin in forgetting the world's needy.

Of course we shouldn't forget the poor. Of course we should press on anew with trying to achieve as near as possibly the targets laid down by five years' time. A "surge", as some agencies are calling for, would be nice. But even without one, it should be possible to keep trying.

The great beauty of the MDGs, as cast by Professor Jeffrey Sachs and other development economists, is they concentrate on the practical and the measurable – universal primary school education, child mortality, maternal health, combating Aids and malaria – instead of the broad measures of poverty and growth which had so bedevilled discussion in the past. Whether one regards the glass as half-empty or half-full at the moment, there has been real progress on these targets as well as a failure to meet them in full.

The great weakness of the MDGs, as their strength to begin with, was that they were – and are – political totems around which to galvanise governments and public opinion. Set goals, give a rallying cry of eliminating poverty within a clear timeframe, and you could excite or pressure government leaders to embrace the cause.

And it is the politics as much as the economics that is now changing. Recession and changing priorities among the rich donor countries are part of this. But they are not, for all the accusations of backsliding levelled against the West, the major reason for the general sense of disillusionment running through the UN conference.

Economic aid, the elimination of poverty, and development assistance are no longer the feel-good aspirations that they once were. There have been too many calls on the pockets of the West for funds which ended up in the pockets of corrupt ministers and middlemen at their destination. The very concept of aid has come under attack as a means of promoting development and equality.

Gordon Brown might end their appeals for accelerating MDGs by demanding that recipient governments "have to put resources into education and not into corruption, to put resources into health and no to waste them on prestige projects" but the tide of belief is running the other way. And with good reason. Blair's Africa Commission pronounced that the mis-governance of the continent was over, presenting as its example a leader of Ethiopia who promptly arrested most of his opposition.

At the same time, the whole idea of aid has come under attack from economists who doubt its value in helping growth. Their voice may have found too ready an ear of a public tired of being morally bludgeoned into giving, but anyone now appealing for funds to end poverty has to accept a more resistant audience today than when the new millennium broke.

When it comes to poverty, that too is subject to revision. The World Bank has moved from indices based on simple economic output per head of population to broader, and more subjective measures, in its Human Development Indices aimed at calculating the quality of life as well as the means for it.

Even within narrower definitions, it is no longer as easy to define poverty in regional terms. The effect of the surge in growth in the developing world, led by China, has been to take a number of countries out of the very poorest brackets but it has also increased the gap between rich and deprived within the wealthier nations. As the Institute of Development Studies has pointed out, three out of four of the world's poorest people now live in countries characterised as "middle income" by the World Bank.

None of this justifies an abandonment of the Millennium Development Goals. They remain, for the most part, eminently practical and practicable. But, as they enter their final phase, there has to be a recognition by governments and advocacy groups alike that the terms of the debate are changing.

Aid is no longer regarded as a good in itself. Governments are no longer regarded as trustworthy recipients of aid. Poverty is no longer regarded as a special African issue, although Tony B lair and Gordon Brown have both acted as if they were one and the same.

Banging on about "western responsibilities" may be right but it just doesn't get us anywhere in an age when the West is losing its confidence in its own growth and the efficacy of its help to others. Of all the emotions to express at the UN, "anger" would seem to be the most self-indulgent, and the most futile.

For further reading

'World Development Report 2009' by World Bank (; 'Global Poverty and the New Bottom Billion' by Andy Sumner (