50 cries for global justice
21 November 2005
by Bill Gunyon
Benin acquired a special significance for OneWorld on 5 November. 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.
What reflections can be drawn from all 50 Guides, a genuinely random selection driven by availability of volunteers? Is there common ground amongst the progress within individual countries is invariably uneven, 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.
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 this is growth without a human face, as it is not reflected in the life of the ordinary citizen
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 Bangladesh and Vietnam remain magnets for donors
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 the MDG programme has made a desperately slow start
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.