Global Policy Forum

Development in Reverse: A Call to Strengthen the United Nations

By Robert Perkins

August 11, 2009

The past year was a significant step backwards for development. Last month, the Secretary-General of the United Nations released a progress report for the Millennium Development Goals (MDGS). The report makes for bleak reading. More than halfway to the 2015 deadline, governments look likely to miss the targets for development that world leaders committed to in the Millennium Declaration. Progress that had been made in reaching these eight grand goals- which include reducing child mortality; combating HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis; and halving rates of extreme hunger and poverty-has slowed, and in some cases reversed in 2008.

The MDG report 2009 contains news of some vital advances. There have been significant improvements in access to safe drinking water; expansions in levels of protection against measles and malaria; and there has been a five percent global increase in enrolment in primary education.  Overall however, efforts to meet the MDG targets have been insufficient. The 'Three F' crises of 2008-Food, Fuel, and Financial-have severely damaged efforts to reach the first and most significant Goal, to reduce the numbers of the world's poorest and most hungry. Levels of hunger across developing regions actually increased in 2008 to 17 percent of the population. The economic downturn has forced millions of vulnerable people into unemployment or much lower-paying jobs. Over the course of 2009, the UN expects the number of people living on less than US$1.25 a day to rise to as high as 90 million more than had previously been anticipated.

It is clear that the world's most vulnerable people are worst affected by the economic crisis. In his foreword to the Report, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon issued a stark warning: "[W]e have been moving too slowly to meet our goals. And today, we face a global economic crisis whose full repercussions have yet to be felt. At the very least, it will throw us off course in a number of key areas, particularly in the developing countries. At worst, it could prevent us from keeping our promises." No-one can yet measure the full humanitarian consequences of the global economic downturn. The total impact on the world's poorest people will not be fully assessed until the UN's 'progress' reports in 2010 and 2011.

Funding Crisis

While the 'Three Fs' have triggered a major setback in global development efforts, a further crisis could be on the horizon for the world's poor. Funding for critical United Nations humanitarian agencies appears to be at a significant low.

In July, the UN announced a record $4.8 billion funding gap for its 2009 humanitarian aid programmes. OCHA (the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs) is responsible for the management and implementation of aid and support programmes in offices in 22 vulnerable countries. The UN appealed for $9.5 billion in order to fund OCHA's activities in 2009. More than half of this total is currently outstanding. Under Secretary-General John Holmes recently disclosed the UN's funding concerns, and questioned the spending priorities of the UN's member states. "If just a fraction of the hundreds of billions of dollars recently committed by governments to private financial institutions were allocated to humanitarian action, these appeals could already be fully funded, and those in need could be getting the best available protection and assistance, on time."

The World Food Programme-which leading economist Paul Collier described as "the world's insurance programme"-is also struggling for funding. "The world is falling far short in feeding its most critically hungry, pledging only $3.7 billion of the $6.7 billion needed to fund the World Food Programme for 2009 ... The agency has so far received only $1.8 billion and has had to cut back rations and programs to the 108 million people it serves."

It is vital that the World Food Programme is able to continue reaching and helping the world's poorest. The UN Humanitarian Air Service, operated by WFP, is one of the vital aid services which is vulnerable to a retreat of support and funding. Its likely closure could mean crisis for the people of Chad, Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Afghanistan. This is a scenario with far-reaching consequences for global stability, as well as the welfare of millions of people. As WFP Director Josette Sheeran warns; 'There's nothing more basic than food. If people don't have it, one of three things happen: they revolt, they migrate or they die.'"

Commitment Challenges

In times of crisis, the United Nations remains the last resort for the millions of poor and marginalised people. In the absence of a global safety net, many of the UN agencies provide vital support for the most vulnerable people, who would otherwise fall into even greater deprivation and disaster. The consequences of reduced programmatic support for the United Nations could be disastrous for continuing attempts to meet the MDG targets in 2015. It is for these reasons that critical funding for the UN should increase rather than decrease during recession or economic downturn.

The challenge is one of political will rather than a lack of money. In the long-term, the entire issue of UN funding requires holistic and sustained reform. Financially, the UN is in a position of perennial weakness, reliant on its wealthiest member states to honour their commitments. In the short-term, the clear message of the MDG Report is that the UN must not be sidelined. Governments both in the developed and developing world are failing to meet their promises to the world's poor. The economic crises in the past year have damaged the capacity and commitment of governments to continue supporting development efforts.

This places greater strain and emphasis on the United Nations to ensure that the people who most need help are not forgotten or ignored. Key donor nations must recommit to the urgent, humanitarian, and lifesaving work of the United Nations. Governments should ring-fence and protect the programme funding that was promised to the UN at the start of 2009. The United States-often the greatest offender in terms of living up to its funding commitments-has recently set an example by agreeing to make up its arrears to the United Nations. Other countries should now follow its lead by meeting the funding shortfalls of the frontline UN agencies. The world must live up to the bold promises of the Millennium Declaration.


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