Q&A with UN Director Salil Shetty

September 13, 2005

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

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As the United Nations World Summit of international leaders opens in New York September 14, the director of the UN Millennium Campaign talks to cfr.org’s Esther Pan about international development and prospects for reform.

What progress has been made toward achieving the Millennium Development Goals?

I think the progress is a mixed bag. The Secretary-General’s report gives a detailed picture. Essentially, it says that in some regions of the world we’ve seen very significant progress—particularly in East Asia, and particularly on the first goal: [eradicating] poverty and hunger. We’ve had significant improvements in China and India. Overall, at the global level it’s likely that we’ll reach the target [of halving extreme poverty] by 2015. But of course, these goals are not about aggregates, they’re about people, and we still have huge difficulties in particular regions: Sub-Saharan Africa is of course the one that’s facing the greatest difficulty, but also many countries in South Asia. Also, in Latin America , things are not looking as good on the first goal because of the high levels of inequality. So overall, some countries are doing not so badly, but we’re nowhere close to where we should be in 2005 if we want to get to all the goals by 2015.

And what is delaying the accomplishment of the goals? Is it political will, or factors beyond people’s control?

In each country the situation is different. That’s why it’s hard to talk about these things at an aggregate level. In some cases it’s lack of resources, in some places it’s lack of political will, in other places it’s conflict. But if you look at specific countries like Bangladesh, Mozambique, Vietnam—still among the poorest countries in the world— they have made significant progress, in spite of all the constraints. Among rich countries, some have delivered on their promises—they’ll reach the 0.7 [percent of GNP] commitment of aid, for example—even some large economies like Spain and the United Kingdom have made commitments. The European Union has taken some big steps in the right direction. So we believe that at the end of the day, political will is an essential factor which is hampering progress.

Some people have criticized the goals as being too broad, too general, and too difficult to accomplish. What do you say to those criticisms?

I think as far as poor people are concerned—the roughly two to three billion people for whom these goals really matter—these aid goals are pretty much on the spot. For those two billion or so, their top aid priorities are pretty much the Millennium Development Goals, because they’re dealing with day-to-day struggles for food and water and education and health. So it depends on whose lens we’re looking at it from. If you’re talking about the majority of the world’s population, I don’t think the goals are wrong at all.

And from the other side, some human-rights and activist groups say the goals are not ambitious enough, that aiming to cut poverty by half is ignoring the other half of the people who will stay poor.

Again, there is a misconception. These goals have always been seen as minimum benchmarks. If the activist groups can achieve more than that, they’re welcome to go ahead and do so. Nobody’s stopping anyone from going further.

What were the U.S. concerns about the MDG?

The main point they were making is that what was agreed by all the governments was what was in the Millennium Declaration, and that the targets and indicators, etcetera, came later on. So technically, the U.S. government has not committed 0.7 percent of GNP to overseas development aid (ODA), for example. I think that was the heart of the discussion. Our view throughout has been that it’s not a question of percentages alone—although obviously we think that’s important—but in the case of the United States, in absolute terms we think it can do a lot more. The United States currently contributes about $19 billion per year in ODA. Compare that to the fifteen richest countries in the European Union, which are of comparable economic size: Those countries are already contributing about $45 billion.

But that is all fifteen countries combined, right?

Yes, together. The top fifteen.

But for any single country, the United States gives the largest dollar figure in terms of overseas development assistance, is that right?

Yes, absolutely. But that’s because they have such a big economy. We can’t talk about any of the issues out of context. So in percentage terms, the United States is at the bottom of the pile, with Italy. We just believe that if you talk to most American people, they think the U.S. government is already giving 10 percent to 15 percent of its budget to aid; but currently, it’s half of 1 percent. There’s a big gap between public perception and reality.

Could you put the MDG in context of the larger reforms that are happening at the United Nations?

Right now, the World Summit is about to start tomorrow. We’re in a very difficult position because the negotiations are still going on. As far as we’re concerned, the real issues of UN reform, security, human rights, and development are all closely interlinked. But if we had to prioritize, we can’t think of anything more urgent than dealing with the issue of 30,000 children dying a day, unnecessarily.

So you’re saying negotiations on the draft resolution are still going on?

Oh, yeah, they’re going on as we speak [2:30 p.m. September 13].

And what are the sticking points? They’ve been working on this for months.

On the development side there aren’t so many sticking points. They’ve more or less agreed on a lot of it, except for trade. But there are still big issues on UN reform, the Human Rights Council, etc. We are concerned because we were expecting that by now world leaders would have been able to move the discussion on development to the next level—to come prepared to commit further, and negotiate on very precise and specific terms. But instead, we are now in a situation where we’re just trying to preserve what was agreed previously. There’s not much movement forward.

Will progress on the MDG affect UN reform in general?

Absolutely. As far as the EU and the G77—the group of poor, developing nations—are concerned, development is No. 1 on the agenda. So if there is any kind of pressure to give way on those issues, it does affect the overall package.

And what do you think will come out of the world summit?

We were hoping for some important steps forward. We were expecting that all the countries gathering here would commit to specific timelines for implementing the development goals. We want them to commit to significant increases in aid levels, to increase their commitment to debt reduction, and to move much closer to what the [World Trade Organization’s] Doha Development round promised on trade.

That was lowering or eliminating trade barriers to the Third World ?

Particularly, elimination of dumping and agricultural subsidies in the rich countries. In terms of poor countries, we’re really expecting them to go much further in improving their own public management of resources, reducing corruption, and becoming more accountable to their own citizens on the achievement of the MDGs.

And what kind of momentum is there behind these reforms?

There’s a huge movement now across the globe. In the last two weeks, there have been at least five million people mobilized across the world as part of the Global Call to Action Against Poverty. So there’s a lot of pressure right now. But we’re worried that the world leaders are not really listening.