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Equity in a changing landscape of poverty - from global to local goals?

29 Apr 2013
Meera Tiwari, Reader in International Development, University of East London,
It is rare to find in the history of development the close proximity of the contrasting contexts within which the MDG-1 emerged in 2000 and one in which MDG-2 are emerging in 2015. The former was a relatively benign environment of global financial buoyancy and exhibited relatively clear demarcations between the developed and developing regions with more inequities and poverty concentrated in the developing countries.

In just fifteen years the global terrain could not be more different. The MDG-2 are being conceived in a world of acute financial uncertainties since 2007, predictions of a grim future and rapid blurring of boundaries between the developed and developing contexts in terms of rising inequities and poverty. In addition, the scientific evidence towards the adverse impacts of climate change on poverty, albeit contested in some quarters, is quite rightly becoming more integrated in development research than ever. The brief commentary below proposes how the new post 2015 framework might capture this context.

While the overall objectives of addressing economic and social deprivations of MDG-1 would very much remain the drivers for the MDG-2 or post 2015 development agenda, the drastic contextual change calls for different emphasis, new goals and a novel approach. The starting point or the foundation of the new post 2015 framework should be the achievements of MDG-1 and not the many omissions attributed to these.

These include firstly, bringing the social dimensions of development such as education, health, gender disparities and living conditions onto the same platform as the economic dimension. Other than MDG 1 - eradicate poverty and hunger through its targets (halve, between 1990 and 2015, the proportion of people whose income is less than $1 a day; achieve full and productive employment and decent work for all, including women and young people; halve, between 1990 and 2015, the proportion of people who suffer from hunger), the remaining seven MDGs focus on the social dimensions of development.

Since the latter part of the 1980s, mostly through Amartya Sen’s Capability Approach but also through contributions from other researchers, the understanding of poverty to include both income and non-income dimensions has been seminal in influencing development research. However, this remained at the fringes of the policy arena with feeble influence on the yardstick of measuring development at the country levels. The MDGs have resoundingly brought the multi-dimensionality of poverty into the policy domains and all fora where development is discussed.

Secondly, by gaining the consensus of the 189 heads of state it held the states accountable to some extent for the progress made in their individual countries. Hence, despite a very top-down framework for benchmarking improvements, it did openly engage with individual countries in the global debates about the levels of poverty, the tools needed and the financial implications of implementing the MDGs. While conceived as global targets, MDG-1 did therefore unravel country specific priorities, context specific impediments, and spur a debate on why some countries have done better than others in achieving the MDGs. Lastly, though very importantly, it brought to the forefront the interconnectedness in the global concerns of inequity, human security including in the domains of food, livelihood and social justice.

With these foundations and common drivers to eradicate economic and non-economic dimensions of poverty, the post-2015 agenda needs to be located within an overarching sustainable development framework as the global goals to include regions - both developed and developing. The aim here is to tackle head on the rising inequities in energy consumption and accountability to global warming between the developed and the developing/emerging economies. China and India’s per capita emission of 4.6 and 1.2 tonnes dwarf in comparison to Australia and USA’s 20.6 and 19.8 tonnes respectively. The poorer African countries’ average carbon footprint is under 0.5 tonnes. The per capita carbon emissions demonstrate two things - the need for far more attention to green technologies, and the need for changes in life styles that are norms in the developed contexts and are rapidly becoming symbols of economic progress in the emerging countries.

The green technologies could enable reduction in energy poverty in the developing world without necessarily expanding their carbon footprint. However, these gains could easily be offset if the energy intensive individual-centric lifestyles remain unchanged in developed countries and represent a prize to be won for economic achievements in the developing/emerging countries. The new goal will track the adoption of green technologies and move towards collective access to resources.

The novelty of the proposed post 2015 development agenda would be in using the above overarching global framework to define local goals and targets. Thus for a country like the United Kingdom, and many other OECD member countries, the emphasis would be to improve collective access to resources and public goods, promote innovation in energy efficiencies, address social and economic inequalities, improve employment opportunities for youth, and expand the use of green energy and green growth. Middle-income countries such as India, Nigeria and Pakistan would focus on inclusive growth to engage their large proportion of populations living under $1.25 a day and lift them out of poverty.

Goals to improve food and livelihood security, better health, gender equalities, education and sanitation would remain a priority agenda in these countries, albeit with emphasis as per the local country context. These countries will also need to address many of the rising social and economic inequities and consumption intensive lifestyles that mirror those of the developed countries. For the low-income countries building productive capacities to engage with the global markets opportunities and addressing social and economic deprivations of their populations would be the main goals. These countries could avoid the rising inequity trap of economic growth by a few through a careful contextualisation of the model adopted in the Nordic countries. In more recent years some of the Latin American countries too have shown that growth is possible without necessarily worsening inequities in the society.

The challenge would be the deployment of green technologies in the middle and low-income countries to achieve these goals. International aid can be far better utilised in the development of accessible green technologies the adoption of which would be tracked within MDG-2. An even bigger challenge would be lifestyle changes to reduce the carbon footprint tracked by the adoption of collective access to resources in the MDG-2 targets. The danger is that we may already have gone past the tipping-point of halting the adverse impacts of our life-styles as suggested by many scientists. The post-2015 framework provides a platform for a consensus to demonstrate our resolve to embrace an agenda that may be the way for addressing fragile financial contexts, the perils of climate change for poverty and future generations, as well as the fallout from rising inequities.