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The other conference. The one about global poverty.

6 October 2010

by Steve Cockburn. First published for Progress Online.

Last week 100+ heads of state (and Nick Clegg) gathered for the UN Millennium Development Goals summit, to set out what they would do over the next five years to meet criticalpromises on poverty they made ten years ago, such as cutting by two-thirds the number of children dying before their fifth birthday.

Being there was not inspiring stuff. A 32-page ‘action plan’ agreed by over 190 states included pretty much no measurable actions. The resistance to incorporating human rights principles into poverty targets won out, and this time it wasn’t just rich countries to blame. And I think I spotted some people so bored they were tuning into the Lib Dem conference.

More prevalent than action was doublespeak. Ireland, for example, launched a new global strategy to tackle child malnutrition, receiving applause for announcing it was to increase the share of its aid budget for fighting hunger to 20 per cent. Everyone seemed to forget Ireland has slashed its aid budget by 25 per cent, meaning serious cuts in funding for everything else children rely on.

Similarly, the big news of the summit was the launch of a new Global Strategy for Women’s and Children’s Health – much needed to improve efforts to end the preventable deaths of eight million children every year, as well 350,000 women in childbirth. A great plan that takes a broad and progressive approach to health, but funding announcements to implement it have so far flattered to deceive.

The UN did some sums to claim $40 billion was committed for the next five years by governments, NGOs and possibly your granny. Even if true it’d be a fraction of what’s needed to meet their promises, but in any case few people are in any doubt that this is largely recycled from funds already being spent or planned in this or other areas. If the National Audit Office wants to have a look at this before it perishes in the quango bonfire, it could keep itself in business for a while.

From a British lens, Nick Clegg’s first big moment on the international stage, and Andrew Mitchell’s at a major UN event, were neither disastrous nor remarkable. Their speeches were fine, and the financial commitments made commendable in comparison to others, but not particularly balanced. Taking a headline-driven approach to funding healthcare – ie. investing in programmes to prevent children dying from malaria, but not from malnutrition or diarrhoea – has delivered only patchy progress so far, and needs to stop.

Ultimately they went about their business but failed to decisively lead. No shocking leaders with pictures of Zimbabwean torture victims, nor getting into trouble for haranguing their US counterparts too strongly, like dear old Gordon. Nor the all-night sessions in Copenhagen, like our newly-anointed Ed.

Most significantly, they ignored the plea at the summit from Sarkozy and Zapatero to back a global tax on financial transactions to raise funds for poverty reduction – the Robin Hood Tax – something that could begin to make meetings like this a thing of the past, and something supported by Labour’s new leader, as shown in this video.

The offer was made, but Britain stayed silent. If the next big summit is to be more than speeches and canapés, we’ll need a lot more from our boys in blue (and yellow).

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