Addressing hunger, malnutrition and climate change with our eyes open: the future of the Millennium Development Goals

dublin-conference-logo-140x85“We are sleepwalking towards the edge of history’s cliff”. This was a sentence uttered by former vice-president of the US, Al Gore at the recent Hunger Nutrition Climate Justice conference in Dublin in reference to the impact of climate change on global food security, poverty, inequality and resource scarcity. Thinking about this statement, one might think it means we are blindly stumbling towards our inevitable demise but it is not because we are blind to the challenges we face nor to the solutions rather it is our unresponsiveness in addressing them which Al Gore was referring to.

While the former vice-president often delivers a rousing speech around the dangers of climate change, his speech this time was targeted to a broader development agenda. We are not only witnessing extreme levels of hunger, malnutrition and widespread poverty but any progress we have made towards eradicating these injustices will be lost if we ignore climate change. Climate change is expected to lower grain yields and raise crop prices across the developing world, leading to a 20-percent rise in child malnutrition. Already undernutrition contributes to the deaths of 2.6 million children under five each year.

The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), established as a result of the United Nations Millennium Summit in 2000, are 8 goals which aim to address a wide range of development issues from hunger and poverty to HIV/AIDS, health and education. The eight goals are around:

  • Eradicating extreme poverty and hunger,
  • Achieving universal primary education,
  • Promoting gender equality and empowering women,
  • Reducing child mortality rates,
  • Improving maternal health,
  • Combating HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases,
  • Ensuring environmental sustainability, and
  • Developing a global partnership for development.

Each goal is divided into specific targets. For example the first goal has three targets:

  • Target 1A: Halve, between 1990 and 2015, the proportion of people whose income is less than $1.25 a day
  • Target 1B: Achieve full and productive employment and decent work for all, including women and young people
  • Target 1C: Halve, between 1990 and 2015, the proportion of people who suffer from hunger

As we approach the 2015 deadline set for these goals, experts, policymakers and global leaders are looking back to individual county’s success in reaching these goals as well as forward to what a new set of development goals might look like. Progress, in general, has been mixed, with some countries such as Brazil already achieving a number of the goals while others, such as Benin, not on track to meet any. China and India have been particularly successful, the former reducing poverty from 452 million people to 278 million. Over the same period, however, sub-Saharan Africa has reduced poverty by only 1%. Characterising the region as a whole though masks differences between individual countries. Ghana may be the only country who looks likely to reach the goal of halving poverty and hunger by 2015 but 14 African countries look likely to reach target 1A and 12 to reach target 1C. This progress, however, is, as Al gore said, at risk if we fail to address wider environmental crises such as climate change.

The Dublin conference, at its heart, aimed to put the nexus of hunger, nutrition and climate justice at the centre of both development and of discussions around the reform of the MDGs coming up in June. Since 2010 UN Member have begun a process of open, inclusive consultations on the so-called ‘post-2015 agenda’. In 2012, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon appointed 26 civil society, private sector, and government leaders from all regions to a high-level panel to advise on this agenda. It is through this consultation and panel that a new set of development goals will be delivered.

If we are to find long-lasting solutions to our development problems we must not only look at the challenges themselves but also the ways in which some countries such as Brazil have achieved such significant progress. At the Dublin conference, Carlos Klink, Brazilian National Secretary on Climate Change and Environmental Quality, spoke of Brazil’s achievements. In the last decade or so deforestation rates have been reduced by around 80% while 40 million people have been lifted out of poverty and GDP, particularly agricultural GDP, has been growing. He attributed this success to a variety of factors including strong political will across a range of sectors, the participation of grass roots movements, advanced technology such as forest cover monitoring, increasing farmer access to finance, a bold and ambitious national policy on climate change and the country’s commitment to the Zero Hunger Programme, a Brazilian government programme introduced by President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in 2003. Brazil has also recently developed a plan for health in relation to climate change adaptation.

Carlos Klink’s recommendations for the future MDGs were twofold: poverty eradication and ensuring the increased production and consumption needs of the emerging middle class were sustainable.

High on the agenda across all discussions at the conference was political will and The Institute of Development Studies recently launched The Hunger and Nutrition Commitment Index (HANCI), which:

1) Ranks governments on their political commitment to tackling hunger and undernutrition;

2) Measures what governments achieve and where they fail in addressing hunger and undernutrition providing greater transparency and public accountability;

3) Praises governments where due, and highlights areas for improvement;

4) Supports civil society to reinforce and stimulate additional commitment towards accelerating the reduction of hunger and undernutrition;

5) Assesses whether improving commitment levels lead to a reduction in hunger and undernutrition.

The new index, in brief, measures performance on hunger and nutrition across 45 countries using 22 indicators of political commitment. The first round of results from the index are surprising. In particular that low wealth or slow economic growth in a country does not always equate to low levels of political commitment and conversely, that economic growth does not necessarily equate with a greater level of political commitment to tackle hunger and nutrition. In Africa, for example, countries with smaller economies such as Madagascar and The Gambia are showing higher levels of ambition and commitment to addressing hunger than the traditional dominant economies of South Africa, Kenya and Ethiopia. Across the board Guatemala is the best performer for both hunger and nutrition commitment while Guinea Bissau is the worst performing country.

In phase two, HANCI will provide data on the political commitment to tackle undernutrition and hunger in developing countries of donor governments such as the UK and Ireland. It is the combination of political will, coordination and commitment across both developed and developing countries which is required to end hunger, malnutrition and tackle climate change.

As Al Gore said this is a time for boldness and vision. We need our eyes and those of our global leaders not only wide open but we need the accompanying action too.

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