At the UN’s Millennium summit 10 years ago, 192 governments signed a compact to reduce world poverty by 50 percent by the year 2015, reduce hunger, disease, achieve equity for women, provide universal education, health, drinking water and effect sustainable environmental management. Trinidad and Tobago joined world leaders this September to review progress in achieving the MDGs, but despite soundings of how well we have done, all’s not well in our front and the overall prognosis leaves much to be desired in all eight MDG areas.
We are no where close to halving poverty (Goal 1), with some one-fifth of our population hovering around the poverty line, despite astoundingly high GDP. Poverty levels is expected to increase as the full impact of the global economic, financial, food, energy and environmental crises and other largely externally generated negative forces set in.
Similarly, while the textbook figures for T&T in relation to universal primary education and literacy look awe-inspiring (Goal 2), the actual performances within the system: high levels of school violence, underperformance, dropouts and functional literacy are humbling. Furthermore, while (Goal 3) empowerment of women through education is commendable, lack of parity in the workplace and alarming levels of violence against women reduce the impact of educational achievements and it is yet to be seen how the new incorporation of gender affairs within the planning ministry will be effected with an holistic and effective gender policy with related implementable actions beyond the Children’s Life Fund and ‘child milk’ that would positively impact child mortality (Goals 4) and maternal health care (Goal 5), are yet to be put in place.
There is much work to be done nationally on actions to reduce environmental pollution, making polluters contribute to clean-up and resuscitation, encourage sustainable community livelihoods, make the Environmental Management Authority (EMA) more than just a political tool, and to secure sustainability in provision of water so the next dry season would not see the numbers of dry taps as the last. But the international community also needs to step its support for the Caribbean’s efforts againstenvironmental degradation and to prepare for the impacts of climate change. Although the Caribbean faces similar threats from temperature changes, melting ice caps, sea level rise, and dangers of sitting on a volatile fault line and active volcanic zone that jeopardizes not only coastal but inland communities international investment (financial and scientific) in these areas are only a miniscule fraction of what is paid to the similarly challenged Pacific region, for example.
A key problem in all of this for assessment of T&T’s performance is lack of adequate data on several of the indicators, and that existing data are not in sync with MDG definitions. In fact the UN’s ‘regional’ classifications that lumps the Caribbean with Latin America has proven to itself be a handicap in data analyses for the Caribbean as such classification subsumes the realities of the Caribbean with Latin American contexts although they are in almost every instance - in its political systems, historical development, cultural orientation and economic structures - diametrically opposed. It also does not facilitate accommodation of the essential cross-regional and diasporic affiliations of the Caribbean. This results in skewing of all statistical and other representations of the Caribbean that is further handicapped by the lack of data collation and analyses in key indicator areas that could better represent national MDG performance.
One marker of performance, the UNDP human development index (HDI), points in no uncertain terms that our level of well-being is substantially below what may be expected from T&T’s high national (GDP) earnings. A simple comparison shows that Barbados with a GDP of USD 18,000, enjoys better living standards with a ranking of 90 HDI to T&T with its GDP of some USD 23,500 in a lower ranking of around HDI 84. But the HDI is not as clear as to gender or income inequality, levels of respect for human and political rights, and other factors.
Statistics as that above give meat to arguments by the developed world that the real problems of development countries’ attainment of the MDGs are nationally based – poor governance, ineptitude and corruption. The recent change in Government has yet to prove them wrong, and it will take more than rhetoric at the Summit to convince them of that.
T&T’s MDG challenges
While representation of T&T and the region at the UN should not degenerate into finger-pointing and recriminations about why the goals are not being met, we do expect clear, real, sharp and representation of the problems and challenges and proposals to deal with them. Certainly, our representation at the UN should include more definitive positions on the more real handicaps to MDG success – that despite national efforts, the derailment of the MDGs driven by forces that have originated mainly in the developed world which prompted the current Summit in the first instance, calls now for immediate giant steps by leaders to move beyond rhetorical commitments to decisive actions to ensure that the MDGs are back on track to attainability by 2015.
We might be taking steps at national levels but what are we saying to challenge the developed countries in failing to deliver on commitments made in 2000 where the MDGs were set and delivery of promised overseas development assistance (ODA) and World Trade Organisation (WTO) packages that will help to combat the already wide gaps of inequity in trading relations, being further widening by the onset of new challenges posed by high costs of new technologies that can improve our R&D systems and outputs, but which now inhibit our competitiveness in the global marketplace. Development aid would never be enough if it is being counterbalanced by the negative effects of policies that inhibit development of our agricultural and other sectors.
Additionally, in its 2009 T&T report on the MDGs, the UNDP notes that with its strong energy-driven economic base that would make it possible to finance advances in the MDGs, “T&T continues to be challenged to maintain favorable prospects for growth, job creation and poverty reduction in the face of exogenous factors such as a possible downturn in energy process.”
The true picture is that while we might have been making several gains towards the development goals, they are in danger of being reversed with our heightened vulnerability to factors as the externally driven drug trade, international terrorism, human trafficking, inflation in food, energy and commodity prices and the spiraling economic and financial crises. From this Summit should emerge more tangible policy offerings for trade facilitation, and genuine not exploitative global partnership arrangements; effective action to reform the Common Agricultural Policy and WTO, whose export subsidies and trade distortions are so negative for many developing countries; a decisive action agenda for climate change; more sensitive approaches to migration in the context of the global village, among others.
A clearer picture of T&T’s level of dependence on international forces may emerge if we look at migration and remittance data, for instance. Annual migration from T&T stands at more than 20 percent, more than 80 percent of which is to Northern America. The value of such migration to T&T in remittances is some USD 100 million. The fall-off from this for T&T migrants owing to the world financial crisis that has severely affected the US is yet to be ascertained, in as much as there are no estimates of what counter-value such persons could have had if they were absorbed into productive economic activity in T&T - the continuing hemorrhaging of national talents through migration, the exodus of nurses and other health professionals, for examples, which could otherwise significantly impact MDGs 4 and 5.
We might be moving closer to reducing bad governance and strengthen national instruments but we are still hooked on structural and systematic deficiencies within the UN system itself that is heavily influenced by the developed world.
This Summit would want to avoid the failure of last year’s much-hyped Copenhagen Summit which fell woefully short of delivering an effective global climate change agreement. The current MDG Review also gives focus on the continued relevance of the UN and international systems, and the credibility of our leaders. Future generations would not forgive them if substantive commitments to time-bound actions that will make development goals attainable do not emerge.
Dr Kris Rampersad is a media, cultural and literary consultant and International Relations Director of the Network of NGOs of Trinidad and Tobago for the Advancement of Women.