Time for Concerted Action from Governments, Business and NGOs to Reduce Poverty and Promote Human Development

This week, world leaders attended a United Nations summit to mark the 10th anniversary of the Millennium Declaration – a framework of measures designed to reduce extreme poverty, which was adopted by all 189 member states of the UN.The Millennium Development Goals, introduced with such ambition ten years ago, have been the focus of the global effort to improve the lives of billions of people around the world.  They have achieved an extraordinary level of consensus and support.  Nearly every government around the world, as well as business, financial institutions, UN agencies, donors, non-government organisations and individuals have committed to the goals in various ways.

However, with only five years left until the 2015 deadline, this unprecedented consensus will have to be sustained and the efforts of government, business and NGOs must be accelerated if the goals are to be achieved.

UN data indicates that significant progress has been made in areas such as infant mortality, education, HIV/AIDS and access to clean water.  At the same time, there is a serious lack of progress in other areas.  The gap between rich and poor remains enormous, hunger has increased, the number of women dying in childbirth has not been reduced and thousands of families still do not have access to sanitation.  NGOs, business and government have much more to do.

As chairman of ChildFund Australia, I have visited many communities where extreme poverty and hunger undermine or negate the basic human rights that we take for granted.  But I have also seen how sustained, community-level initiatives which are led by local people in partnership with an aid organisation can achieve real change – in health, education, food security, gender equality and environmental sustainability.  In these communities, progress towards the development goals can be read, not only in official statistics, but in the healthy faces of children and their parents.  More investment in community-based approaches is likely to have the greatest return, particularly for children, and these approaches are more sustainable because of the participation and ‘buy-in’ of community members.  This is work where our Australian NGO aid agencies excel.

The role of business in leading economic development and, increasingly, through direct involvement in human development activity, is critical to the targets.  I was fortunate to attend the recent UN Global Compact Summit in New York.  It has strengthened ties between business, the UN, governments and NGOs.  More than 7700 businesses from more than 130 countries now work together within the Global Compact framework, investing in economic development, the building of new markets and the extension of civil society.

Businesses which are active in developing countries recognise that a genuine commitment to corporate social responsibility is not incompatible with profitable operations.  On the contrary, these businesses recognise that meeting the goals, achieving sustainability and fostering the development of economic growth in civil society, are prerequisites to sustainable long-term growth, the creation of new markets, employee engagement and increasingly, shareholder approval.

The Global Compact Summit considered some significant development initiatives being undertaken by major multinationals around the world.  An expansion of such activity will accelerate progress towards the Millennium Development Goals – but it requires real leadership and innovation by the companies concerned, and solid partnerships between those companies, governments, NGOs and local communities.

As world leaders gather and restate their commitment to the development targets, it is time for the Australian Government to increase its commitment.  Australia ranks a lowly sixteenth out of the world’s 23 richest nations in terms of our contribution in overseas aid.  A decade after committing to the Millennium Development Goals, we do not have a timetable for increasing our contribution to 0.7 per cent of gross national income, to bring it into line with the commitments of other rich nations.  When one considers how many of the world’s least developed nations are our regional neighbours, the need for our government’s commitment to the development goals is clear.

Public support for international aid provides encouragement for the Australian Government to increase the aid commitment.  ChildFund Australia’s annual survey, ‘Australian Perceptions of child Poverty and Aid Effectiveness’, confirms strong support.  The 2010 survey echoes previous surveys and finds that more than two-thirds of Australians believe international aid is effective to some degree and only nine per cent think we should be spending less on international aid.

The global consensus around the Millennium Development Goals is impressive and good progress has been made over the last 10 years.  But it is not enough.  More concerted action by government, business and NGOs is essential if the Millennium Development Goals are to be reached by 2015 and we are to meet the urgent challenge of poverty alleviation and human development.

Michael Rose is Chief Executive Partner at international law firm Allens Arthur Robinson and Chair of aid and development NGO ChildFund Australia.  An earlier version of this article was published in The National Times.