A Mixed Report Card in the Fight Against Hunger and Poverty

Chris Herlinger | October 5, 2013

Women at a CWS-supported food co-op in northwestern Haiti. Photo: Chris Herlinger/CWS

Women at a CWS-supported food co-op in northwestern Haiti. Photo: Chris Herlinger/CWS

The last two weeks have been a kind of “report card” time for those of us in the humanitarian field.

Last week, the member states of the United Nations took stock of the Millennium Development Goals that were set more than a decade ago as benchmarks in the fight to eradicate extreme poverty (and tackle related problems) by the year 2015. (When I say they are benchmarks, I mean that they are goals “up-ahead” for the work we and others in the humanitarian world perform.)

The goals, drawn up in 2000, are ambitious: 1) Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger; 2) achieve universal primary education; 3) promote gender equality and the empowerment of women; 4) reduce child mortality rates; 5) improve maternal health; 6) combat HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases; 7) ensure environmental sustainability; 8) develop a global partnership for development.

Has there been progress? Overall, yes. “The share of people in the developing world who live in extreme poverty has been reduced from 1 in 2 in 1980 to 1 in 5 today, according to the World Bank,” New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof recently wrote. “Now the aim is to reduce that to almost zero by 2030.”

Of course, there are still tough roadblocks ahead. In their statement looking ahead to developing a new set of goals past the year 2015, UN-member states acknowledged progress in many areas has been uneven. Gaps remain – though the MDGs, they said, have “provided a common vision and contributed to remarkable progress.”

Take the issue of child mortality. The UN has said that the number of children under the age of five who died has dropped since 1990 – from 12.4 million to 6.9 million in 2011. That is about 14,000 fewer children dying every day. Is that good? Of course. Is it enough? Of course not.

That’s one part of the story. Another came this week when the chief UN food agencies issued a report saying that some 842 million people – roughly one in eight globally – suffered from chronic hunger in the last two decades.

The good news is that that number is down from 868 million people in the period 2010-12. But that is still far too many, as our CWS president and CEO John McCullough said, noting that hunger remains “one of the most urgent public policy issues facing the U.S. government and hunger fighting organizations like CWS.”

So, the picture remains decidedly mixed, something that my friend and colleague John Nduna, general secretary of the Geneva-based ACT Alliance (of which CWS is an active member), told me last week when he attended meetings here at the CWS offices in New York. The meetings focused on ways those of us in the faith-based humanitarian field will need to keep the pressure on the UN and governments past 2015.

“Yes, there have been successes, but these have been varied, depending on countries and regions,” John told me. There have been notable exceptions to progress, including some stalled points in the areas of gender equality, human rights, environment and climate change, he said.

John and others also mentioned that it was a mistake for the UN not to add the issue of peace and peace-making to the original list of goals. John hopes that changes during the next go-around. “Without peace, there cannot be development,” he said, citing the current crises in Syria as one example. “In the absence of peace, you reverse everything. You can’t achieve what you want in the first place.”

John and his colleagues attending the meetings here feel that the voice of the faith community needs to be more fully heard in the discussions for the post-2015 goals. After all, many of the world’s humanitarian groups (like CWS) as well as schools, hospitals and clinics have ties with religious traditions and institutions.

That was a theme picked up by Ghana Archbishop Gabriel Anokye, representing the Symposium of Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar, known as SECAM. Archbishop Anokye was also one of our visitors last week.

“We want to put the dignity and human rights of every person at the center of the discussion,” he said. “Dignity, human rights – these aren’t just words. They are rooted in God.”

Chris Herlinger is senior writer for CWS.