Interpreting progress

Knowledge brokering21 Sep 2010

It seems New York City provides a fitting backdrop to the UN MDG summit. The city has many contrasting faces, as do the summit and the MDG-related side events.

As the official conference kicked off yesterday only a few blocks away, I found myself in the basement of the Salvation Army, where civil society representatives gave an overview of their expectations of the summit. They are low, it immediately became clear. Very low.

Social Watch’s Roberto Bissio critically assessed the already issued MDG summit outcome document, which was agreed upon last week, making the summit no more than a ritual. And therefore robbing civil society organizations of their lobbying opportunities.

Though the outcome document indicates significant progress on some of the goals, CSOs feel that much more should be done to achieve progress. Progress on social indicators has actually slowed since the MDGs were launched in 2000, Bissio argued. ‘In the world’s poorest region, the absolute number of the poor increased over the past three decades: the number of people living on less than 1.25 dollars per day increased from 212 million to 388 million people.’

The summit seeks to accelerate progress towards achieving the MDGs by the 2015 deadline, but ‘business as usual’ seems a more accurate description, according to the civil society.

Just an hour later, in the swanky Paley Center for Media where the TEDxChange talk organized by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation was being broadcast, they were singing a very different tune. Only a couple of blocks from the Salvation Army, it felt like I had stepped into a world where the UN’s data is all wrong and Coca Cola lifts people out of poverty.

TED talks are a specific genre. They last for exactly 18 minutes, have a personal narrative and revolve around a single theme, ‘The future we make’ in this case. The first talk was by Hans Rosling. ‘I like the MDGs’, he said, ‘because there are eight of them, and because they are measurable’. Rosling, a professor of global health at Sweden’s Karolinska Institute, is also known as ‘the statistics guru’. With his own visualization software he uses statistics, usually drawn from UN data, to ‘dispel common myths about the so-called developing world, which is no longer worlds away from the West’. With thousands of people all over the world watching online, Rosling proposed an alternative technique to measure MDG progress. One that proves the UN’s data wrong, and suggests there’s much more progress than we think.

Melinda Gates set off on a similar positive note. ‘MDG progress is a fact’, she stated with a broad smile. Before the talk, she declared she would focus on ‘what works’ and how progress is being made, not the other way around. In stark contrast to Roberto Bissio, she focused primarily on the 1.3 billion people that have lifted themselves out of poverty in the last 20 years. Gates talked about her travels around the world, the poverty and inequality she saw, and another thing she found everywhere, be it New York City or a remote village in Africa: a bottle of Coke.

Her central argument: Coca Cola’s local entrepreneurial spirit should serve as a guiding principle to global development. ‘We must learn from the best innovators in all sectors, for example the innovations that allow enterprises to make their products and services ubiquitous. We must see what works and adapt their good practices to pursuing the goals of development and poverty alleviation.’ A picture of an Indian woman holding a baby in her arms appeared on the screen as Gates concluded: ‘If we listen to and learn from innovators in every field, I’m positive we can make happiness as widespread as Coca-Cola itself’.