The MDGs: Addressing the enabling environment through the ethical framework of human rights

Development Policy21 Sep 2010Natalia Cardona

The Millennium Development Goals have provided a forum for discussion on poverty and development at the international level. They have contributed to bringing the devastation of poverty and inequality to the forefront of the international arena. Yet they have failed to maintain a holistic human rights approach or to hold developing and developed countries to the same standards of rigorous evaluation in relationship to their commitments to those goals.

For example, MDG 8 intended to hold developed countries accountable for their responsibility to creating an economic enabling environment – allowing policy space for developing country governments to meet their fundamental commitments to economic and social rights – is the goal with the least measurable targets, and the aspect of this goal that gets most of the attention is the provision of aid by developed governments. Certainly aid plays a central role, especially in the least developed countries, however if developing countries are to progressively meet their human rights obligations, the current economic environment needs to be addressed in its entirety using the human rights framework as a fundamental standard of decency.

Aid, trade, debt and macroeconomic policies – both monetary and fiscal – have to be scrutinized through this ethical lens, because the means adopted to achieve growth, as the current financial crisis has shown, are skewed in the favour of a few and have not ultimately benefited all. The decades-long assumption that the design and function of macroeconomic policies would lead to creating a favourable environment, and the invisible hand of the thriving market would adequately appoint resources and distribute profits, can no longer be the guiding force. The financial crisis proved, for the developed world (because the developing world had experienced this for much longer), that perfect competition does not exist, and that markets have inherent flaws that lead to increasing inequality between and within countries, and in so doing broke the mold with which the invisible hand was made! It also reminded us that macroeconomic policy cannot be divorced from human rights.

The United Nations needs to evaluate macroeconomic policies from the perspective of progressive realization of economic and social rights. In 1992, more than 178 governments voted on and adopted Agenda 21. In it, they identified and committed to strive to meet the broad objective of developing ‘a domestic policy framework that would encourage a shift to more sustainable patterns of production and consumption’. It’s time that those commitments became a reality. Creating an enabling environment where developing countries can meet their human rights obligations without regressive conditions placed on their social spending – conditions executed in many cases through onerous debt and unfair trade agreements – must be at the forefront. Commitments made by rich countries on trade, aid and debt must also be rigourously measured, and the macroeconomic system thoroughly addressed through the lens of economic and social rights.