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What the humanitarian sector can learn from the millenium development goals

While controversial and contentious, the UN’s Millennium Development Goals [MDGs] nevertheless have a great deal to offer those who have humanitarian roles and responsibilities....

Five years to go before the 2015 MDGs are intended to reach their targets, and for a variety of reasons most still fall well short of the mark. Eradicating extreme poverty and hunger, achieving universal primary education, promoting gender equality and empowering women, reducing child mortality, improving maternal health, combating HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases, ensuring environmental stability and developing a global partnership for development all reflect sound objectives and sensible aspirations. And yet their sheer ambition and the complexities that they seem to ignore have generated scepticism and cynicism as well as indifference. They also offer very important and positive lessons.

The sheer audacity of these aspirations as well as the global financial crisis may explain in some ways the gaps between ambitions and achievements. However, the framework of the Millennium Development Goals and the international focus on a set of agreed global targets offer those concerned with humanitarian crises – emergencies, disasters and catastrophes – real food for thought. Those crisis events that increasingly threaten annually the lives and livelihoods of hundreds of millions of people around the world can only be reduced, in some instances prevented, by a long-term strategic focus on prevention and preparedness.

The approach that resulted in the Millennium Development Goals reflects a vision that has three very practical features. The first is that the international community can identify aspirational goals that are coherent and can be reduced to quantifiable objectives. The second is that, while arguments continue about the extent to which these goals really reflect consensus amongst some of the poorest countries in the world, the fact of the matter is that the MDGs do provide a framework for targeting development funding that is global – though imperfectly so. Finally these goals provide a long-term strategic framework about ways to reduce the broad impacts of poverty and inequality. This last may be overly broad, but it offers at least a degree of strategic coherence.

As experts and member-state representatives gather at United Nations headquarters in New York this coming week to commit to action for the remaining five years, humanitarian policy-makers may wish to consider these three MDG lessons.

The process that led to an international agreement on the eight MDGs was far from easy. Identification and selection of the core global issues that would reduce poverty and inequality required extensive analysis, prioritisation and negotiation to come to a series of targets that were perceived as practical and potentially implementable. As one begins to consider future and perhaps increasingly destructive types of humanitarian crises, it is all too evident that there really is no equivalent strategy to identify the types of catastrophes for which one might well have to prepare.

From new types of crisis drivers – be they nuclear-tailings, cybernetic failures or pandemics –or those with which one has become all to familiar such as volcanic eruptions, cyclones and floods, it is clear that the types, dimensions and dynamics of humanitarian crises will increase exponentially. All to little attention though is given to what such crises might be in the longer term and what in that context prevention and preparedness might look like. In that sense, the same patient analytical, prioritisation and negotiating process that resulted in the MDGs is urgently needed when it comes to humanitarian crises.

The importance of a humanitarian strategy that focuses upon identifying longer-term potential risks is that it could and should lead to a framework for targeting prevention and preparedness funding. This second lesson from the MDG experience needs to result in funding programmes that will be directed towards broad areas of potential risks which in turn can set the financial parameters for prevention and preparedness targets for individual countries and regions.

Everyone knows – as one ponders the fate of the flood affected in Pakistan or the earthquake victims in Haiti – that effective prevention and preparedness could have reduced the horrors of both. Far fewer, however, are beginning to consider the what might be’s, namely, the longer-term consequences of far more complex and wide-ranging threats. And here the MDG experience of measuring long-term objectives in terms of financial needs is so relevant to a more coherent approach to determining ways to facilitate prevention and preparedness.

The third lesson arising out of the MDG experience is closely linked to the first and second. The MDGs not only established a strategy and related objectives to funding requirements, but they also resulted in a framework for bringing both strategy and objectives together. In other words, the MDG’s ultimate aspirations to reduce poverty and promote equality inevitably was broad in vision, but at the same time could have been vague if not amorphous when it came to defining what one actually meant and felt could be achieved. In that sense, the MDG exercise resulted in providing parameters – though very broad still – about the extent of the initiative. These boundaries remain wide-ranging and by no means clearly fenced. They at least, however, make a good effort to providing some sensible limits on what otherwise could have been an endeavour that encompassed everything and achieved relatively little.

The benefit of this lesson to those involved in humanitarian policies is that a framework for the sorts of longer-term complex crises that they need to begin to think about preventing and preparing for is urgently required. It does not mean that within that framework, all permutations and possibilities about such future crises will be encompassed. It does mean that at least the international community – as with the MDGs – can at least begin the practical process of prioritising and approaching long-term prevention and preparedness with more consistency and coherence than is the case today.

To date there have been various international efforts to develop prevention and preparedness strategies. The 1994 Yokohama Strategy for a Safer Wold provides landmark guidance on reducing disaster risk and the impacts of disasters. The UN’s International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction in the 1990’s continues in an even more robust form known as the International Strategy for Disaster Reduction. The latter is closely linked to the Hyogo Framework of Action that was produced in 2005 in the aftermath of the Tsunami, and reflects a brad global consensus on the need to take action know to reduce the natural, environmental and technological hazards that the international community faces.

These are important initiatives and indeed reflections of an acknowledged need to address humanitarian crises in a more consistent way. Yet, at the same time they address for the most part what is known and is evident. The challenge for those with humanitarian roles and responsibilities is to develop a longer-term strategic focus on future crises and vulnerabilities, to set the bounds for a framework of action and to prioritise what funding requirements will be needed to ensure the sort of long-term prevention and preparedness initiatives that will be needed as the 21st century moves into its second and third decades. These are lessons that should have emerged from the international community’s Millennium Development Goals.



International Peace Commission

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