Two leading international policy experts at Columbia University are calling for more action from individual governments to address inequalities within their borders, in effect adding a bold new goal to the eight measurements of progress reflected in the Millennium Development Goals. Their proposal comes as debate swirls around what the United Nations needs to do when the goals’ deadline is reached in 2015 and some of them remain unmet.
The two scholars, Michael Doyle and Joseph Stiglitz — both former high-ranking officials in international organizations and acclaimed authors — writing in the current issue of the journal Ethics & International Affairs, note that the broad global measurements now in place often mask the great differences within countries. To say, for example, that extreme poverty has been reduced by half globally from its 1990 benchmark does not mean that the goal has been met everywhere, and that very deep deprivation continues in numerous places, measured not only in income but also in less quantifiable aspects of life. (Full disclosure, the journal is published by the Carnegie Council, of which I am a trustee.)
The authors argue for a Goal 9 to be added to the original eight goals adopted in 2000 by UN member nations. Those goals were designed to track global poverty, education levels, gender disparities, child and maternal health, disease control, environmental sustainability and partnerships in development.
Goal 9 would state: “Eliminate extreme inequality at the national level in every country.” Doyle and Stiglitz propose two specific targets:
1. By 2030, reduce extreme income inequalities in all countries, such that the post-tax income of the top 10 percent is not more than the post-transfer income of the bottom 40 percent. [By transfer income, the authors include subsidies for housing, child care and other services and assistance.]
2. By 2020, establish a public commission in every country that will assess and report on the effects of national inequalities.
“But countries differ not just in how unequal they are now but also in their culture, tolerance of inequality of various kinds, and capacity for social change,” Doyle, a former assistant secretary-general for policy planning at the UN, and Stiglitz, a former chief economist at the World Bank who won the 2001 Nobel Prize in economics, write. “Hence, the more important target is the second one: a national dialogue by 2020 on what should be done to address the inequalities of most relevance to the particular country.”
In other words, the public spotlight would be turned on the policies and actions of national governments that allow extreme inequalities, including inequality of opportunity, to persist. This is not a popular idea around the UN when development plans are drawn up and signed, based more on generalities and hopes than on specific demands.
It is not so far-fetched, however, to relate this new approach to the first principle of the Responsibility to Protect doctrine enshrined in a landmark 2005 General Assembly summit document. Just as national governments were charged with being the “first responders” to crises that threaten the lives of citizens — and countries, in fact, demanded to have their sovereignty protected from outside interference unless requested — they could now also be expected to be the lead actors in creating more just societies. That is their job.
The record so far has not been promising, as even a glance at global headlines in recent weeks demonstrate. The responsibility to protect has certainly not been invoked in Syria, where a polio epidemic is exploding because of government policies barring health campaigns in contested areas. The doctrine is not invoked in Nigeria, where the government has dithered over how to respond to the abduction of more than 200 schoolgirls by Islamic militants who oppose female education and boast that they can sell the captured girls as slaves.
It is playing a part in the current election in India, where the front-runner, a Hindu nationalist, is widely accused of allowing a massacre of Muslims to go on unopposed on his watch in 2002, leaving at least a thousand dead. Burmese leaders have been reluctant to safeguard Muslims under attack by Buddhist nationalists.
Inequalities — in economic, legal and social terms faced by women almost everywhere to one degree or another — would have to be considered under Goal 9. So would, it could be assumed, the marginalization of ethnic groups and gay, lesbian and transgender people, whose livelihoods and lives are often at risk.
“There are many dimensions to inequality — some with more invidious effects than others — and many ways to measure these inequalities,” Doyle and Stiglitz write. “One thing is certain, however: sustainable development cannot be achieved while ignoring extreme disparities. It is imperative that the post-MDG agenda have as one of its central points a focus on inequality.”
The lives of people within a nation’s borders, not global statistics, are what human development is all about.
Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.