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Terms without meaning

At the UN Assembly in September 2000 world leaders pledged, “We recognise that, in addition to our separate responsibilities to our individual societies, we have a collective responsibility to uphold the principles of human dignity, equality and equity at global level. As leaders we have a duty therefore to all the world’s people, especially the most vulnerable and, in particular, the children of the world, to whom the future belongs” as they endorsed the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

The first of those goals was to, “free our fellow men, women and children from the abject and dehumanising conditions of extreme poverty, to which more than a billion of them are currently subjected. We are committed to making the right to development a reality for everyone and to freeing the human race from want.”

This was good news, as there was a recognition of collective responsibility, importance of human dignity, equality and equity and focus on the vulnerable, especially children. The fact that economics is the key driver for achieving this vision was recognised by putting elimination of poverty at the top of the agenda. However, it seems unlikely that the world will be able to achieve the MDGs.

According to the UNDP director for Asia and the Pacific, Haoliang Xu, rising income and gender inequalities are the main development challenges. Now there is talk of restating the goals as SGDs or Sustainable Development Goals. And again eradicating poverty and promoting equality remains at the top of the agenda. The fact, though, is that unless we understand the root cause of poverty and inequality, there can be no progress in that area. In fact the rest of the goals, whether developmental or sustainable, are linked to and dependent on promoting equality and eliminating poverty.

Let’s expand on the concept of equality. Generally critics of equality say that we can never have an ‘equal’ world since each person is born with different talents, has different aptitude, level of ambition, acquires different skills and has different personal preferences and agendas in life. And they are right.

So then what is equality? In simple words, it is when every child born in this world will have equal access to all the opportunities and resources to be able to become what he or she wants to become and achieve in this life. There will be no discrimination based on race, religion, gender, nationality, ethnicity etc. This means that family history, wealth, social standing, and political clout will not be the determining factor in a child’s ability to develop and use his/her talents to the fullest.

Every child will start from the same starting point. How they reach the finish line will vary according to each person’s individual strengths and unique abilities. Equality does not eliminate differences; rather it enhances and polishes the diverse capabilities of people and makes this world a better and more interesting place. At the same time it is important that the basic needs of all citizens of this world are met, regardless of their strengths and weaknesses, preserving their self-respect, dignity, and integrity.

Due to technological advances there is enough production capacity in the world now where ‘freeing of the human race from want’ is not a distant vision but a target within our reach. As members of the human race we owe this to each other to ensure achievement of this target.

At the heart of the matter is the question, of how we achieve this equality. The state of nutrition, access to education, ability to get timely and proper healthcare, living environment, nurturing and grooming of one’s natural talents that only money can buy, opportunity to travel, appreciation of art and music are all closely linked to financial resources.

A child born to parents with money will be far ahead to one born to those who can barely make ends meet. That gap may be bridged occasionally through hard work and luck but the majority of the children will have to be content with the cards they are handed at the time of their birth. This inequality is manmade and can be overcome through proper restructuring of the economic system. There is nothing divine about it. Economic systems have changed through ages and will continue to do so. Our responsibility is to direct this change towards a more egalitarian system.

Some broad characteristics of this egalitarian system will be: ownership of all natural resources and wealth-generating sources to belong to all people, elimination of accumulation of wealth through generations, an end to interest and rent-seeking activities and an end to the exploitation of those who work hard to produce wealth.

The fact that the current economic system is grossly unfair and tilted in favour of those who currently control wealth and power has been alluded to in the UNDP and other organisations’ documents by using terminology such as promoting inclusive development and economic institutions, inclusive and transparent intergovernmental process, improved governance, keeping people at the centre of development etc.

But these are meaningless terms and phrases. What needs to be stated openly and bluntly is that elimination of poverty, whether under MDGs or SDGs, cannot be achieved without fundamental economic restructuring, redistribution of wealth, and balancing the scale of money and power equally for everyone.

Email: shahnazk@gmail.com

Dr. Shahnaz Khan, "Terms without meaning," The News. 2014-04-18.
Keywords: Social sciences , Economics , Socioeconomic issues , Economic needs , Economic crisis , Social aspects , Natural resources , Poverty , Children , Pakistan , UNDP , MDG