Putting life first

August 3, 2015, The Hindu

Original link is here

Photo of Samir Sir

Out of the 7 billion people that inhabit our planet, around 2 billion, still lack access to essential medicines and 925 million are chronically undernourished. Almost a third of all yearly human deaths are due to poverty-related causes. The richest 14 per cent of the world’s population have a mean life expectancy of 84, while the poorest 34 per cent live for only 36 years on average.

This situation represents a failure in the provision of a basic human right to “standard[s] of living adequate for the health and wellbeing” of an individual and his or her family, “including food, clothing, housing and medical care and [other] social services”, as highlighted in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights; these also constitute what is commonly referred to as the right to life.

International and multilateral processes continue to obfuscate the centrality of the right to life outlined in the 1948 Charter. The year 2015 is crucial for global agreements that establish the trajectories and paradigms of development. The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) are set to be replaced with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) at the UN General Assembly in September and negotiations on a new global treaty on climate change will culminate in Paris in December. The narrative of development in the 21 century will be defined by these two agreements. While the pursuit of European styled sustainability is important, the need to secure the right to life of each human should be paramount, unconditional and non-negotiable. The well-being of the planet holds no attraction for those excluded and the ambition to save it for future generations has little appeal unless we mobilise a wider set of ‘invested’ stakeholders.

The fact that the first of the newly delineated SDGs aims to “end poverty in all its forms everywhere” is promising, but the urgency of this objective could be drowned out by the wide proliferation of goals: 17 in total – with 169 targets. More goals will not translate into more funds to meet the goals. There is also concern that such targets could be turned into pre-conditions for flow of aid, whereby poverty alleviation efforts could be shackled by a focus on factors that are coloured by ideological considerations.

Key fault lines were again revealed by the informal substantive sessions leading up to the Financing for Development (FFD) conference in Addis Ababa this year. India and the rest of G77 warned against an overwhelming emphasis on environmental goals at the cost of poverty alleviation, and highlighted the principle of ‘additionality’ — new resources required over and above current Official Development Assistance (ODA) in implementing the SDGs. Contrastingly, the developed nations underscored the importance of sustainable economic practices, domestic resource mobilisation, and new financial instruments such as commodity-based derivatives.

Ultimately, the Addis Ababa Action Agenda adopted at the conference failed to yield concrete new proposals for additional funding that can be swiftly implemented to meet the world’s multiple challenges. Put simply, there was no new money brought to the table. Instead even the previous ambition of the rich countries to commit 0.7 per cent of Gross National Income as ODA remains only a statement of intent .

Worryingly, the Addis conference once again exposed the inequities present in global decision-making processes. The India-led initiative to upgrade the UN tax committee to an intergovernmental tax body yielded only symbolic gains (rallying together of the G-77) after developed countries blocked such efforts and instead argued that the OECD was taking the lead in such efforts. Over 100 developing countries thus continue to be excluded from decision-making processes on global tax standards. It is worth noting that lost tax revenue for development financing purposes in developing countries is estimated at over USD 300 billion annually. This dwarfs the total ODA financing for 2013 which stood at USD 135 billion. The process of building the post-2015 development agenda seems to be struggling to reconcile present needs like the eradication of poverty and hunger, with more value based goals. A worrying divergence in priorities has become apparent, a divergence that threatens to manifest itself in multilateral deals that neglect the need for survival of a large proportion of the world population.The economic and social compulsions faced by the poor must come first, ahead of value frameworks that are driven by first world priorities.  When more than a third of the world’s population does not live to see 40 on average, it is clear that securing the right to life for these people should be the only priority of global developmental processes. Can there ever be any shared values, if there is no agreement on the fundamental right to life?

(Samir Saran is vice-president at the Observer Research Foundation and tweets @samirsaran)


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