Salil Shetty is the Director of the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) Campaign. The campaign aims to promote the MDG globally and secure increased buy-in, not just from governments, but civil society stakeholders. The Millennium Campaign aims to mobilise North and South to achieve the MDGs. Salil’s work focuses particularly on helping the Campaign unit galvanise campaigns in the South by stimulating national political debate and harnessing existing national and regional networks and social movements in support of the MDGs. In a telephonic interview with Jayalakshmi Chittoor, Salil Shetty shares his extraordinary understanding of global and local development issues.
I read in a report that a group of parliamentarians are proposing for a new MDG-9 on sexual and reproductive rights. Is the Campaign looking at these kinds of proposals?
There are many people who have been suggesting various amendments to the Goals, which were adopted during the Millennium Summit in 2000. It is not just the case of sexual and reproductive rights issues along. There are some who feel human rights should be the Goal 9. There are many such proposals.
Folks from the environment side have been giving suggestions. After the September 2005 MDG +5 Summit, where the heads of state are meeting 5 years after they signed up, to review progress, an expert group will be looking at the goals, the targets and indicators to see whether there is any case to making any change, etc.
I am sure that there will be some possibility to look at the targets and indicators. In fact as it happens, on the gender question, which is where the reproductive rights issues, gets covered focuses on gender equality and empowerment.
As far as the Campaign is concerned, we do strongly believe there is a strong case to bring in sexual and reproductive rights as well the issue of violence against women.
Can you tell us about the concerns on addressing the issues relating to disability?
None of these goals are new or are meant to substitute what has been agreed in other UN commitments and other processes.
In case of sexual and reproductive rights, the Millennium Development Goals are not meant to be replacing that the Cairo IPCD commitments or the Beijing commitment.
These are tools to mobilise the political will for the achievement of previous commitments. Not a single word in the Millennium declaration or in the MDG was invented at the Millennium Summit. It is a summary of various UN commitments.
The declaration is a much more powerful document than the goals which are kind of short hand because from a communication point of view. You cannot present 15 pages to the public when you are trying to communicate through mass media etc. This is useful for the general public.
For those interested in the intricacies of international development issues, we have the declaration and other documents that we can go back to.
Are the regional differences well perceived at the national levels or the regional levels with respect to MDGs?
Millennium goals are meant to be international mobilising tools for political will to be created in order to achieve some of the basic needs of the vast majority of people in the world but there was never a conception or expectation that these goals are kind of global targets. You cannot achieve anything at the global level. Ultimately things are to be achieved at the national level and local level. These goals are to be adopted and defined in the local and national contexts, which provide broad guidelines. Most countries are adapting.
Vietnam, for example, has laid the targets rather low as compared to global goals. They have defined it as Vietnam Development Goals.
In the case of India, Government of India has translated and interpreted the MDGs in the context of the tenth five-year plans because it is meaningless talking of global goals in the Indian context. India is a big country, and even national goals are a bit meaningless if you look at it state-wise.
The real action is at national level, which is equally relevant from the point of view of women rights, etc.
Many countries have adapted the global goals at the national level and brought in a whole lot of issues like gender, sexual and reproductive rights, as they should.
OECD DAC is using MDG as their performance indicators. They have reframed their own DAC agenda. Is it re-diverting resources into programmes that are more macro-scale and actually missing that micro-support that came from these agencies. Could these translate into concerns?
I don’t know how familiar you are with OECD DAC target, because it is interesting. OECD DAC target preceded theMillennium Goals. In fact, MDG were partly inspired by OECD DAC targets. The main difference is in the Goal 8 which states the responsibilities of the rich countries are particularly in relation of trade and debt. Having a global set of parameters by which we can measure progress is very useful to understand international development.
In the EU context, we have seen the results of tighter monitoring. Without the MDG being there or this kind of monitoring happening, we would not have seen, for the first time 2 or 3 decades, an increase in International Development Assistance or overseas aid.
Five or six countries within EU have actually for the first time last year put down a definite date to get the 0.7% commitment in aid. Advocacy continues to play a key role in this.
We are strongly of the view that it is not the business of the donors to see how the money should be spent in sense of that level of detail. That should be nationally defined. The role of the donor is to provide assistance if required.
The countries should be accountable to their own people first and to the donor second in the way in which they spend money, but if every donor starts saying, you spent it in x, y, z ways, then it creates a mess.
That is why we are in such a mess as in many African countries, which are heavily donor dependent, and have to succumb to the endless donor interference and conditionalities in their proposals. It is equally bad for donors to spend the money on micro-projects, as it is to spend on micro-issues. Let these be national decisions.
How can we actually make things more participatory, especially in non-trade issues? For example, issues of human labour, of forest use and management are being decided by international bodies. People are losing control over issues like climate change, forests, deserts. Please comment on Goal 8 and the WTO processes.
I think we have to take it case by case. There is a meta-issue about global governance. There is a kind of voice of developing countries. The developing countries could exercise the one-member one-vote power only if they could operate in block spaces.
Potentially, it shows the power of WTO getting democratised, but if you ask me, that should these issues be dealt with WTO at all? We would strongly say that labour issues should not be brought into the WTO. That is very much in the realm of ILO, otherwise it could be a bad way of bringing in protectionism by rich countries.
The good thing about multi-lateralism is that developing countries have some chance of coming together and challenging the prosperous. Then case-by-case, we can look at issues like intricacies of international property rights, indigenous knowledge systems, etc.
There are lots of issues we can talk about but as far as we are concerned, trade, aid, debt, etc. are very much part our Campaign issues. We have got papers on our website on issues www.millenniumcampaign.org
Numerous small and medium enterprises (SMEs) and people engaged in home trade sector don’t even know what is hitting them or if they are violating some international agreements. How does the Campaign address the issues like indigenous knowledge which the communities have held and haven’t put their work in the international patenting system?
Just in terms of role of Campaign. We have some views of our own. The Millennium Campaign is a very small outfit that can do little on its own. There are big Campaigns happening on trade like the Trade Justice Movement, (TJM) is working closely with Global Action Against Poverty. Many other trade groups are part of this group now. In a sense, trade in also getting now complex dimension. It is quite hard for everyone to work on these issues. There is a whole lot of detailed work that needs to be done.
We are working at least on two or three top line issues like subsidies and defensive treatment. These two, we are constantly harping on every possible occasion. Trade absolutely is only a means and the end has to be the achievement of goal and poverty eradication.
The problem we have in the last decade or so is that trade has become an end in itself. If it does not help to improve the quality of lives of large majority of citizens then we don’t need this kind of trade. That is the kind of headline position we want to raise and lots of details can be argued under that.
How has your experience of Action Aid helped you in the Millennium Campaign? I know you have been one of the people who turned Action Aid into a leading advocacy group.
In many ways, I don’t see the work I do in the Campaign as different from what I have done in the last 20 years of my life. That is, working on poverty and justice issues.
The platform is slightly different, because the UN has unusually created a space for a semi-autonomous group to work within the UN system. The UN procedures and inter-governmental thinking do not tie us down. We don’t have to take permission from the General Assembly or any body to talk about something. We have been given a kind of half-in-half-out status. So we can say a lot more than normal UN agencies can. So, I am happy that everything that I have done before is directly relevant to what I am doing in this job because the issues are the same.
To date, we have not applied our mind and we have not put adequate resources behind it and in fact it is not a question of rich countries having not put their best, but some of our own developing countries have also not helped. In each of these countries, the resources are not going to the right things either at national levels or at international levels.
If you look at domestic budgets of most national governments, it shows that we have been lot undecided in terms of where the resources are flowing.
Where do you see ICTs playing a role in MDG implementation, which becomes targets and indicators for action plans for governments, NGOs, etc.?
Generally speaking, technology and influence of technology is not different. It is unfortunate because we are bringing in a new set of innovations that are very unequal or further accentuates pre-existing structures of distribution of resources. Effectively, this becomes a new form or new axis of inequality. It becomes another device to increase inequality or poverty.
Most of these things have the potential of becoming something that can actually be empowering and poverty reducing, but right now I do not see that happening at all.
Even in India, which is becoming an ICT giant globally and there are many projects, we are not yet seeing the impact. I know some of the companies individually are trying to do something but in terms of impact they are actually making serious difference to the lives of poor people is minimum. Actually there is lot to be done and very little has been done.
We can go into the question of how ICT can help on goal-by-goal basis. You can take livelihood and obviously there is a huge prospect there. You can take education, or health and with a bit of extra planning, we can make a huge difference using ICTs. Technology can help if it is done in a right way.
If you take something like Malaria, the vaccines are just a year or two years away in terms of research and development but nobody wants to look at the side effects because malaria is not a poor people’s disease. Which pharmaceutical company really wants to spend money and time on this? ICT has become like this. ICT is not a priority for poor people. ICT for development is not a priority for industry or even government. We need to make it one.
There are about 30,000 ICT4D projects being implemented in India. Many are very small scale, local and some very innovative. There are people in decision-making positions in governments who need to understand this vividly because they have not moved out of their desks for years. What are your thoughts?
You are absolutely right, there is a big job ahead. Anything that you can think of by which the Campaign can help, we are happy to do so.
ICT is part of Goal 8 (Target 18) if you look at the details of the goal, and in other goals, ICTs are interlinked and is enabling. ICT is one of the things that are crosscutting. If you have any thoughts on what we can do, we will be really happy to do that.
How does the recent tsunamis affect targets we have set to achieve? It has just kicked us all out of gear.
As it happens, India and Indonesia, two of the largest countries in terms of population have been affected, as have Sri Lanka, Thailand and some other countries in Africa.
I don’t think it is going to make much of the difference because small part of the country is affected. But obviously, if you look at it from the point of human rights, in which if even one citizen or one human being is affected, that is of concern to us.
Tsunami is obviously something that has pulled back seriously for those particular areas and those particular people. It has set us back definitely by almost a decade if not more. But given that these are big countries this won’t make difference in aggregate terms.
Sri Lanka is slightly different. Sadly in the case of Indonesia and Sri Lanka, the worst hit areas are also the areas, which are in internal conflict, and that is not helping either.
The interesting paradox in the situation is one of the few disasters of this scale which has affected the significant number of people from rich countries also. This being holiday destination, we have a huge number of islands of people from Nordic countries and UK affected as well and not just for that reason but because of the media impact. There is a huge overwhelming response from public.
This has been a very positive development for the Campaign, for the work we are trying to do because we are always told that No! No! this is not politically important because people don’t care about these issues. Public in the north and rich countries don’t care. How do we expect political leaders to take action on these issues? That myth has been exploded. It is an equaliser in a sense.
Another myth is that the public in the rich countries do not care. This is absolutely not true. It is just that there has not been much media attention for long term poverty issues. We are kind of challenging the media by saying that, do we want always keep waiting for the tsunami to raise the issue? Can we come up with a long-term plan on education, development and governments?
How can we engage youth in the MDG Programmes? In the Campaign do you work with some youth groups?
Ours is not an MDG Programme. MDG implementation is the national governments’ responsibility and they already have their own plans and programmes. There is nothing new or different with MDG label.
Young people have the enthusiasm that is unmatched. They don’t have this fatigue and cynicism that other people have. They are only interested in how do we achieve the goals and let us get on with it. “What we can do, let us do” kind of approach.
We have been involved with all the major youth organisations. We plan to use youth icons to which young people relate. Like people from MTV. We will focus a lot on youth who take MDG seriously and for whom the matter is of the future.
How serious is the HIV/AIDS concern that the next generation might disappear in some countries? Is that concern true or is that an alarm statement?
When we talk about Africa, there is no question of talking about anything else without talking about HIV. There are many young people seriously affected.
There is a huge amount of uncertainty as to exactly what this means in the South Asian context. The numbers range from being very small to very huge number people, particularly in India. I know that in China and Eastern European countries, the numbers are not looking good.
The situation in India hit me only when I actually started spending time in Africa. Alarmingly, there is also a kind of inertia. In the early 80’s, people thought it was something not hitting Africa.
Now it is a totally different ball game. 25-30 % of people are living with HIV/AIDS in a place like Africa. You know one in four people are HIV positive. That is a mind-blowing number.
What is the situation in India?
It is totally unclear as far India is concerned. But constantly raising the issue is important, as the situation in India is potentially a kind of time bomb. Of course, it is related to our sexual behavior. There is also a kind of hypocrisy in India. We are kind of puritanical about our sexual behaviour. The reality is different. It is not as open as it is in Africa and we in India pretend that the problem does not exist.
Tell me little bit about your team?
We took a view right in the beginning, that we should be a bureaucracy because this is a Campaign. By definition it is meant to take the goals to the people. We are not going to be able to do that by creating a bureaucracy sitting in New York.
We are thus a small team of 8 people. We work completely on partnership basis with networks of existing Campaign organisations. We are not creating anything new. The MDG framework helps to create some additional energy. We are just working with existing groups and supporting them in whatever way we can.
How can one become partners to this Campaign?
We don’t have anything formal as there is nothing formal about it. If you think the goals make sense, and are something that you want to work with, we can talk about it in specific terms or general terms.
We have our website. You can write to it. You can put your name to it. You can link our website to yours. It is a very open, unstructured process. From the civil society side you might find it easier to fit in some ways.
There is a global Campaign called Global Action Against Poverty, which works very actively. I don’t know whether in the Indian context you have the possibility to raise awareness at government level.
We need to keep the focus on MDGs with respect to the 10th Five Year Plans and Common Minimum Programme implementation. We should not really focus on papers and documents, but want to get moving and want to see whether the things are reaching people or not. Reminding the Government of India to keep their promise.
When we say partnering, you can partner with Global Action Against Poverty and they have their own website (http://whiteband.org ). There are two key dates for the Campaign: The G-8 Summit in July and the Millennium Plus 5 meeting 10 of September. We have two white band days of action and they have got many-many plans of their own. As far we are concerned we have got petitions, etc. If you have concrete ideas, we can discuss further.