One Step Forward, Two Steps Apart on UN's Development Goals

Whether you're looking at the recession's impact at home or abroad, the news is universally grim. Last week's 2009 U.S. poverty statistics showed more Americans living in poverty than in the 51 years Washington has kept track.

Whether you're looking at the recession's impact at home or abroad, the news is universally grim. Last week's 2009 U.S. poverty statistics showed more Americans living in poverty than in the 51 years Washington has kept track. This week, President Obama will join the international community at the United Nations as leaders review progress on the development goals they set for poor countries a decade ago. The numbers so far add up to a bizarre kind of progress, one that reflects the global economy's costliest byproduct: a seemingly endless supply of inequality.

The Millennium Development Goals are two parts universal appeal and one part wishful thinking: The primarily aspirational guideposts include reducing child mortality, boosting access to education, curbing gender inequality, improving maternal health, combating HIV/AIDS, plus fostering environmental sustainability and international cooperation. Global economic growth has yielded some notable progress so far, particularly for "emerging" economies like China. But dozens of poor countries are likely to miss the 2015 "deadline" for reaching the development targets.

A deeper failure looms in the background: despite those strides by individual nations, the achievements have been undercut by wildly uneven distribution of outcomes. Poor countries, largely populated by people of color, face an abysmal gulf between their struggle for subsistence and "first world" affluence. This global inequality mirrors the one here at home, where the downturn has exposed systemic gaps between the privileged and the growing ranks of the impoverished.

A new report from the UN's children's division is telling. According to Unicef, a child born in sub-Saharan Africa in 1990 was about 18 times more likely to die before turning 5 years old than her peer in an industrialized country. But let's say that girl survived her first 18 years; her own child now faces an under-5 death rate 24 times higher than that seen in industrialized nations.

Not surprisingly, Unicef cites problems like malnutrition of women and children, poor sanitation and gender discrimination as major child-killers, particularly in chronically poor regions like South Asia. But what's significant and growing is the relative damage-or, the inequality. Unicef reports, "By 2008, these gaps had widened markedly, owing to faster progress elsewhere." So in retrospect, the promising tidal wave of "development" washing through the global economy didn't lift all boats equally. And with the global recession now plunging so many governments into fiscal crisis, you can expect politicians to retrench even further from sharing wealth across borders.

But a major lesson of the global recession is that a social system premised on privileging a few at the expense of everyone else is bad for all. It turns out that there's actually something inherently good about social equality.

The kind of leveling the recession has brought about, however, is not the kind we should be striving for. Once-stable households are joining the poorest at food pantries and the welfare office, having lost not only jobs but basic protections like health insurance and retirement savings (resources that the worst-off families never enjoyed to begin with). Widening poverty in the U.S. has forced millions into untenable choices-like being torn between paying off medical bills and staving off a foreclosure notice.

Yet, not all boats sink together, either. The recession's blow is compounded for poor people of color because "recovery" for them is more than waiting for the markets to bounce back. It's a generational struggle against structural discrimination. As opportunities narrow across the board, no matter how big the stimulus, any recovery plan will resurrect entrenched barriers unless it's built with an overarching consciousness of racial and gender inequity. Restoring the American middle class is vital, but the scale of the recession underscores the urgency of a different kind of restoration: restorative justice for those communities that have suffered generations of poverty and discrimination.

In impoverished areas of Mississippi, babies of color experience mortality rates comparable to those of extremely poor countries. In the nation's capital, we see black male AIDS rates on par with sub-Saharan Africa.

The American Human Development Project provides a stark analysis of inequality in America through a methodology based on the UN's Human Development Index:

  • African American life expectancy today is on par with that of the average American three decades ago;
  • In no U.S. states do African Americans, Latinos, or Native Americans earn more than Asian Americans or whites;
  • Asian Americans in New Jersey, with the highest Index scores, experience levels of well-being that, if current trends continue, the country as a whole will reach in about 50 years. At the other end of the spectrum, Native Americans in South Dakota lag more than a half-century behind the rest of the nation in terms of health, education, and income.

The swelling inequality exposed by the challenges of the Millennium Development Goals has global and local ripple effects. As the current economic calamity bottoms out and the cycle begins anew, now is a good time to refocus the lens through which we view the gaps between us. Yes, the most profound poverty is concentrated in the "developing world," but the same patterns of inequity, girded by racial, ethnic and gender divides, eat away at us from inside our borders. If social progress comes through individual social mobility, then government policies need to guide that movement in a way that broadly sustains basic human needs.

There are plenty of problems with the current international aid regime, which still hinges on blind commercial growth as opposed to economic justice. But we can start shifting priorities by adjusting our perspective: whether discussing fiscal stimulus or development aid for South Asia, equity can't be measured solely by what we have, or even by our freedom to acquire it; it's about our moral capacity to see the well-being of others as entwined with our own, for better or worse.

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