The Challenge of Reaching the Millennium Development Goals

Elizabeth Peredo Beltran - December, 2010

Guest Column

Elizabeth Peredo Beltran is a social psychologist and director of the Solon Foundation (Bolivia), a recognized institution for its work on human rights, arts and culture. As an activist, she has been promoting an International Tribunal on Climate Justice. The Challenge of Reaching the MDGs is an edited version of the intervention she delivered at the ‘Stand up & Take Action Sunday’ at the Lincoln Center in New York September 19, 2010.

Typically discussion about the Millennium Developing Goals (MDGs) leads to numbers, numbers and the sad recognition that despite the fact that advances have been made in the fight against poverty, with only five years to go before 2015, the deadline established for achieving the MDGs, we are still far from having eradicated poverty in the world. Indeed, today 1 billion people do not have access to clean water and 2.4 billon lack access to sanitation. Women in poor countries take more than 4 hours per day to bring water for their families. And 24,000 children in developing countries die every day from preventable causes, like diarrhea contracted from unclean water.

The MDGs remain far from our reach, probably because we talk only about poverty, not inequality. We do not talk about the distances that separate human beings from one another; leaders do not face the challenge of discussing the real causes. This would mean acknowledging that the 500 richest families in the world have more than the poorest 500 million people in the world and that the most powerful 20 economies include not only countries but also large transnational economies. The gaps between rich and poor people shatter the very essence of our humanity; these gaps denounce the large historical debt owed to the poorest in the world. Even within the borders of rich countries, there are too many poor people, and the gaps are broadening as the impact of this capitalist and consumerist society deepens.

Moreover, poverty does not come alone; it is joined to vulnerability—vulnerability to the impacts of climate change that worsen daily. During the first eight months of 2010, which followed the frustrating Copenhagen Summit, many climate events all over the world affected the poorest: in Russia, Pakistan, Central America, South America, just to quote some. And these tragedies increased the numbers of the poor and the vulnerable. It is undeniable.

These climate events should remind us that the risks we are facing now are different from those we faced 10 years ago. The risks are too great and will impact severely on the MDGs if rich and developed countries do not substantially reduce their greenhouse emissions, giving back to the planet the ¨space” it needs to breathe again, and if they do not honor their historical debt by transferring substantial financial support and clean technologies to the developing countries.

In my home country, La Paz, Bolivia, we are losing our glaciers faster than expected. In the Andean Region millions of persons will be affected by the melting of the glaciers. This will affect their access to water and to food because hundreds of rural communities depend on the ecological balance provided by the ice-capped mountains. Scientists say that our glaciers have no more than 50 years left. But we did not cause this climate crisis. 80% of the greenhouse gases in the air is produced by the 20% of the world population concentrated in developed countries. The richest countries and the richest people in the world conceive the planet to be a Resource, which can be consumed, while our common sense cries that it is our Home.

Therefore, we are convinced that we cannot fight poverty, nor can we avoid the danger of self-destruction, if we do not acknowledge the need to restore our equilibrium with Nature and if we do not propose to change the basis of our mercantile society and overcome the deep distances between human beings. We need a real systemic change.

Of course the dream of material riches and success sold every day by the media is attractive, but not attainable by all. We cannot keep on fostering these dreams without thinking of the global community and our common wealth—without the consciousness that we cannot grow “forever”. We already know that if everybody in this world were to live at the same level of consumption as the medium current average in the rich countries, we would need far more than three planets to survive. That is why, in Bolivia, people are beginning to develop a new concept that promotes the principle of the SUMA QAMAÑA, words in Quechua that mean LIVING WELL. It is now a part of our new Constitution. With that concept we promote the idea that we have to expect to live well, not better, because the word “better” suggests unending growth and unlimited enrichment that, for us, is not possible. It is not possible simply because it would consume all the biodiversity and life in the planet; it would deepen the distances between people. We have to begin conceiving of development and wealth in a different way: as equilibrium and equality, as harmony with Nature, as empathy between people. We cannot fight poverty by investing more in wars and weapons than in people. One cannot talk about the MDGs while increasing at the same time racial intolerance and marginalization. If words could change the world we would have been living in a very different world decades ago. People have the will to change but we need to convince our leaders to really be committed to the demands of the planet and to be persistent in their efforts to respond.