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Evelyn Reid

Montreal Millennium Summit: Laudable Goals, Confusing Numbers

By April 24, 2010

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Sitting in on the fourth edition of an event essentially serving as a yearly check-in to see how the United Nation's 8 Millennium Goals are coming along, I spent last Thursday listening to what Montreal Millennium Summit speakers had to say about poverty and climate change, taking in appearances by Duchess of York Sarah Ferguson, Jacques Cousteau's grandson Philippe Jr., Sex and the City's Kristin Davis and former American vice-president Al Gore. And in all honesty, the experience left me more confused about international aid than before I attended the Summit.

According to UN statistics as presented at the conference, extreme poverty worldwide is halved from what it was in 1981, an alleged testament to foreign aid success and the possibility that the UN's eight development goals can be achieved by target year 2015. What wasn't mentioned quite so clearly was that those numbers are from 2005, years before the global financial crisis took hold. I'm assuming that 1.4 billion living on less than $1.25 U.S. a day is a statistical understatement in today's economic climate.

And not everyone agrees that earning a daily income above $1.25 a day actually relieves oneself of the horrors of extreme poverty. According to economist Dambisa Moyo -- author of the controversial anti-aid book, Dead Aid -- extreme poverty is apparently more prevalent today than it was in 1981, at least in Africa. Moyo claims only 10% of Africans were "living in dire economic consequences" in the '70s whereas today, over 70% live on $2 or less a day.

Granted, Moyo is only talking about Africa whereas UN's 1.4 billion represents extreme poverty worldwide. But what's bugging me is their differing definitions of extreme poverty. Why did Moyo, who was born and raised in Zambia, choose $2/day as her extreme poverty marker instead of the World Bank's $1.25/day? Is she saying that living on $2/day -- which by the World Bank's definition removes one from the category of extreme poverty -- still equals a life of destitution, powerlessness and zero social mobility? In other words, is the United Nations playing with the numbers to make itself look like it's achieved a halving milestone when it's done nothing of the sort, is Moyo manipulating figures to support her case against foreign aid or do we have a case of a-bit-of-Column-A-and-a-bit-of-Column-B? Or is it none of the above? By the way, Moyo used to work for the World Bank.

Then, climate change advocate Al Gore's presence at the 2010 edition of the Summit only added to my confusion. In his speech, he cited overpopulation as one of two causes of climate change, which he explained can be mitigated by addressing Millennium Goals: reduce poverty, increase education, promote gender equality, and decreased birth rates will follow. The other cause of climate change as per Gore is technology that produces carbon dioxide emissions, which leads to a question mark that arguably raised as many eyebrows as it did resigned shoulder shrugs: the Montreal Millennium Summit's major sponsor, according to the Journal de Montréal's Mathieu Turbide, is indirectly linked to Alberta's tar sands, Canada's fastest growing source of greenhouse gas emissions. Unfortunately, Gore could not be reached for comment by any press members as he was ushered away from the Summit post-speech to reportedly catch a flight.

One of the highlights of the day -- Al Gore stomping with power and purpose through the Palais des congrès hallways surrounded by an extensive entourage -- turned out to be one of the low points of my career as I dashed to frame the former vice head of state in his chiseled glory. But your humble guide's photo ops instincts failed miserably: he wasn't on his way to a power lunch nor primed to discuss policy in private audience. Gore was headed to the bathroom. Photo © Evelyn Reid

Then there's the unbelievably complex issue of foreign aid's effectiveness in the first place. Some claim that for the most part, international aid doesn't work. Others say aid works sometimes. Millennium Summit speaker Hugh Evans admitted onstage that, "some people say to you that aid is part of the problem. And actually, I've got to say that sometimes they're right." But the charismatic humanitarian behind the Global Poverty Project presented examples of effective aid, spelling out that listening to what a community says it needs and then assisting the group in bringing a project to fruition instead of just throwing aid in their direction in a form that one thinks they need, are key.

But how are we supposed to know who is providing aid the "right" way? Who is the watchdog ensuring the world of foreign aid doesn't fall prey to the corruption Evans cited as a major barrier to ending extreme poverty? Which organizations should the average Canadian believe and support? And most of all, what can we realistically do as a collective to make these Millennium Goals achievable by 2015?

If any of you have answers to these questions, please, leave a comment below or contact me directly.


April 27, 2010 at 2:06 pm
(1) Jacques says:

Thanks for a clear, critical overview of the questions relating to aid programs & policies. There is no simple ‘tabloid’ model possible for these issues … I respect your reluctance to analyze beyond the known facts just to be able to offer a loud critical opinion. Your reportage was much more eco-friendly than the average, in that your readers didn’t have to use any toilet paper after reading!

I don’t always comment, but I do appreciate your refreshingly candid & realistic approach to the topics you cover for us.

Thanks again.


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