Implementing the Millennium Development Goals: Our Human Rights Obligation page – 12

Implementing the Millennium Development Goals: Our Human Rights Obligation

Conference Report, Ottawa, 8-9 June, 2005

Mobilizing Civil Society

Mary Corkery, Executive Director, KAIROS
As a member of the faith-based organization KAIROS: Canadian Ecumenical Justice Initiatives, Mary Corkery emphasised the importance of mobilizing civil society as a vehicle for fundamental changes in power relations.

While most regard the question as whether or not NGOs can mobilize civil society in Canada and around the globe in support of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), Corkery said she believes it is important to stand the issue on its head. In other words, the question is whether or not the NGOs can mobilize the MDGs and the Make Poverty History campaign to help civil society work for deep and lasting structural change.

Corkery referred to the current demobilizing context in which people are working for change. For example, the United States administration frames an armed invasion to protect its economic interests as a war defending democracy. The struggle to respond within these frameworks, at times, disempowers and further impoverishes the poor and marginalized. Therefore, to achieve social justice, it is necessary to change the framework within which the struggle is waged. It is the responsibility of civil society organizations to lift the voices of the disadvantaged and strengthen their roles.

The struggle for justice will likely never be over, Corkery said. The fact that some will work within the system for change while others will “take to the streets” is a good thing. “Dissonance is a higher form of harmony,” she stated. It is necessary to have all these aspects to make the MDGs work.

One has to frame ideas in the context of deep structural change over the long term. KAIROS’s framework is ethically and spiritually based. It has a rights-based approach to all development and a belief in the integrity of creation and the inherent dignity of every human being. The organization has given priority to three of the MDGs, the first (eradicate extreme poverty and hunger), the sixth (combat HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases), and the eighth (build a global partnership for development) and has identified steps to help realize them.

Corkery concluded by saying that civil society can mobilize the MDGs for change to benefit the poor and marginalized, who will ultimately be the judges of the success of these efforts.


Roy Culpeper, President, North-South Institute
Human rights and political freedoms are fundamental to any holistic conception of development. Culpeper referred to the third Arab Human Development Report, entitled Towards Freedom in the Arab World, which states that there can be no progress in human development in the Arab world without ending tyranny and securing fundamental rights and freedoms. Culpeper sees human rights as including the right to be free from hunger and the right to development. Therefore, human rights and development “are one and the same thing, integral to each other.”

In an appearance before the standing committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade to testify on Canada’s International Policy Statement, Culpeper argued that it lacked an overarching policy framework at its core to inform all its international policies. He contended that the Millennium Declaration and the MDGs should “provide an overarching framework around which all of Canada’s international policies should be coherent.” This would involve enlisting the MDGs in terms of policy transformation within Canada and social and economic transformation abroad.

The North-South Institute recently launched a special report, entitled Mobilizing for Change: Messages from Civil Society which contains the results of a survey of over 400 civil society organizations over the world, working at global, national, and subnational levels. Culpeper stated that the MDGs represent the minimum agenda and, to a degree, retreat from the kinds of commitments that were made in the 1990s. Therefore, they need to be not only achieved but built on. The report identifies four key messages to be addressed to world leaders. These are: keep the promises made in the Millennium Declaration; go beyond the implementation of the MDGs to attack the roots of the problems; strengthen the United Nations to ensure the development of social justice, peace, and security in the world; and commit the necessary human and financial resources to all of these ends.

Culpeper stated his belief that the 0.7% target of $25 billion in foreign aid by 2015 is achievable. Although the Department of Finance has for the past 10 years claimed that Canada does not have the funds, the individuals at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives who prepared the Alternative Federal Budget claim that the government will continue to have an annual surplus of $5 to $10 billion. Therefore, Canada could honour its commitment by 2015 without incurring any deficit.

In his concluding remarks, Culpeper emphasized the need to go beyond the MDGs and attack the roots of poverty. Even in those countries where the use of aggregate data gives the impression that they are on target, there are huge pools of poverty and inequality. Unless these kinds of disparities are kept in mind, there is no surety that “the most seriously affected, the most marginalized, will find any promise or future for themselves or their families or for their future generations.”


Anna Nitoslawska, International Programme Administrator, Canadian Labour Congress (CLC)
The final presenter, Anna Nitoslawska, spoke of the labour movement’s views about the MDGs, as well as its actions on the MDGs nationally and internationally. Organized labour shares some of the concerns expressed during the conference concerning the MDGs:

  • They were developed from the top down with little input or cooperation from civil society.
  • They do not consider power discrepancies within and between countries.
  • They fail to build on previous commitments made at UN conferences, especially the Copenhagen Summit of 1995, which recognized the importance of full employment as an indispensable strategy to eradicate poverty.
  • They fail to take into account the fact that the policies of international financial institutions have contributed to the spread of poverty.
  • They do not refer to the systemic weaknesses and structural barriers to development.


Nitoslawska stated the labour movement recognizes that this year provides a special opportunity for progress in achieving the MDGs, especially in the areas of debt relief and foreign aid. She stressed, however, that it is important to identify weaknesses in the MDGs in order to enhance the possibility of making a real difference. The labour movement emphasizes that decent, quality work must be an integral component of a global anti-poverty agenda. Anti-poverty work is at the core of labour union work. In its Philadelphia Declaration of 1944, the International Labour Organization (ILO) states that “poverty anywhere is a threat to prosperity everywhere.”

In 1998, the world’s governments adopted an ILO declaration on fundamental principles and rights at work as a commitment to uphold basic human values. The declaration includes eight key conventions in four areas: freedom of association, elimination of forced labour, the abolition of child labour, and the elimination of discrimination in the workplace. These are binding on all ILO member organizations even if they have not ratified one or more of these conventions.

Referring to Stephen Lewis’s contention that huge resources are necessary to achieve the MDGs, Nitoslawska stated that the resources are there, but questioned the existence of the necessary political will. She made specific reference to a recent edition of The Ottawa Citizen in which two articles were juxtaposed. One reported George Bush’s rejection of Tony Blair’s proposal of more money for Africa; the other dealt with the $1 trillion spent last year on military and security hardware, of which almost one-half was spent by the United States.

The labour movement supports the contribution of 0.7% of GDP, but it supports other anti-poverty initiatives as well. Among these are 100% debt relief for the poorest countries working to respect human rights, investing in people by providing access to education and health, and participating in the Make Poverty History campaign.

Nitoslawska expressed labour’s disappointment that the current minority government had not put forward any significant, progressive legislation or social policies and that the recent international policy statement hides the human rights dimension behind commercial interests and the security agenda. She stated that the federal government is missing an opportunity by not tapping into the CLC’s approximately three million dues-paying worker-activists involved in their communities and aware of international activities.

In closing, Nitoslawska noted that in 10 years’ time, participants will gather to assess the world’s progress with respect to the MDGs. She expressed her hope that rather than an autopsy or a post mortem, the occasion would be a celebration of the real achievement of making poverty history.


Questions and Discussion

A participant asked for comment on the misleading use of aggregated information in reporting on MDG achievements, and Canada’s failure to apply the MDGs domestically.

Praising the work done by local churches in Peru establishing collectives to aid women and children, another participant remarked that there is a need to work together locally to identify root causes of problems and to effect change.

A participant recognized the importance of the first steps of having dialogue, but asked what specific actions could be taken by civil society on the issues discussed over the past two days.

Using the West Wing as an example of a genuine issue embedded in fiction, another participant questioned how entertainment could be used to support public awareness of the problems addressed by the MDGs.

Referring to the need for Canada to measure progress on the MDGs domestically to be credible on the international stage, a participant asked how Canada could be encouraged to adopt Norway’s “umbrella approach,” which requires all government departments to measure their endeavours against human rights and the MDGs.

Finally, a participant observed that the rights are in key covenants and labour standards. He stressed the importance of a national protection system for each country.

In reply, Culpeper agreed that disaggregated information would be powerful and cited the example of the Alternative Federal Budget to support this. He continued that democratizing policy, especially the budget process, would lead to disaggregation. With respect to monitoring the effectiveness of donor groups, Culpeper observed that more of this reverse accountability is needed and referred to the Independent Monitoring Group as a practical example.

Corkery discussed disaggregation in the context of the regular monitoring of the numerous conventions that Canada has signed. Corkery stated that while money is critical, new trade rules and debt reduction are imperative to ensure that developing nations eradicate poverty. Further, she stressed the need to rethink liberation theology because in order to liberate people one must liberate all of creation.

Nitoslawska noted that disaggregating data is necessary to tailor strategy and prioritize measures to allow the achievement of the MDGs. She agreed that art is a powerful tool in making people aware of issues, and cited working with CUSO in Mozambique on a project using art to increase women’s awareness of HIV/AIDS. On the issue of applying the MDGs to Canada, Nitoslawska stated that civil society organizations are working on a whole range of issues, focusing on eliminating poverty at home, but observed that there is a great deal of work left to do.

Culpeper concluded by stating that the MDGs provide the agenda to hold governments and international agencies accountable. The MDGs provide the strategic opening, but civil society can mobilize to pressure the government and international organizations to go beyond the MDGs.