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'The economic crisis is a blessing in disguise'

Feb 11, 2009

The Millennium Development Goals are achievable irrespective of the ongoing economic crisis if countries are persistent in their pro poor policies, says Erna Witoelar, former UN Special Ambassador for MDGs in Asia Pacific. In an interview with OneWorld South Asia, she shares her views on ways to get the goals on track.

Erna Witoelar has served as UN Special Ambassador for MDGs in Asia Pacific (2003-2007). She was also member of the Commission for Legal Empowerment of the Poor (2005-2008) and Minister of Human Settlements and Regional Development (1999-2001) in Indonesia.


She is currently chairing the Executive Board of the Partnership for Governance Reform and the Foundation for Local Governance Innovation in Indonesia. Simultaneously she also chairs the Asia Pacific Philanthropy Consortium based in Manila, the Philippines. In addition, she is on the board of several civil society organisations like the Indonesian Biodiversity Foundation, WWF Indonesia, the Indonesian Sustainable Development Foundation and the Earth Charter International based in Costa Rica.

During her visit to New Delhi last week to attend the Delhi Sustainable Development Summit, Erna Witoelar spoke with OneWorld South Asia and shared her views on the wide gamut of issues concerning the UN Millennium Development Goals.

Here are the excerpts:

OWSA: First the global food crisis and now the economic meltdown. The global hunger is now almost touching the mark of 1 billion. To what extent will these crises affect the MDGs? Is there any hope for the poor?

Erna Witoelar: Certainly the ongoing global food crisis and economic meltdown are hitting the poor the most. Particularly, the nutrition of children is getting badly affected, as also their schooling. The crisis is not the fault of the poor and yet they have been dragged into it to face the consequences. It is however encouraging to see that people are committed to achieving the MDGs and are working on the issue of climate change.

Be it in the north or in the developing countries, people and governments have to use their creativities to solve both or all three problems. Governments the world over are announcing fiscal stimulus packages ostensibly to bring the economy back on track. I must add here that governments must use these stimulus packages for job creation, reducing poverty and solving environmental challenges by investing in alternative renewable energy. Even the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon underlined the need for this in his speech at the Delhi Sustainable Development Summit held here.

I believe if governments are pro-poor, you don’t actually need a lot of money to achieve the MDGs. For instance, you don’t need big investments; you need a lot of small investments all over. If a government’s stimulus package is helping to create electricity in a village, then that village can lift itself out of poverty and they can send their children to school. The economic meltdown may be bad news but it is also true that it is creating opportunities for change.

OWSA: How can you say so especially when we know that millions of people all over the world are being rendered jobless?

EW: The economic crisis has opened our eyes to the fact that globalisation is not that great and it is not that much of a panacea for development needs in our countries. So those of us who tend to think that imported food or imported products are great and that not using local food or products is okay are rethinking their positions. Perhaps, in India, it is not that big a problem except in big cities, because you are otherwise eating local food and using local products. But many south-east Asian countries – Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand – are very much import driven. In a way this crisis is a blessing in disguise because it will lead to use of local products, which will help spur up food and goods production locally.

OWSA: Would you say biofuels is one of the reasons behind the food crisis, especially when more and more arable land is being committed for its produce?

EW: I think it is a myth that biofuel is taking the land from essential food crops. It cannot be generalised. Yes, in some countries it may be happening at disproportionate levels, but in most countries it is not there yet on a very large scale. I believe that biofuel can be a solution for solving electricity and other energies needs, if it is done on a smaller scale and operated by communities. We should not see biofuel as the cause of hunger.

OWSA: Are the governments using the stimulus packages to create jobs and reduce poverty? Or are they practicing what is described as ‘lemon socialism’?

EW: I don’t agree with that kind of approach adopted by governments. More or less this is what is happening… governments are busy bailing out big companies. I believe that we, the people in developing countries, at least should ensure that our governments are not doing that and that they use the stimulus packages to help the middle and smaller companies. Here NGOs and other organisations can play a role.

OWSA: What then is the best approach to come out of the recessionary mode that the world economy has slipped into?

EW: We cannot just sit and grumble. What I and many other people are doing to see that this crisis truly becomes a blessing in disguise is to move in a direction that is more appropriate and sustainable for our countries. Like developing our own food security and using locally manufactured products.

I was in the consumer movement before. I have been talking my head off to convince people not to spend beyond their means. It all happened because the system was making it easy for them to have credits to indulge in wasteful expenditure. Our campaign was not listened to. Now people are realising it... which is good.

OWSA: Do you think that non-achievement of MDGs has more to do with lack of resources or the fact that governments generally lack the political will to set their priorities right?

EW: More of the second. Some Asian countries have the highest-ranking millionaires and some of the companies here are truly global. So there is a need for more CSR [corporate social responsibility]. Besides, more of a pro poor government orientation is required.

We don’t lack money in our countries; we lack priorities. We need political will; we need corruption to be eradicated; and we need money to get health centres in place.

OWSA: And how do you ensure that governments do these things? Are you suggesting there should be people’s movements to make the governments accountable?

EW: People’s movements to pressurise governments are always important in democratic countries. Governments need people’s votes, and people should not re-elect those who are not pro poor in their approach. There are other ways too. For instance, it is always important to keep an eye on government budgets, watch government spending and ask questions. There are lots of ways to reach out to parliamentarians. All these initiatives should come from people who care and not necessarily from people who are suffering.

OWSA: India’s National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, which provides a guaranteed employment of 100 days in a year to the rural poor, is being seen as a revolutionary step in the direction of right to work. Do you think there is a need to provide similar kind of legal empowerment to the poor elsewhere?

EW: Yes, I think that is a real a pro poor Act. Other countries need to follow, and if it is happening, things will dramatically move towards the achievement of the MDGs. Unfortunately, I don’t see it happening in any of the Asia Pacific countries. Not even in my own country [Indonesia] because there are very few jobs created by the government. Majority of the jobs there are created by the private sector.

But I am very much in favour of this legal empowerment of the poor to be extended to other fields like right to education, food and shelter.

OWSA: Is the developed world doing enough to help poor countries achieve these goals? What role can the UN play to make governments work better?

EW: The developed world is falling short in keeping its promise to support developing countries. Countries like the United States do not want to comply with the MDG commitments. Others also have not done much. So it is no wonder that MDGs are in a vulnerable situation today. And now this financial crisis might lead them to not increase their ODAs [Official Development Assistance].

As regards the United Nations, it can play a greater role in ‘MDGising’ countries and reminding developed countries of their responsibilities. The UN should also try and ensure that developing countries are on the right track to achieve their goals.

OWSA: What steps do you think should be taken to ensure governance accountability for MDGs? Also any key policy changes that you might want to suggest?

EW: Again, I think people need to be more alert. Civil society groups need to constantly watch and monitor MDGs, budgets, and pressurise governments if they see any wrongdoings. People and media must question the government at every step. I think media and civil society can play a very crucial role in demanding from politicians that they stick to the MDGs.

There is also need for a consistency on budget allocation. We must remember that MDGs are the minimum goals and not something very ambitious. Countries should not be complacent if they have achieved the MDG targets and must strive to go beyond them. For that to happen, policies should be in the direction of empowering the poor.

OWSA: We are less than seven years away from the target year of 2015. Is there still hope for governments in the region to meet the goals?

EW: Yes, if they do several things. First, the governments need to be persistent in their pro poor policies. Second, they need to ensure private sectors grow along with their CSR. Third, they need to create a conducive atmosphere for civil society to flourish and work on achieving these goals. In addition, developed countries also need to carry on with their ODAs and make sure that funding is harmonised and properly utilised to prevent money being spent on overlapping programmes. And if governments are able to do that, I am quite optimistic that MDGs can be achieved.

We need to understand that MDGs are interdependent on each other. For instance, poverty alleviation programmes could be a solution for maternal and child health, sanitation and gender empowerment. Thus these goals should be seen as a whole rather than in isolation. In this, local governments are crucial in their achievement.

OWSA: At the Delhi Sustainable Development Summit, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said that India is not doing enough on climate change. What steps do you think the region should take in dealing with the issue?

EW: If you look at climate change challenges, you need to separate the issue from what goes on at international forums, where countries like India accuse developed countries for not doing enough and developed countries in turn keep on accusing countries like India, China and Brazil. In the end both groups don’t do anything. That is not the way to negotiate conventions. This is not to suggest that the approach of countries like the United States is any better. The US in fact has been very bad in international negotiations. Now with Barack Obama in power, people are hopeful that things would not be the same as they were before.

But if you see climate change at national level, I think countries like India, China, Brazil and Indonesia are doing quite a lot. It is actually in their own interest that they do mitigation, use alternative energy, use less energy, manage their waste better, and so on.

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