John Boulton’s proposed amendments

John Bolton, the recently appointed US ambassador to the United Nations, has been criticized for the amendments that he has proposed to the draft communique for the forthcoming UN Summit. I’ve spent an interesting couple of hours reading through Mr Bolton’s proposed changes, which can be read in full here (large PDF file). They provide an interesting insight into Mr Bolton’s approach; and they are not all bad.

Many of the changes are just tightening of the language, adjusting some of the UN-speak into plainer English; reducing repetition and superfluous words (such as deleting "hereby"). I welcome a simpler text, though I do not think that it is worth disrupting international consensus to achieve this.

Another group of changes are aimed at eliminating favourable references to existing multilateral agreements. Some of these changes remove mention of agreements that the US does not support (such as the Kyoto Protocol and the International Criminal Court). More worryingly, other changes would remove references to agreements which the US has ratified. For example, the amendments would remove the references to the commitments by nuclear nations in the Non Proliferation Treaty (which the US has ratified) to take steps towards nuclear disarmament; and would take out the reference to the Convention on Biological Diversity. It is not clear whether this reflects a desire on the part of the US to step aside from these international commitments: if so, they should defend their new position openly, rather than try to back out of agreements by stealth. 

The proposed changes relating to international poverty are the most interesting.  The amendments would remove nearly all the references to the Millennium Development Goals.  Until now, the official US position has been that it accepts the first seven UN goals, as set out in the Millennium Declaration of the General Assembly, but does not consider itself bound by the quantitative MDG targets that were subsequently defined as a way to measure progress towards the agreement in the Millennium Declaration; the US has also consistently opposed the eighth Millennium Development Goal (which is the one about developing a partnership for global development).   

Many of the proposed US amendments have the effect of removing a bold attempt by the UN system to put itself in the role of coordinating international development policy, instead of the World Bank and IMF.  For example, the amendments would remove this:

We further reaffirm the need for the United nations to play a more decisive and central role in international development policy and in ensuring coherence, coordination and implementation of the development goals and actions agreed by the international community …

On this, I think Mr Bolton’s amendments are right. I recognize that there is a case to be made for the UN to play a more central role in promoting development: it is possible to argue that the UN has more legitimacy (because countries are represented on a more equal basis); and some people feel that the World Bank and IMF promote a particular ideological view of economic policy, where the UN bodies would accept a more diverse range of opinion about the best way to achieve poverty reduction.  But whatever the theoretical merits, the UN system is too dysfunctional to take on responsibility for coordinating development policy; and the World Bank actually does rather a good job at the moment. I also agree with the basic tenets of the so called Washington Consensus; and I don’t believe it is in developing countries’ interests to weaken our resolve to base poverty reduction on a common set of broad policy goals which include macroeconomic stability, free and open markets, political accountability and investment in the health and skills of people.  Effective international development policy is too important to allow people to play politics with it; until the UN system is reformed and shows itself capable of taking on this role, the US is right not to endorse a shift of power and responsibility to the UN.  (The appointment of Kemal Dervis as the Administrator of UNDP is a good first step towards the UN becoming more effective.)

But while I agree with blocking language which attempts to shift power from the World Bank to the UN, the other changes to the draft conclusions on development seem to me to be much more sinister. 

Recall that in 2000, world leaders (including the President of the United States) signed up to a Millennium Declaration which said:

We will spare no effort to free our fellow men, women and children from the abject and dehumanizing conditions of extreme poverty, to which more than a billion of them are currently subjected. We are committed to making the right to development a reality for everyone and to freeing the entire human race from want.

The process of drafting by committee has done much to obscure the really important issue of the September UN summit: are we willing to accept, now in 2005, that we are not going to meet the lofty objectives we set for ourseves in the Millennium Declaration? Or are we going to do something about our failure to act, which will require more resources and greater efforts on the part of rich countries?  This conference could have been the moment at which the world is shamed by its failure to act to meet the objectives it set for itself, and galvanized into action.  If we do not do so now, it will be impossible to meet the 2015 objectives. By removing references to the Millennium Development Goals, and the likelihood that they will not be met, the US approach would ensure that we do not face up to what is arguably the world’s most important challenge. 

(See more on this at Talking Points Memo and at Liberals Against Terrorism, which has a defense of John Bolton by Nadezhda.)

3 thoughts on “John Boulton’s proposed amendments”

  1. Pingback: Ephems of BLB

  2. You believe in “macroeconomic stability, free and open markets, political accountability and investment in the health and skills of people” –

    Do you apply the standard of “free and open markets” to the West also? (ie ending of programmes of subsidies and tariffs – the CAP and so on) If this were applied, the MDGs might not be necessary.

    My assessment of your argument, for all that it wasn’t asked for and isn’t worth much, is that you are in favour of the paternalistic (in my view) aid-based MDGs, at the expense of the type of global justice economic measures which can permit developing countries to develop on their terms – ie not punishing their infant industry protectionism, allowing them to choose the macroeconomic policies they see fit.

    Does your Dep. for Imperial Despoliation perspective allow you to examine objectively the root causes of global poverty, or do you have to approach them from a marginal-measures, career development expert position?

    Owen replies: I do indeed apply the standard of free and open markets to the West, and as you’ll see if click the link marked “trade” on the right of your screen, I am outspoken against protectionism by all countries, North and South. I have fought vigorously for the reform of CAP and export subsidies.

    The Millennium Development Goals are not “aid-based”. They are people-based. Reducing the proportion of people living in poverty, getting children into school, access to clean drining water, preventing mothers from dying in childbirth: these are noble outcomes which we should be working together to achieve. I feel conflicted about them only in this sense. On the one hand, they are insufficiently ambitious. For example, even if we half the proportion of people living in poverty by 2015, there will still be more (in absolute numbers) living in poverty in 2015 than there were in 1990. On the other had, they are too ambitious: by saying we will have every child in school by 2015 we have set a target that we are almost bound to fail to meet.

    Since you ask, I’m in favour of allowing developing countries to develop policies on their terms, not ours; and I oppose aid conditionality (and welcome the UK Government’s recent policy statement on this which moves in this direction.) I hope, however, that countries will not choose to protect their infant industries, as I don’t think there is good evidence that this is an effective way of increasing a nation’s prosperity.

    Finally, I think that identifying and tackling the root causes of poverty is absolutely the right approach. My own view is that we should focus on the causes of poverty within our control – the policies and behaviour of rich countries – rather than spend our time lecturing the poor.

    I appreciate your comments and I think I share your outlook. On this occasion, I think you got the wrong guy.

  3. Hi Owen,

    I was adversarial and I admit that. I think we do share the same outlook although I think we differ slightly on whether poor countries will benefit from infant industry protectionism. Thanks for taking the time to reply and set out your views so clearly, and for engaging in discussion.

    You have much greater experience than me (I am just an amateur interested in development), but I just wonder, and am interested to probe, how much your position as a worker for a UK government agency informs the range of measures you are prepared to contemplate.

    It’s clear that you are vigorously and sincerely committed to ending poverty. But are you able to contemplate measures which contradict the UK government position? If not, does this not, even with the best intentions, create a compromise in your own position so that you are split between caring about ending poverty, and caring about preserving a status quo which prolongs it?

    What if starting from the first principles which some development professionals (both in academia and government) consider (and have a brief to consider), and proceeding through the entire range and detail of their research, they are actually serving the preservation of a status quo – in which aid is ok because it is quite comfortable for rich governments to give polically mandated aid to poor countries; in which trade policies beneficial for the third world are ok when they are also beneficial for us (ie the end or scaling down of CAP which would be fine for the UK), but not otherwise; and in which we will continue to use trade, aid, and coercive economic policies as tools of our foreign policy objectives – ie preserving and increasing the competitiveness of UK industry, and increasing the quality of life of the average British consumer (by ensuring we have access to cheap resources and energy from the developing world) in order to maintain the popularity of the current government?

    One might feel these latter goals are fair enough ones to envisage, and quite natural for a government development agency to have as part of its brief – but they can’t be set alongside the drive to end poverty; which must be prioritised, and the UK-favourising goals achieved in tandem only where they come as a by-product of ending poverty. I make this assertion because it seems to me that morally this must be the case because of the stark contrast in situations between developing and developed worlds. Surely, it seems to me, though people on the right of the political spectrum might not agree (I’m not suggesting that’s you), we must consider ourselves human beings first and UK citizens second.

    Do you accept
    George Monbiot’s charges about DfID in this article?
    That the UK is part of preserving a damaging status quo, and that the interests of this government are in empowering corporations and are therefore at odds with those of people in the developing world?

    (I’m heavily influenced here by George Monbiot’s the Age of Consent)

    My problem is that even though you espouse pro-poor policies you may be affected by the information (soft and hard; factual and cultural) you receive and the goals of your employer, so that the policies researched, suggested and implemented always occur at the margin; always win battles and never turn the tide of the war.
    And maintain the preservation of the development industry.

    It seems to me, the only way genuine movement can occur is when we in the West are prepared to make a genuine sacrifice. If the situation is claiming lives, and we really care about that, we must be willing to contemplate giving up, if not our lives, then our livelihoods; or some of our comfort; or consider what measures we would contemplate if we were going to give up our life, and then find with gratitude that that’s not needed, but nevertheless the measures needed are perhaps deeper than the ones we would have contemplated.

    Obviously this runs against the views of market fundamentalists who believe we will all get richer through free trade – that potential is there, but not within the current system (of not-free trade) – as is evidenced currently. We might have to contemplate surrendering some of our short or long term economic interests to facilitate the accession of developing countries to a position from which they can trade reasonably equitably. If I’m speaking personally, this is what I really don’t understand – why market fundamentalists cannot accept not only measures which contribute to our own well-being but some which lead purely to other countries’ improvement, and even sometimes at our expense – given how much richer we are; and how the benefits of the status quo accrue mainly to the very rich etc etc. (I know I’ll be called a Stalinist here (if not by you then some of your other comment-ers!) – but I do believe in capitalism, just one that works for the people, mediated by institutions that favour this)

    Clearly it’s to our advantage to have someone as committed as you doing a fantastic job at DfID (and I’m sure the majority if not all your colleagues are equally committed), and the CGD, and you can do much more from your position than I can from mine. However my perspective can be unencumbered from influence and interest and that’s what I can share.

    I concede that my knowledge on this is limited*; and there’s a good chance I have as you say got the wrong guy; I’m probably embarrassing you with my naivety; but by playing devil’s advocate perhaps I can at least kick off a debate – about the epistemology of development policy if that makes any sense at all! (about which you can let me know, as a philosopher).

    *example of this, the MDGs – I’m prepared to go along with you that they are worthwhile.

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