Some 300 Nepali and foreign experts gathered in the capital this week to discuss the UN’s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which make eradication of poverty a central concern. According to many experts, no country in South Asia is on course to meet all the development goals by the targeted year 2015, just less than a decade away. The MDGs involve time-bound (15- year) and quantifiable targets to reduce poverty, such as income poverty, hunger, disease, homelessness and exclusion. Finance Minister Dr Ram Sharan Mahat, after launching the South Asia Millennium Development Goals Forum here on Wednesday, said poverty is the major cause of conflict and social unrest. Another expert said that the number of people living on an income below a dollar a day has been going down steadily in South Asia since 1990, and he cited the example of India, where poverty has dropped from 42 per cent in 1990 to 35 per cent in 2001. Statistics show other countries in the region have made some strides in reducing income poverty, but still 300 million people are suffering from chronic hunger.

If any poor country meets some or all of the MDGs by the chosen year, it will be only a matter of satisfaction for all. But wishes are not horses and one cannot ride them. Goals, development concepts and terminology and focus have changed and shifted from time to time, and Nepal has lapped up almost every development fad or fashion, depending on what global decision makers at the UN, the World Bank, the IMF and other powerful agencies prescribe. Perhaps, after 2015 yet another development slogan will be concocted. Nepal has already chanted a number of development slogans, sometimes to alleviate poverty, sometimes to reduce it or sometimes to eliminate it, and now to eradicate it, along with such goals as Education for All and Health for All. And Nepal’s own goal of meeting the “basic needs” of all the people by the turn of the century has fizzled out, like the aforementioned ones.

All goals and targets must be backed by a high degree of political will and bold decisions and actions, not just policies, which the Nepalis have had aplenty. The goals set should be realistic too, i.e. to respond to the specific circumstances of a particular country. The problem with the MDGs is that the UN has generalised about all the countries irrespective of their peculiar internal dynamics. Development cannot happen by something like a fiat. Every country should pursue its own goals. Countries like South Korea which made rapid progress had their own development goals, targets and strategies. Slogans and some foreign aid aimed at implementing them alone can hardly do the trick for Nepal. The experimentation of the past half-century is there for all to see. Without any solid steps towards promoting good governance, which invariably includes zero-tolerance for corruption and enforcement of the concept of accountability on holders of public posts, no attempts at denting poverty can promise much, particularly when the national pie happens to be too small.