On Thursday 1st November the British Prime Minister met with the Presidents of Liberia and Indonesia to take steps to work on the next set of priorities for the post-Millennium Development Goals. They were appointed as co-chairs by the Secretary General of the UN to carry out this task. Mr Cameron will be the Chair of the G8 when it meets in London next year. On Friday 2nd November there was a meeting of representatives of the High Level Panel appointed by the Secretary General with representatives of Civil Society Organisations to explore the same agenda.
It is not difficult to visualise the scene. A group of grand international figure try to distil a large number of disparate issues into a narrative that makes some sense when they present it to the General Assembly of the United Nations next year. They start by talking to a number of representatives of different voluntary organisations (civil society). They hope to distil from their collective wisdom a series of points for action. Yet, each of these organisations pushes for its own individual cause. If you represent an organisation that campaigns for the eradication of malaria, that becomes the focus of your life and you will fight for that to top the agenda. If you are after the education of women, that will be your primary objective. And so on, down an incredible long agenda of issues, each of them important to one specific group of people. Everyone is working on a small part of the whole spectrum of human needs and activities. In fact, one feels that every new organisation that comes into being is appropriating an ever more miniscule part of the spectrum.
This is where one comes to the sad conclusion that the whole discussion is a bit like the debate that the great theologians of the 15th century were holding in Constantinople on how many angels could dance on the head of a pin (the debate it is a myth!), all the while when the Moslems were attacking the walls of the city. I do not wish to dismiss the earnestness and commitment of the people in the aid and development community; the wide range of views and causes argued for is an important part of the freedoms we enjoy and we wish to share. But it is a bit like the right to free speech; is there a point at which one needs to moderate one’s own language in order not to cause offence to someone else?
Whilst civil society is endlessly debating the order of priorities, it remains oblivious to the real challenges. The reality is that more people are starving and more will be starving. The extremely urgent task is to look at hunger and how to assuage it. That means, for governments, to improve governance ability and for civil society to drop some of its fetishes.