Big confab on financing fight against poverty looks a big dud

Delegates in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, attending the third Financing for Development conference. UN photo

It is perhaps a matter of premature speculation to declare a big international meeting devoted to fighting poverty and advancing equity worldwide largely worthless before it even concludes. But barring some last-minute consensus or specific financial commitments, it may be a fairly safe bet.

2015-Time-for-Global-Action_EnThe meeting is the third Financing for Development conference, held through Thursday in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Put simply, the meeting (on Twitter #FFD3) was supposed to arrive at a solid, feasible strategy to pay for the next 15 years’ global anti-poverty agenda set by the U.N. known as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

So far, that looks about as likely as Donald Trump occupying the White House. And that could bode ill for all the lofty rhetoric about how we are on the cusp of ‘ending poverty,’ reducing inequality, protecting our planet and all the other world-bettering aspirations of the humanitarian community.

Stefano Prato

Stefano Prato

“There is very little financing because the only resources put on the table are the promises made 40 years ago,” said Stefano Prato, representing a consortium of civil society organizations speaking at a news conference held at the confab today in Addis.

In fact, Prato and others said, for most African nations the outflow of money (due to debt payments, capital flight and what many contend is jobless growth from exploitative international investment or extractive industries) so far is exceeding the amount of money going into the continent for ‘development.’

Gyekye Tanoh

Gyekye Tanoh

“We are in a crazy period,” agreed Gyekye Tanoh, with Third World Network Africa. Prato, Tanoh and other representatives of advocacy organizations and civil society groups had been pressing for specific, solid commitments – especially finding a solution for the massive drain caused by tax avoidance and evasion worldwide.

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“Developing governments have asked for a global taxing body for more than a decade,” said Tove Maria Ryding of Tax Justice Network, an organization that has led the clarion call aimed largely at rich nations and Western mega-corporations to end the depleting and abusive use of tax havens or other schemes that especially deprive poor governments of resources.

Tove Maria Ryding

Tove Maria Ryding

At the Addis meeting, Ryding said, the wealthier countries have instead engaged in behind-closed-doors “arm-twisting and pressure” on developing world officials to abandon the call for a global taxing authority.

“It is clear there is no hope for getting a really strong agreement,” she said.

When even one of the brightest and fairly optimistic minds within the aid and development expert class, Owen Barder at the Center for Global Development, mostly celebrates a change in semantics as opposed to substance you know things are looking bleak.

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Barder’s position appears to differ markedly from that of Ryding, Tanoh and Prato in that he favors a move away from traditional aid to governments funding public anti-poverty projects – and toward an emphasis on the private sector to lead the development agenda worldwide. After all, he notes, the most sustainable solution to poverty is going to come from long-term financial investments that lead to more jobs and growth.

Owen Barder

Owen Barder

“The good news was put succinctly by an African Finance Minister,” Barder wrote yesterday. “At last we are talking about the right things. This is a meeting about jobs, investment and growth – not a meeting about aid.”

The bad news, Owen noted later in his blog post, is that nobody is really committing to doing anything specific like actually putting money behind the words. He welcomes the shift to emphasizing a greater role for private finance in development, but then again this is also so far just more talk.

So, yeah, we should always welcome better lingo. Too bad the poor can’t eat, buy or sell words.

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Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at]humanosphere.org or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.