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The Millennium Development Goals and Minority Rights

5 April 2005

Presentation at the side-event, “Millenium+5, the MDGs and Human Rights” organised by the Conference of NGOs in Consultative Relationship with the United Nations (CONGO) 

(This presentation is based on a working paper submitted to the UN Working Group on Minorities, 11th Session (May 2005), prepared by Corinne Lennox of Minority Rights Group International.)

Thank you Mr Chair.

I would like to focus on one area which has much to tell us about the linkages between human rights and the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). While highlighting some potential practical problems concerning a rights-based approach to the MDGs, I will take care to propose practical solutions to these problems.

To date, the link between protection of minority rights and realisation of the MDGs has not been widely considered by development actors. In fact many have expressed concerns that the pressure to reach the goals by 2015 forces governments to compromise on the quality and sustainability of development interventions. The focus on aggregate results, rapid development and achieving the greatest good for the greatest number could mean that the particular needs of the most excluded groups – of which minorities form a major part – will be ignored in the interests of meeting the targets on paper.

The search for better strategies and the focus on the Millennium Declaration provide a fertile ground for advocacy on minority rights. The Millennium Declaration makes firm commitments to minority rights, requiring states to strengthen their capacity to implement “the principles and practices of democracy and respect for human rights, including minority rights”.[i]

The MDGs came on the tail of the major initiative to establish the Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers (PRSPs), which were intended to engage governments and civil society in the elaboration of country-owned poverty reductions strategies that would best meet the interests of the poorest. While the PRSP process has not been without criticism, it did at least champion the importance of civil society engagement and focus on addressing needs and objectives specific to each country. Just as many bilateral and multilateral agencies were orienting their country strategies to be in harmony with the PRSP, the Millennium Declaration called for prioritisation of the MDGs. The MDGs do overlap with the PRSPs but there is a sense of frustration in having again to reorient country-owned strategies to meet international ‘top-down’ requirements.

A major issue of concern is that many states will be concerned with the bottom line of reaching the goals, rather than the matter of who reaches them or how. This risk was noted in the Human Development Report 2003. Millennium Development Goals: A compact among nations to end human poverty:

In a number of countries the Goals could be met more easily simply by improving the circumstances of people already better off…But while this approach may fit the letter of the Goals, it does not fit their spirit. Women, rural inhabitants, ethnic minorities and other poor people are typically progressing slower than national averages – or showing no progress – even where countries as a whole are moving towards the Goals.[ii]

Moreover, although there are 48 recommended indicators for assessing progress towards the MDGs, there is no requirement to collect disaggregated data on the progress of minority groups.

Paying special attention to minorities and protection of their rights can help to improve the chances of meeting the MDGs, for these groups and for a country as a whole. For example, the goal of achieving universal primary education by 2015 might not be reached if minority children continue to leave school because of the discrimination they experience there. Efforts are also needed to ensure the MDGs do not become an excuse for violating minority rights: for example, forced displacement from remote habitats has been used as a means of improving access to social services for minorities, but has only proved to worsen human development.

Just taking the example of one of the goals now, Goal 1 is to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger. The targets are, between 1990 and 2015, to halve the proportion of people whose income is less than $1 a day, and to halve the proportion of people who suffer from hunger.

Minorities might easily be excluded from Goal 1. Most minorities have higher rates of poverty than other poor groups. In Vietnam, the national poverty rate is 37% and for ethnic minorities, 67%; in Peru, the national poverty rate is 43% and for indigenous peoples, 65%; in Bulgaria, the national poverty rate is 15% and for Roma, it is 85%.[iii] But the decision to call for a ‘reduction by half’ leaves open the possibility that minorities will constitute the majority of those persons still living in poverty and still suffering from hunger in 2015. The indicators for measuring achievement of Goal 1[iv] seek aggregate results and do not require that attention be paid to vulnerable groups. As a consequence, it may be that minorities not only do not benefit from the Goal 1 strategies, but that they may also see significant increases in inequalities.

The first step is to understand the particular barriers that minorities may face and how these relate to human rights violations of minorities. Minorities may be poorer because they have been denied citizenship and thus lack equal access to social services. Minorities may live in remote regions where government has failed to prioritise investment in infrastructure and social services. Land rights and access to justice for minorities may be more tenuous, putting them at higher risk of displacement and landlessness. The impact of discrimination is an overarching factor. Discrimination can lessen individuals’ access to health, education, financial credit, housing and employment – each compounding the likelihood of living in poverty. Women belonging to minority groups will be disadvantaged further because of the additional impact of gender discrimination. Even with pro-poor development strategies, discrimination will continue to be a barrier for minorities.

Given that minorities have higher levels of poverty now, Goal 1 strategies should provide disaggregated measurements of poverty in order to ensure that inequality levels are reduced as a result of the MDG poverty reduction strategies.[v] The prescribed set of indicators for measuring progress towards the MDGs should be revised accordingly. Donors should provide necessary resources and technical support to enable the collection of this data. The base point for measuring poverty should be sensitive to differing cultural perspectives of what constitutes poverty. For example, some communities may prioritise security of land rights over increased income as a measure of improvement in their standard of living.

In some cases, governments have tried to reduce the poverty of minorities through displacement from their traditional lands and relocation to less remote regions. In the zeal to achieve the MDGs, there is a risk that such policies may be used more frequently. Such policies are usually undertaken without the full consent of the communities in question. This approach is a violation of human rights and can result in increases in poverty, hunger and mortality, contra the MDGs. For example, the government of Botswana has justified its relocation of the San people from the Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR) by claiming that the San deplete the natural resources of the reserve; that providing services to the CKGR is too expensive; or that it is ensuring development and seeking to enhance their living standards. Since the displacement, the former CKGR residents have been unable to adapt to the new surroundings; they can no longer use their traditional knowledge and are exposed to changes in their diet and way of life, which have led to malnutrition. The water quality is deteriorating, resulting in higher incidence of diarrhoea in children. Because the people have no means of subsistence, there is an increased dependency on the state for food relief and cash-for-work programmes. The San community is now working with local NGOs to negotiate their right to return to the CKGR.[vi] As this case illustrates, participation of minorities and indigenous peoples in the elaboration of MDGs strategies is one essential component to ensure that such strategies are effective and are consistent with human rights.

Goal 2, on achieving universal primary education, is on the face of it, “minority-friendly”, in that to achieve it, members of minorities would also have to have access to primary education. Nevertheless, this goal illustrates very well how the achievement of the MDGs will be jeapardised if special consideration is not given to the situation of minorities. There are several factors that contribute to poor access to education for minorities, including: lack of mother-tongue education; poor provision of schools and qualified teachers in minority regions; prohibitive costs of school fees that disproportionately impact on minorities (as the poorest groups); curricula that do not reflect community priorities for learning; and discrimination by teachers and/or pupils.

A positive example of a development strategy designed to take into account the particular needs of minorities is from Bolivia, in reaching the the health MDGs, is the use of the Intercultural Health Approach through the development of the health with identity programme. Through a process of training health personnel in relation to the importance of promoting respect for the practices and traditions of indigenous peoples, the approach acknowledges the need to overcome cultural barriers in the offering of health services.[vii]

National Human Rights Institutions also have a role to play in helping to ensure that MDG strategies do not adversely affect minorities or increase inequalities. The support given by the OHCHR and others to the NHRIs should ensure that minority rights are well understood by them, including in relation to the MDG foci.

A rights-based approach to the MDGs will often require reforms of governance structures to enhance participation of marginalised groups. Minority rights standards give high priority to governance issues and can therefore serve as a guide and justification for governments taking steps to ensure the minority voice is heard. The Millennium Project Report endorses such measures:

Governments need to identify mechanisms to allow groups commonly excluded from the political process to participate actively in decision making processes. This is especially important in countries with rich social diversity and large indigenous and tribal populations.[viii]

Many have advocated that to be most effective, MDGs plans need to be devised and implemented at the local level, using existing local governance structures.[ix] For minorities, such an approach can be beneficial where their communities have a strong voice in local government, in particular where autonomous forms of governance have been recognised. In many cases, however, minorities are excluded even from local government positions and would therefore be unable to participate in any decisions taken by those institutions. Where participation appears to be weak, separate institutions and processes for decision-making on the MDGs should be established. All participation processes for the MDGs can be made more ‘minority friendly’ by ensuring that they are accessible for minorities. Holding meetings in regions where minorities live (instead of capital cities) and having translation services for minority languages can improve their participation, in particular for minority women.

It may also be necessary to build the capacity of actors at the local level to understand how to apply existing laws and directives in accordance with a rights-based approach to the MDGs. Training on non-discrimination and minority rights is a one way of building this capacity. Government officials will also need to be able to justify the establishment of specially targeted programmes for minorities. This will need to be approached with great sensitivity, to ensure that no negative backlash against minorities occurs as a result of targeted programmes. The use of disaggregated data to demonstrate the existence of inequalities is key and is one way to make government policies on the MDGs more transparent.

It should be noted that some important innovations are already evident in the country reports on achievement of the MDGs. Vietnam has prepared a separate MDGs strategy for ethnic minorities “Localizing MDGs for Poverty Reduction in Viet Nam: Promoting Ethnic Minority Development” (2002); this is the only such example of a minority-specific strategy that MRG has uncovered.[x] They have localised the MDGs by adding some minority-specific targets, for example, aiming for universal primary education for ethnic minorities by 2010, which they hope to achieve, inter alia, by providing more multilingual education, minority language textbooks, training ethnic minority teachers and encouraging majority Kinh teachers to learn minority languages. [xi] They have also developed an MDG index to provide a baseline and to measure progress towards the goals; for Goal 8 to “improve governance for human development”, they have included “share of ethnic minorities’ representatives in provincial people’s councils relative to the ethnic composition of the population” as an indicator.[xii]

The collection of data can be undertaken with direct involvement of minorities. For example, the UNDP Regional Bureau for Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States is training Roma to act as survey managers to gather information to be used in poverty reduction strategies.[xiii] This may make some community members more comfortable in sharing their concerns around the MDGs.

Advocacy, in particular by civil society, is also crucial. NGOs should document how minorities are not achieving the MDGs at the same rate as other groups. In cooperation with minority communities, they should prepare policy recommendations that are targeted and concrete. These findings need to be shared with the media and can also be used to prepare shadow MDG country reports.

Furthermore, the role of international actors, like the UNDG, to support minorities can be improved. Such agencies need to be proactive in uncovering how minorities are progressing towards the goals. They should not shy away from raising their concerns. In a 2003 report, Millennium Development Goals Reports: An Assessment, the UNDP Evaluation Office stated that “it may be unreasonable to expect a government to discuss ‘sensitive’ issues, such as documenting human rights violations, discrimination against marginalized communities, neglect of remote areas, or to discuss unresolved conflicts”.[xiv] Philip Alston expressed well the short-sightedness of this recommendation, insisting that:

If these reports fail to address, or even acknowledge, such matters they will often be excluding the very issues that are crucial to understanding the principal obstacles that are inhibiting the realisation of the MDGs. For example, if it is not possible to mention ‘sensitive issues’ such as deeply entrenched discrimination against women, the effective exclusion of certain racial, religious, linguistic or other minority groups from the development process…then the report will not only have an air of unreality about it but will also be unable to address the critical steps that need to taken if the MDGs are to be met.[xv]

Additional support from Treaty Bodies is also needed: for example, the Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination can raise MDGs issues during review of periodic reports. UN Special Rapporteurs can support minorities by ensuring that any discussion of MDG-related issues in their reports includes a minority perspective.

Thank you for your attention.



i UN Doc. A/54/2000, Section V.
ii UNDP, Human Development Report 2003. Millennium Development Goals: A compact among nations to end human poverty, New York: UNDP. 2003: p. 3 (emphasis added).
iii Patricia Justino and Julie Litchfield, Economic Exclusion and Discrimination: The Experiences of Minorities
and Indigenous Peoples, London: Minority Rights Group International, 2003, p.9.
iv The indicators for Goal 1 are: proportion of population below $1 (1993 PPP) per day (World Bank); poverty gap ratio [incidence x depth of poverty] (World Bank); share of poorest quintile in national consumption (World Bank); prevalence of underweight children under five years of age (UNICEF-WHO); and proportion of population below minimum level of dietary energy consumption (FAO).
v This is consistent with the requirement in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights that states ensure groups do not experience retrogression in progress towards their economic and social rights. See CESCR General Comment No. 3 on the Nature of States Parties’ Obligations, UN doc. E/1991/23, Annex III, 1990, para. 9, where further caveats are provided.
vi This case is detailed by Pooja Ahluwalia, “The rights to food and to water”, in Margot Salomon, (ed.). Economic, Social and Cultural Rights: A Guide for Minorities and Indigenous Peoples, London: Minority Rights Group International, 2005.
vii For more information see, p. 12.
viii Ibid., p. 120.
ix See, for example, David Satterthwaite, ed. The Millennium Development Goals and Local Processes: Hitting the Point or Missing the Target?, London: International Institute for Environment and Development, November 2003. x See
xi Millennium Development Goals: Bringing the MDGs Closer to the People. The UN in Vietnam: November 2002, p. 22.
xii Ibid. Appendix 1.
xiii See Annex II of this paper on the MRG workshop report for more details.
xiv Philip Alston, A Human Rights Perspective on the Millennium Development Goals, Paper prepared as a contribution to the work of the Millennium Project Task Force on Poverty and Economic Development, 2004, p. 39.
xv Ibid., p. 39, (emphasis added).