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The Millennium Development Goals: Helping or Harming Minorities?

11 July 2005

Summary of working paper submitted by MRG 

Download the full paper

Sub-Commission on Promotion and Protection of Human Rights
Fifty-fifth Session
Working Group on Minorities
Eleventh session,
30 May – 3 June 2005

The Millennium Development Goals: Helping or Harming Minorities?

Working paper submitted by: Minority Rights Group International

Summary presentation delivered by Corinne Lennox, Advocacy Officer

The international commitment to achieve the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) presents both opportunities and risks for persons belonging to ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities. Minorities are among the poorest in most countries and so attention to issues such as poverty, primary education, health and housing can help to improve minorities’ human development. There is a genuine risk, however, that the strategies used to achieve the MDGs will be less beneficial for minority groups, might increase inequalities and may harm some minority communities.

MRG has been working on the MDGs since 2001 and the Working Paper we are presenting today to the UN Working Group on Minorities is among our most recent efforts to bring attention to the potential impact – both positive and negative – that the MDGs can have on minorities. We welcome the interest of the Working Group in this subject and hope that in this important year for the MDGs that some strong recommendations on this theme can emerge.

The Working Paper provides a detailed analysis of the key minority-related concerns for achieving the MDGs. It provides for each goal country-specific examples of good and bad practice and recommendations for change in line with minority rights standards. We will only be able to provide a short summary here but it is hoped that the Working Paper can be a resource for all participants here today. For this reason we encourage participants to share the report with other stakeholders, in particular those persons responsible for devising strategies to achieve the MDGs. The paper will also be posted on MRG’s website (

Many have expressed concerns that the pressure to reach the MDGs 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 Goals on paper.

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.[i]

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.

Let’s consider a few of the goals from the minority rights perspective.

Goal 1 is to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger. Minorities might easily be excluded from Goal 1. Most minorities have higher rates of poverty than other poor groups. 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 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.[ii] 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.

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 jeopardised 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.

The MDGs country reports of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Cambodia, China, Hungary, the Philippines, Serbia and Montenegro, Thailand and Vietnam mention minority education. More countries need to collect baseline data to see what inequalities in access to education already exist for minorities.

In response to these inequalities states could make provision for mother tongue primary education. This can be a good strategy to boost and sustain enrolment. Recruitment of teachers from minority groups can help with language barriers and inter-cultural understanding. Minority groups may also wish to establish education that promotes and develops their culture and livelihoods.[iii] In both the short and long-term, these strategies can help achieve universal primary education.

Goal 3 seeks to promote gender equality and empower women. The impact of gender discrimination is a major barrier for women to achieve each of the goals but some women face more than one kind of discrimination. In the Human Development Report 2003 on the MDGs, when asking ‘who is being left behind?’ it was noted that:

Income disparities appear to be increasing in several countries, indicating wider gaps between people…at the bottom (mostly rural, female-headed households of indigenous or ethnically marginal descent).[iv]

This signals just how far women from minority or indigenous communities are from the MDGs. This is because of the compound impact of discrimination based on gender and discrimination based on ethnic, religious or linguistic identity.

As a result, eliminating gender disparity in access to education will be much more difficult for minority girls and women than for others. For example, minority girls may find it more difficult to integrate into schools because of language barriers and may have less family support to their education because parents (especially mothers) similarly lack the necessary language skills to assist their children. There may also be particular cultural norms in relation to the role of women and girls in some minority communities that restrict their equal opportunities for education. Opportunities for minority girls to access education are also closely linked to higher poverty rates of minorities, with minority girl children being more likely to remain at home to support the family’s welfare. Therefore, family opportunities to overcome poverty should be seen as integral to achieving gender equality in access to education for minorities.


There is much more to be said about these goals and the other MDGs, but I will refer you to the full paper. In the time remaining, I would like to concentrate on some general themes and recommendations.

The UN Millennium Project Report identified some priority challenges to meeting the goals:

Each country has its own specific set of challenges, but some broad trends can be identified as priorities. One universal challenge is to ensure that ethnic minorities..receive targeted investments for the Goals.[v]

Successful MDGs strategies will need to consider those cross-cutting issues that might prevent minority communities from benefiting from the goals. Three cross-cutting rights issues for implementing the MDGs are participation, non-discrimination and land rights.

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.[vi] For minorities, such an approach can be beneficial where their communities have a strong voice in local government. In many cases, however, minorities are excluded even from local government positions. Their lack of representation may mean that resources are diverted away from their communities in favour of those who are politically more influential. Before undertaking to give more responsibility to local government structures in implementing the MDGs, governments and international actors need to audit the participation opportunities for minorities in these structures.

Without mechanisms to address discrimination – on the basis of membership in a minority group and gender discrimination – a major barrier to achieving the goals for minority men and women will remain impenetrable. In the implementation of the MDGs, governments will need to pay particular attention to indirect discrimination, which occurs where policies employed by the government to achieve the MDGs unintentionally causes disproportionate and/or unjustifiable harm in the form of human rights violations against minority groups. For example, an HIV/AIDS public education campaign may only be presented in the majority language or according to majority cultural practices, thus inhibiting the ability of minorities to benefit from such campaigns. Impact assessments for all proposed MDGs strategies may help to overcome some of this indirect discrimination.

Minorities and indigenous peoples typically have less security in access to land than other groups. This is in part because they lack political influence to protect their traditional land rights and/or because the justice system has failed to protect them from displacement or other encroachments on their land. Land security is important for all poor people since it is linked to other human development issues – such as income generation and food security. For many minorities and all indigenous peoples, land is also integral to their cultural lives. Displacement or loss of land threatens the very identity of the communities. It also frequently results in threats to their physical survival as well – cases have shown that displacement can increase mortality rates.[vii] Communities may be forced into unsustainable land use practices because of having to live on less land or in different environmental conditions. Each of these issues points to a different aspect of the MDGs; thus, land rights are an important key to achieving other MDGs. While many poor people will prioritise land issues, minorities and indigenous peoples have much more critical issues at stake (in terms of cultural rights) and much less chance that the state will protect their interests. Therefore, giving particular attention to resolving the land rights disputes involving minorities and indigenous peoples can yield a high return in terms of achieving the MDGs.

Country reporting is a feature of the MDGs monitoring process. Both donor countries and donor recipient countries are preparing reports. One study reveals that very few country reports include any discussion of human rights. MRG’s own survey of 47 donor recipient country reports indicated that only 9 had made any mention of minorities or indigenous peoples.[viii] Minorities are most often mentioned in relation to education MDGs, with many countries noting there are disparities in education attainment by some minority groups in their country. Those European countries that have reported, including Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Hungary and Slovakia, focus heavily on the Roma – considering issues of poverty and education primarily – but rarely mention other minorities. None of the African country reports surveyed mentioned minorities or indigenous peoples. Some countries of Asia – including Cambodia, China, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam, include minorities in their analysis, to great or lesser degrees. Of the 6 donor country reports surveyed, only 2 made any reference to minorities or indigenous peoples, namely Finland and Norway.[ix]

The fact that country reports do or do not mention minorities or indigenous peoples cannot be taken as indicative of the actual activities undertaken within that country or through development cooperation to help minorities reach the MDGs. The absence of information on minorities is, however, a weakness of MDGs reporting and only perpetuates the invisibility of the minority situation. Where country reports do mention minorities, this gives representatives of those communities a greater opportunity to hold their governments to account for commitments made. The inclusion of minority-specific time-bound targets will strengthen the reports even further. Country reporting is therefore an important tool for minority groups.

Advocacy 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. There are now over thirty national civil society campaigns on the MDGs.[x] In some cases, minority NGOs or community-based organisations (CBOs) may be contributing to these actions. However, in the experience of MRG and its partners, mainstream NGOs tend to ignore minority concerns. More effort is needed on the part of national MDGs campaigns to ensure that minority concerns are reflected; indeed, attention to minorities will be crucial to achieving many or all of the MDGs in most countries. NGOs working on specific goals need to consider the perspective of minorities and invite cooperation with minority groups; for example, those working on Goal 4 on the child mortality campaign should consider whether minorities in their country have higher rates of child mortality and how this can be addressed.

Furthermore, the role of international actors, like the UN Development Group, to support minorities can be
improved. Such agencies need to be proactive in uncovering how minorities are progressing towards the goals. 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”.[xi] One author 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.[xii]

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.

In conclusion, it is worth restating that it is states that have the greatest responsibility to ensure that minorities within their territories can achieve the MDGs. This is a human development issue, a conflict prevention issue and most importantly a human rights issue. MRG hopes that the many recommendations contained within the Working Paper can be used by states to ensure that the MDGs do not harm minorities but help minorities to achieve their human rights.

Thank you for your attention.



i UNDP, Human Development Report 2003. Millennium Development Goals: A compact among nations to end human poverty, New York: UNDP. 2003: p. 3 (emphasis added).

ii 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.

iii The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has said in General Comment that education should be culturally appropriate in both its form and substance, including curricula and teaching methods. CESCR, General Comment No.13, The Right to Education, UN doc. E/C.12/1999/10, para. 6.

iv UNDP, Human Development Report 2003. Millennium Development Goals: A compact among nations to end human poverty, New York: UNDP. 2003: p. 47-49.

v UN Millennium Project, Investing in Development: A Practical Plan to Achieve the Millennium Development Goals, New York: 2005, p. 32.

vi 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.

vii For an account of the impact of a resettlement programme on minorities in Laos see, Goudineau, Yves, (ed.), Resettlement and Social Characteristics of New Villages: Basic needs for resettled communities in the Lao PDR, UNDP and UNESCO, 1997.

viii The following donor-recipient country reports mentioned minorities or indigenous peoples: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Cambodia, China, Guatemala, Hungary, the Philippines, Slovakia, Thailand and Viet Nam. Other country reports not surveyed by MRG might also mention minorities or indigenous peoples.

ix MRG surveyed the country reports of Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, and the European Community. Some donor country reports only focus on Goal 8, which may account for the lack of attention to minorities or indigenous peoples in their reports.

x For information on national MDGs campaigns, see

xi 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.

xii Ibid., p. 39, (emphasis added).