A day listening to Mr. Gore and others who want to change the world: report from the Montreal Millennium Summit

I attended the Montreal Millennium Summit today, the 40th anniversary of Earth Day. I admit that I walked in to the conference wanting to find fault with it. Last year, after the 2009 edition of the conference (which I did not attend), I’d spoken to a few friends who’d attended part of it and they were unanimous in praising the quality of the speakers but left wondering what difference the glitzy event would result in.

I was pleasantly surprised (but I will have a criticism, so be patient). Today’s event was open to the public, a non-stop barrage of renowned speakers with intermissions from some notable singers, including Quebec’s own Ginnette Reno. The first speaker was the Duchess of York, who kept her words to a minimum but nonetheless impressed upon the audience a key message which other speakers would repeat throughout the day: our moral obligation to caring for others and our fragile Earth. Her closing words, “I want to have the discipline of gratitude to give back to the world that has given me my life.”

Salil Shetty, a tireless promoter of the Millennium Development Goals (he’s the Director of the Millennium Campaign, was next to speak. Infusing numbing and discouraging statistics on poverty with a testimonial of a woman’s plight to survive in Africa (among many other such testimonials), he went on to claim that the world has made “spectacular progress” in achieving the goals. (An aside on the MDGs: they are a series of 8 interlinked goals with associated indicators of progress that almost 190 States agreed to in 2000. The deadline for achieving these goals is a mere 5 years from now in 2015.)

It was at this point that I thought, Aha! Gotcha. He says the world has made spectacular progress towards the achievement of these goals, when in fact the MDG report issued last July by the UN says no such thing. Progress has been made, it acknowledges, but many goals will not be achieved at the current rate of progress. In particular, the goal on reducing maternal mortality by half is disappointingly pathetic. Globally, over half a million women and girls die just before, during, and right after giving birth. We’ve only begun to reduce that number – barely. (And the current Canadian government is not helping matters, although it could be a force of positive change.)

Turns out that even though Mr. Shetty called the progress “spectacular,” he was also candid about the MDGs’ shortcomings. He did however say that the goals are achievable. He pointed out that in the past 49 years of development assistance, richer nations have offered 2 trillion dollars (US) to poorer countries. Not bad, eh? Hold on, says he. In the past 18 months, governments have doled out 18 trillion dollars to banks and other financial institutions in order to bail them out of the economic slump. No matter which way you look at it, the word “fair” just doesn’t seem to apply here. He (and other speakers after) said that we have the resources (human and financial), we have concerned citizens around the world willing to help, we have the technology, and the know-how on effectively lifting the 1.4 billion people of our planet who live in extreme poverty (as defined as living under less than $1,25 US a day) out of their plight. The one thing he mentioned we don’t have enough of is political will: “political will is in short supply.”

Coca-Cola make an unlikely appearance by presenting its Odwalla drink. The drink is a quickly-generated venture Coke made with the Interamerican Development Bank whereby 100% of the profits go towards assisting Haitian farmers. Their idea seemed to be a sound one: by consulting with local farmers in Haiti after the earthquake, Coca-Cola, apparently Haiti’s largest private business employer, directed its attention towards rebuilding the agriculture sectors by empowering farmers to get their crops going again. A fine idea, ensuring job promotion and secure income for farmers and their families, but I still have a hard time liking Coca-Cola after they started bottling tap water and selling it to people dumb enough to buy it (I won’t even start with the environmental impact those bottles have, nor will I venture to address the communities who have been adversely affected by Coca-Cola’s regrettable practice of taking municipal water sources away from community members).

But let me move on. Next up on the podium were Hugh Evans and Scott Moss, founders of the Global Poverty Project. They gave an inspiring hour-long presentation, thankfully keeping the personal stories succinct and to the point about the root causes affecting those living in extreme poverty (sorry, I’ve witnessed too many speakers get weepy about how we have to help the poor that I get somewhat snarky whenever I hear one speak up and tell me how their life changed upon going to a piss-poor country and living with wonderful people near garbage and open sewers and how that became a transformative experience for them). They hammered us with facts in a precisely-executed multimedia presentation they’ve undoubtedly practiced innumerable times. Although I questioned one statistic they mentioned: a recent study by The Lancet indicated that the number of maternal mortality deaths around the world has been revised from 500,000 to 343,000. It’s a difficult statistic to measure in the first place, but if the number is really down, then that is a positive sign. However the speaker attributed the decrease in the strategies implemented thanks to the MDG, and if that’s what he meant, I would question that. It’s more likely due to an improved way to measure the statistic.

I forgot one speaker, Philippe Cousteau. Well, apart from a few quotes from his grandfather, I don’t think there’s much to report back on.

After lunch, in comes Al Gore. BOOM! This guy started and there was no stopping him for an hour straight. You can’t help but sit there in awe at the man’s intelligence and versatility at weaving everything you thought you knew about the environment and poverty together in a seamless presentation that he effortlessly glides through. As was the case with Sarah Ferguson, the main message al Gore was plugging to the audience was that we as citizens of this Earth have a moral obligation to address extreme poverty and climate change. Tugging at our heartstrings towards the end, he asked us what our children will think of us years from. Will they say, What were you thinking? Didn’t you care? Or will they be in a position to recognize that despite these formidable challenges, we did something. And saying something along the lines of Mr. Shetty’s speech, Mr. Gore pointed out that we have the will, the ability, the technology, the money to make a change. He fell short of saying that politicians are not pulling their weight around (but he did say that Copenhagen was not as successful as it could have been), but he did quip, “Political will is a renewable resource.”

The mayor of Port-au-Prince took the spotlight afterwards and the energy came down a few notches (understandably). He went through a thorough list of reconstruction efforts based on national interests, development efforts for and by the Haitian people, and economic equality for all Haitians. He was praised by Montreal’s own mayor in what turned out to be an unpaused (the guy breathed through his nose as he spoke so he talked non-stop) praise of the relationship Montreal has with Port-au-Prince.

With a couple of songs throughout the day to change the pace the last speaker took to the podium, and it was Kristin Davis, Sex and the City star and OXFAM Ambassador. Her talk was scattered, her mannerisms were borderline ditzy, but she came across as the most genuine, honest person I’d heard all day. Listening to her speak for an hour about the women she has met around the world who are trying to build their lives into something meaningful gave me the clear impression that she was humbled by who she met and grateful for having known and learned from them.

In the end, it was a day which probably inspired most who attended, from the teenagers screaming with joy on my left to – um, older – people like myself who have been working in international development “before most of those kids were born.” My one gripe about the speakers, and the conference in general, is that the words “human rights” were mentioned only once (as best I can recall), and that was by Mr. Shetty. The MDGs are all about rights, but a pronounced weakness of the goals, and this is a known criticism, is that they are simply that: goals, with no explicit legal obligations on the part of States who have agreed to meet these goals. If the MDGs had been formulated in accordance with human rights norms and standards, we would be in a position to ensure that governments be accountable for meeting their MDG targets. But that is not the case, and so the attainment of MDGs remain a distant dream in many countries where the political will – which should be renewed, Mr. Gore! – is unwilling to do anything meaningful about them.

In the end, this conference has given me much food for thought, and I’m glad I went. Next stop: Indonesia, next week. Stay tuned.

For more on the conference, check out my colleague’s feed on twitter as it happened.

One thought on “A day listening to Mr. Gore and others who want to change the world: report from the Montreal Millennium Summit

  • Thanks for the report, Paul. Much appreciated! I've followed the MDG discourse only loosely. It's always struck me as simply good goals that, though unlikely to be reached in our lifetime let alone the targeted dates, can at least do no harm. I'm skeptical that they are making any difference – especially in light of the trillions applied to bolstering the global capitalist economy.

    What really bothers me is the continued prevalence of the 'fighting poverty discourse' that virtually refuses to link poverty to the obscene wealth of the few. Poverty is not simply something that exists all by itself such that it can be targeted and fought. Nor is calling it “extreme poverty” anything but a cynical maneuver aimed at not offending the powerful. The poverty of the many exists because of the wealth of the few. One does not exist without the other. And as long as we remain fearful of at least NAMING this (never mind confronting it) no matter how fancy the goals we set, things will remain stubbornly the same.


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