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The UN's poverty-fighting programme lacks teeth

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Writing in The Guardian, Mary Robinson argues that extreme poverty robs people of their human rights and that countries behind schedule with their Millennium Development Goals will stay that way unless they're made accountable.

Over the past decade, the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) have served as an international benchmark for measuring progress in fighting extreme poverty.

Despite the commitments made by governments, many countries are still not on track to achieve their MDG targets by 2015. Shortcomings are due to a range of factors. The MDG framework largely ignores ongoing discrimination and social exclusion. Equally important, the MDGs do not place on states obligations to develop national action plans, to be held accountable for achieving results, or to consult with people on priorities.

These shortcomings have contributed to the uneven results we've seen over the past 10 years and must be addressed as we look to the future.

In the past few years there has been an encouraging and important shift in the approach to fighting extreme poverty, which puts the human rights of the poor at the centre of the debate. Governments, the UN and civil society are now trying to find ways to accelerate the rate of progress.

Growing focus is rightly being placed on the very poorest people – those who live on less than a dollar a day, who are at most risk of infectious disease or from dying in childbirth, who have never known secure employment and who often go hungry for days or weeks at a time.

Poverty, as my friend and fellow Elder Ela Bhatt has said so often, is a form of violence. Extreme poverty robs people of all their rights: their right to health, to education, to dignity, to equality of opportunity and often of the right to life itself.

A woman who dies in pregnancy or childbirth for the lack of access to basic healthcare is being robbed of her right to life and health. A girl who is unable to go to school because her brothers are given priority is being robbed of her right to an education and to equality of opportunity. A government that ignores poor, informal sector workers when planning new city developments and forcibly clears shacks and shanty towns is denying people the right to livelihood.

Big, powerful countries and businesses that insist on free access to the markets of poorer countries, yet set impossible benchmarks for poor countries' imports, are denying the right to equality of opportunity and fair trade. So far, globalisation has helped some, but not all.

Civil society, the NGO community, business people and the media often rally round issues that are focused on rights. This is tremendously important. Today, at the UN in New York, civil society and business groups are making their case for faster progress on fighting poverty – and among them are human rights campaigners.

Accountability and freedom of expression are critical to achieving people-centred development. Yet too many governments are prepared to squash the voices of the poor and those who work with them. The poorest are excluded from the formal economy and their rights to decent work are not protected, let alone their rights to organise and to be represented.

By accepting that poverty is a violation of human rights and by ensuring that the voices of the poor are heard, we may finally see the kind of progress that holds governments accountable for implementing their human rights obligations and enables poor people to help themselves.

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