The MDGs and Animal Welfare and Rights

The MDGs and Animal Welfare and Rights

Along Kenya's Mara River: discussing the MDGs?

World leaders and global civil society gathered at the United Nations in New York last week to assess progress on and re-energize commitments to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). A set of eight priorities, spanning poverty, hunger, health, education and (rather weakly) the environment, the MDGs guide much of global development policy and funding.

What might the MDGs mean to, or for, animals, and their welfare or even their rights? Anything? It’s a question that even it it wasn’t posed at the United Nations, has been asked. “Tackling animal welfare in Africa for development” was the theme of the Africa Animal Welfare Action conference (where Brighter Green was represented) just concluded. During the conference’s lead off session, World Society for Protection of Animals’ CEO Mike Baker gave a taut speech linking good treatment of animals to progress on the MDGs (progress that has been, since the goals were agreed in 2005, uneven), as well as economic development (an area the MDGs don’t cover).

His case was a cogent one: healthier, better cared for working animals are a better family asset than poorly treated ones; combating diseases among animals can help human health; “humane farming,” as opposed to factory farming, can increase prospects for ending poverty and hunger, has environmental benefits, and can help contribute to the costs of children’s schooling or health care. Animal welfare, of course, offers non-instrumental benefits and Baker touched on these, too. Animals, he argued, need to be seen as worth investing in and protecting from the standpoint of economics, the environment, and ethics.

By using the term “for” however, the conference framework almost presumed that animal welfare’s relevance, at least in some contexts, lay in its utility as an instrument of development. I wondered: Was this the only way to see animal welfare in an African or development context? Not all the presenters argued from this angle, and not all addressed “development” issues or challenges specifically. And yet, the “for” was there. What if the theme of the conference had been “Tackling animal welfare and development in Africa” instead? Would that be another formulation entirely? Yes, and no. The “and” presupposes a parallel relationship, not an instrumental one. But is there any precedent for this? Or, indeed, relevance or utility (after all, development is often a matter of utility…as well as aspiration).

Surely the industrial revolution that “development” is in many ways an attempt to replicate in the global South didn’t have animal welfare on its agenda. Certainly animal welfare, let alone rights, isn’t central to policy and planning processes in the “developed” world. Should they be in Africa? Could they be? That, in a way, was what the conference represented, too: this possibility…ways of thinking about and interacting with and for animals in support of broad welfare objectives, for the animals as well as for Africans (and others).

Another speaker at the conference, Dr. Mosoti Mogoa of the University of Nairobi, offered a trenchant presentation on why animal welfare hasn’t so far been part of development policy and practice (or legal codes) in Africa, and how it could be. Is the goal of such a change, he asked, preventing cruelty or proactively promoting welfare?

In my presentation, I raised a parallel possibility: a rights agenda that encompasses human rights, the rights of nature (around which there’s an emerging discourse – and action), and the rights of animals. What exactly that looks like, I don’t claim to know: instead of a well-treated donkey for transport of goods, a bamboo bicycle with a “green” motor? A constitution or national legislation that recognizes the shared interests and rights of animals, nature, and people? Truly humane farming? Veganic agriculture? Gender equality for all species – one of the MDGs and a concept that could be applied to non-human animals, too?

I’m still thinking. This reflection on the MDGs and animals is a preview of coming attractions, or warning: In future blogs, there’ll be more about my experiences in and ideas from Africa, the Africa Animal Welfare Action conference, and my time in Kenya. Photos, too (quality uncertain).