Politics of Poverty

Five questions about the Sustainable Development Goals you were too embarrassed to ask

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Credit: UN Photo/Cia Pak

There has been a lot of talk about the Sustainable Development Goals, lately — but what are they, and why should you care?

This weekend at the United Nations headquarters in New York City, world leaders will gather to adopt a new set of global development goals for 2016-2030. They are known as the Sustainable Development Goals, or as some people call them, the SDGs.  President Obama will be there, Secretary Ban-Ki Moon, Pope Francis and many others. But what are the SDGs anyway and why should you care?

  1. What are the Sustainable Development Goals?

The Sustainable Development Goals form a shared agenda that world leaders are taking up to end extreme poverty, reduce inequality and injustice and fix climate change in the next 15 years. They have been painstakingly negotiated and crafted to be all encompassing with input from civil society, academics, scientists and the private sector, and millions of citizens around the world. As the world’s next shared to-do list to end extreme poverty, they seek to ensure that no one will be left behind. And they are for every country – including rich countries like the United States.

There are 17 ambitious goals to be adopted, ranging from ending poverty and hunger to ensuring access to health care, education, clean water, sanitation and energy. Importantly, there are goals focused on fighting both  inequality and climate change as well as achieving gender equality.  And within the goals, there are a dizzying 169 targets. Yes, it’s complicated. But combating poverty is complicated, and there are no silver-bullets. By creating measurable goals to achieve, we can all keep track of where we are doing well and where we need to improve, helping civil society hold governments accountable for continued progress.

  1. Wait, what happened to the MDGs?

The Millennium Development Goals were an unprecedented and concerted global effort to fight poverty globally at the dawn of the new millennium. The eight MDGs – which ranged from halving extreme poverty rates to halting the spread of HIV/AIDS and achieving universal primary education, all by the target date of 2015, provided a central platform to set an anti-poverty agenda and mobilize citizens to hold their governments accountable. In the 15 years since the MDGs were launched, the world has seen the fastest reduction in poverty in human history. The proportion of people living on less than $1.25 a day has fallen by more than half, lifting half a billion out of poverty. In sub-Saharan Africa, 41 percent fewer mothers die in childbirth now than they did two decades ago. Deaths of children under the age of five have been drastically reduced in Rwanda, Liberia, Madagascar, Malawi, Niger, and Ethiopia. Efforts to combat diseases are paying off: globally, 6 million lives have been saved from malaria since 2000.

While we can’t credit the MDGs for achieving all of that, they were a useful tool used by governments and civil society to push for and obtain significant increases in international aid, and for citizens to hold their governments to account for their commitments.

However, the MDGs also left unaddressed stark inequalities between the rich and the poorest, between women and men, boys and girls, people living in remote areas and in cities. The MDGs have also left out key issues such as peace and governance, and did not address the structural obstacles to equal rights and opportunities for women and girls. And as climate change, increasing inequality, and conflict are undermining the progress we have already achieved, we must urgently tackle them as they are the biggest threats to human development. And so cue in the SDGs.

  1. How are the SDGs different than the MDGs?

The promises of the new goals and the accompanying declaration represent a major leap forward in terms of ambition compared to the MDGs – to eradicate, not just reduce, extreme poverty and hunger, to combat inequality, to fight climate change, to ensure gender equality and women’s human rights, to ensure universal access to quality healthcare and education, with human rights of all people front and center. The promise to “leave no one behind” that the goals are based on and the following focus on those populations who have typically been marginalized, excluded or discriminated against, is something new, something very important, and we must celebrate this. And unlike the MDGs, which focused on poor countries, the new goals seek to eradicate poverty and inequality everywhere, in rich and poor countries alike, developed and developing.

  1. Are the SDGs attainable?

The SDGs are indeed ambitious, but they are achievable. Bringing them to life however cannot be a technocratic exercise. Leaving no one behind requires that the voice and power of the most vulnerable and marginalized people, including small-scale food producers, disabled people, workers in precarious employment situations and especially women, be strengthened so they can claim their rights and hold their governments to account. At the same time, the concentrated power of vested interests— be it among agribusiness, energy, pharmaceutical, and extractive companies or in the financial sector – must be challenged and properly held to account by governments and citizens.

We can be the first generation to end extreme poverty and hunger. And we are the last generation that can avert catastrophic climate change. Our leaders have set the goals, now we the people must rise to see them met and challenge our governments to keep the goals and all of us on track.

  1. Who is going to pay for all of this?

Achieving the sustainable development  goals will be expensive, but the world has enough resources. Governments must find the political will to allocate these resources towards ending extreme poverty, realizing human rights, and achieving sustainable development that truly leaves no one behind. Governments can raise the necessary revenue to invest in our fight against poverty, hunger, inequality and climate change by tackling tax avoidance, removing subsidies that undermine the goals such as for the fossil fuel industries and setting up progressive and sustainable domestic taxation systems. Cracking down on corruption and pressing for progressive politics and inclusive governance will also ensure that political decisions are taken to distribute power and resources in ways that empower poor and marginalized people.

International aid will continue to play an important role in saving millions of lives, so rich country governments must also set out clear timetables to meet past aid promises, alongside provision of new and additional resources for international climate finance in line with commitments in the ongoing climate change negotiations.

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