UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon speaks to the press following the agreement reached on the new sustainable development agenda in New York City on August 3 (XINHUA)
Ending world hunger, eradicating poverty and creating a planet filled with peace and prosperity seems like fantasy, but the 193 member states of the United Nations (UN) took steps in mid-August to turn that dream into a reality. After two years of negotiations, participating countries agreed to an "ambitious" agenda with 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) aimed to transform the world by 2030 into a better place—an agreement UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said "encompasses a universal, transformative and integrated agenda that heralds an historic turning point for our world." The goals are expected to be adopted in September by world leaders at the Sustainable Development Summit in New York.
"This is the people's agenda, a plan of action for ending poverty in all its dimensions, irreversibly, everywhere, and leaving no one behind. It seeks to ensure peace and prosperity, and forge partnerships with people and planet at the core. The integrated, interlinked and indivisible 17 SDGs are the people's goals and demonstrate the scale, universality and ambition of this new agenda," said Secretary General Ban.
The SDGs replace the UN's eight Millennium Development Goals, which have helped 700 million people escape poverty, according to the UN. The eight strategic points of the 15-year plan focused on slashing poverty, hunger, disease, gender inequality, and access to water and sanitation.
The new SDGs have a broader aim, to address the roots of poverty in a broad "Five P's" approach: people, planet, prosperity, peace, and partnership.
"We can be the first generation that ends global poverty, and the last generation to prevent the worst impacts of global warming before it is too late," said the UN Chief.
For critics, this type of agreement is laughable. After all, the Millennium Development Goals were not fully achieved. It will cost trillions of dollars—possibly tens of trillions of dollars—to implement. More than 1 billion people across the globe live in extreme poverty of less than $1.25 per day. Millions lack access to food, safety, shelter and medical care. One third of the extremely poor are children under the age of 13. According to the World Bank, 35 "low- income" countries like Bangladesh, Chad, Haiti and Kenya have made little or no progress in eliminating poverty.
But every imperfect step toward perfection is progress; and the SDGs—as unattainable as they may seem—are worthwhile goals. In the years since the millennium, poverty rates have fallen faster than any time in human history and child mortality has fallen by more than 30 percent. Now is the time to aim even higher. In a world as rich as ours, as technologically connected and with so much amassed knowledge, there is no excuse to leave anyone behind in development.
Making it happen
China has made amazing progress in reducing poverty rates and plays a key role in helping the developing world make similar strides. As the world's most populous country and fastest growing economy, China bridges the gap between developing economies and industrialized countries.
Since 1997, China has conducted a nationwide poverty monitoring survey to assess and map areas of need. A multi-sector governmental approach that uses labor mobility and community participation has reduced the number of the extremely poor from 85 percent in 1981 to 27 percent in 2004. New initiatives include a project co-financed by the Global Environment Fund to provide opportunities for China's poorest communities to select economic initiatives themselves while addressing potential climate change risks and land degradations.
These successes are a pathway for other developing countries to follow. By focusing on economic opportunities, instead of handouts, and providing a safety net for those most vulnerable, every country can achieve the same reduction in poverty rates that China has achieved.
"The agreement includes important proposals by China and many other developing countries in numerous aspects, thus mirroring the strong will of the international community in their efforts to work hard for mutually beneficial cooperation and common development," Wang Min, China's Deputy Permanent Representative to the UN, told reporters.
In an interview with Xinhua News Agency, UN Under-Secretary General for Economic and Social Affairs Wu Hongbo said the accord is the first global consensus that GDP growth alone is not sustainable without environmental protection or social justice.
"The so-called sustainable development is not just about economic growth," Wu said. "It involves three dimensions—economic development, social progress and environment protection … each one of them is indispensable."
What will it cost?
Change is expensive. Kenya's UN Ambassador, Macharia Kamau, one of the facilitators of the negotiations, said implementing the goals would cost $3.5 trillion to $5 trillion a year, equivalent to the United States 2016 Federal Budget. It's an "astronomical" number when compared with the billions usually requested for UN development projects, said Ambassador Kamau, one of the co-facilitators of the SDG negotiations.
"The sheer size, the depth and the complexity of this agenda challenge all of us, and challenge the United Nations," said Susana Malcorra, Chief of Staff for the secretary general.
Ambitious, yes, but not impossible, Kamau said. Funds are expected to be mobilized from both public and private sources and the document has asked the developed countries to implement fully their official development assistance commitments in support of developing countries.
The world powers will need to do much more in opening their wallets to the developing world. Domestic investment accounted for a third of all funding available to developing countries in 2012, while foreign aid made up just 0.4 percent of the total. At the UN's Third International Conference on Financing for Development in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in July, donor countries were urged to commit to pledging 0.7 percent of their gross national income to the UN's official development assistance body by the end of the year.
Even so, most countries will be expected to be responsible for its own economic and social development, according to the accord. Implementation will be critical to success.
"The real issue is not the lack of resources," said Wu. "The knowledge and money to finance sustainable development do exist. The main challenge is to channel these resources to areas and sectors of greatest need to improve people's wellbeing. All actors must take their responsibility and rise to the challenge."
The next step for the SDG agreement is to be formally adopted in New York in September. Once approved, implementation of the agenda will begin on January 1 next year. The agreement is expected to provide momentum for negotiations on a new binding climate change treaty to culminate at the Climate Change Conference in Paris at the end of November.
The author is a contributing writer to Beijing Review, living in New York City
(Reporting from New York City)
Copyedited by Eric Daly