When you share a plank bench with a farmer in rural Myanmar, as I did this year, to hear his story — about how soldiers came to take his land some 20 years ago and how he's been fighting to get it back ever since — you realize why it can be hard for us to get excited about something as abstract as the Sustainable Development Goals.
Multiply that story, change it and morph it across the more than 700,000 development professionals who are Devex members around the globe and you'll get a sense of the complexity and challenges we see that don't fit neatly into an advocacy campaign.
The SDGs may be the crowning global achievement of 2015, but development professionals and aid workers deal in local realities.
That's not to say we're not excited; don't get me wrong. The idea that the entire planet came together around a set of global goals should be celebrated. And we're not so cynical that 196 nations agreeing that climate change is real, urgent and something they will act on doesn't get us choked up. It does.
But battle-hardened fighters for a better world see in 2015 a continuation — a fortification even — of volatile trends. Rising confidence among people and diminishing confidence in government; growing geopolitical tensions among nations that consider themselves both great and under threat; the increasing power of epidemics in a globalized world taunting an already stretched global health system. And reactionary views all too often trumping reason in politics and society.
If you lived in Ukraine or Venezuela in 2015, it was not a good year. Nor in Syria or its neighbors. Refugees from Pakistan who I met this year in a Berlin camp described how they walked, bused and otherwise navigated their way to the heart of Europe. A horrible, arduous journey, but doable and likely worth it when you think of what they fled. This is the new map that Europeans awoke to in 2015.
The realization that the world is smaller than we thought shouldn't obscure the fact that it's getting better. There was not one new polio case in all of Africa in 2015. And the World Health Organization announced this month that deaths from malaria are dropping fast, down more than 50 percent since the beginning of the century. Ebola tore into West Africa, but it was stopped in 2015 with much less loss of life than many feared. The question now is whether we're more ready for the next such health crisis.
If we're not, it's because countries, even rich and rising ones, are having a hard time getting priorities straight. Democracy is a messy business and even the most storied democracies have their warts. The U.K. stood out as a shining exception this year, enshrining a significant aid commitment in legislation not easily changed. But in the United States, few of the remaining Republican presidential candidates can be counted on to understand the importance of foreign aid and international cooperation, and two of them proved the point by using the nomination of a new U.S. Agency for International Development administrator as a political football. Meanwhile, China this year backed two new institutions to rival the Bretton-Woods system: The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the New Development Bank, better known as the BRICS Bank. They aim to add a counterpoint to the more democratic but often rigid multilateral bank system.
I'm writing this from India, one of the countries behind the New Development Bank, where a new government took power confidently but shows worrying signs of appealing to sectarianism to hold it. The extremes of this approach can be seen in Burundi today. And even in middle-income countries — from Malaysia to Mexico to Chile to South Africa to Kenya to Brazil (sadly I could go on) — citizens are throwing up their arms and, in the case of Brazil, banging pots and pans in the face of pervasive corruption. 2015 was about this too.
So should we end this year with a sense of destiny? After all, if 2015 was so consequential, it was because we wanted it to be. This was a year when intentionality trumped narrow interests. Names were put to documents that outlined funding for development, made concrete the mission to end poverty and committed to halt the warming of the planet.
Cue the refrain: "Now comes the hard part."
True, but we know what we're getting ourselves into. Most of the mainstream coverage of the SDGs focused on how expensive they would be to achieve. I moderated a session with Bill and Melinda Gates during the U.N. General Assembly this year and, to me, Bill Gates seemed visibly annoyed when a reporter asked, essentially, if the global goals were nothing but a pipe dream since they would cost trillions to implement. He offered innovation in response.
Human progress has never been simply about paying bills for yesterday's ideas. Aung San Suu Kyi is an innovator to be celebrated in 2015. So too are the scientists who scrambled to develop an Ebola vaccine, the advocacy groups that pushed the world to a climate deal, the negotiators who found a way to take even small steps toward a peaceful future for Cuba and Iran. What's the ROI on their work?
Innovation, then, needs to be our focus to make the promises of 2015 a reality. That frame — versus, say, harried fundraising appeals — tends to attract more money and talent. The U.K. Department for International Development's cash panel this year added yet another voice to the chorus that humanitarian response requires a fundamental rethink, including a move to get money into the hands of those who need it when their homes and lives have been swept away. Then there's the work to develop vaccines for malaria and tuberculosis, make drones tools of peace and connect even the poorest people to financial services.
The innovation message matters increasingly to aid-recipient governments. Just like China’s push to go from export-oriented manufacturing power to a behemoth consumer economy has burst the commodity bubble that so many emerging economies depended on, developing countries saw clearly in Addis Ababa that they need to transform themselves from passive recipients of largesse to directors of their own script. And they'll need to fund much of it, too.
The largest program to fund AIDS drugs in the world — the United States' PEPFAR — dramatically made this point by restricting its funding within partner countries to those areas with the greatest burdens of disease. For Mozambique that meant funds that used to support 148 provinces now go to just 77.
For developing country leaders, then, 2015 was a kind of wake-up call.
For corporate CEOs, too. Slavery in supply chains didn't begin in 2015, but it and many other issues put a stronger spotlight on corporate citizenship than ever before. The SDGs were an important part of this story, creating a framework that corporate boards could not ignore. HBO's indefatigable John Oliver went after the fashion industry for the abusive business model that cheap prices require. And in the year of global goals, the bar was raised ever higher for corporations. There is now both a danger in not stepping up and being a good corporate citizen and a real benefit in taking a leadership position as companies such as Unilever have sought to do.
As the year ended, the announcement by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg that he and his wife Priscilla Chan would donate nearly their entire fortune changed the game again. Imagine now that 2015 could set in motion many more similar announcements in the coming years: more billionaires and corporations, rising powers and developing countries, in a kind of arms race for global good.
An accomplishment like that doesn't come without sacrifice and neither will the fights yet to come in the effort to make the global goals real. After all, development happens locally: it's where people and grassroots campaigns push their governments to do their jobs; where NGOs and social enterprises find creative solutions to seemingly intractable problems; where responsible businesses create jobs and innovation; where visionary leaders cut fuel subsidies and leave office when they're meant to; where, all too often this year, committed aid workers give their lives to stop the spread of conflict and save the lives of others.
None of this is easy, but in a year when rural farmers in Myanmar like the one I met this spring can peacefully rise up to take back their government, there's no room for cynicism. And if the global goals and the climate agreement together form an ideal that seems too lofty, remember they come back to Earth when they inform the tough choices, the hard sacrifices, people have to make at home to create a better future. That’s why we at Devex are so honored to have served you this year, our 15th anniversary, but a consequential year for so many more reasons than that.
Raj Kumar is the founding president and editor-in-chief of Devex, the media platform for the global development community. A social entrepreneur and digital media executive, he chairs the Humanitarian Council of the World Economic Forum and is a member of the Clinton Global Initiative and the Council on Foreign Relations. His work has led him to more than 50 countries where he has had the honor to meet many of the aid workers and development professionals who make up the Devex community.
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