5 questions for world leaders about the future SDGs

U.S. President Barack Obama delivers a speech during a luncheon hosted by United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon for world leaders attending the general debate of the 69th session of the general assembly. Photo by: Kim Haughton / U.N.

This week, you have probably started to hear from world leaders gathered in New York for the 69th U.N. General Assembly who are making speeches about ending world poverty by 2030.

UNGA kicks off a year of what threatens to be increasingly complex international negotiations about the so-called Sustainable Development Goals that will replace the Millennium Development Goals after 2015. Arguments are likely to center on where — and who — the funding for the SDGs should come from, as well as long-standing controversies around women’s rights, “new” issues such as climate change and disasters, good governance, and peace and security.

Those speeches will inevitably focus on the importance of ending poverty by 2030 — but what will mark the genuinely ambitious out from the pack? Below are our five questions for heads of state and government ministers that will address UNGA.

1.       Will the SDGs ensure that no one is left behind and take economic inequality seriously?

When the U.N. High-Level Panel on the Post-2015 Development Agenda, co-chaired by British Prime Minister David Cameron, published its conclusions in 2013, one of its rallying calls was “leave no one behind.” This means that no SDG should be considered met unless it accounts for all income and social groups. In some countries, this might mean people affected by caste, in another afro-descendants and in yet another, migrant workers. In all nations, gender inequality will of course require particular attention.

Governments must embrace the “leave no one behind” principle and face up to their own domestic challenges. In addition, they cannot afford to ignore economic inequality. Growth that increases the gaps between rich and poor will inevitably leave people behind, undermine democracy and reinforce entrenched poverty. The inclusion of targets on progressive taxation, decent work, land rights and social protection are therefore all essential, as is an explicit and meaningful objective to reduce economic inequality.

2.       Will they take radical steps to address climate change and other environmental challenges?

All the talk of poverty eradication sometimes sounds as though it is happening within a vacuum. Beautiful graphs project how it might be achieved by 2030, but with little reference to the severity of climate change. Have our leaders looked at the latest IPCC report? If they have, then they will understand the consequences for food production, health and disaster frequency. Jeffrey Sachs has rightly said that unless the SDGs include climate change as a headline, then they will be “unusable.” David Cameron talks about the “golden thread” of good governance and the rule of law, but Christian Aid and others have also long argued for a “green thread.” All the targets, including on energy and on economic growth, should promote — and carefully not undermine — low-carbon and climate-resilient development. There must also be targets — for instance on renewables, waste and energy efficiency — which require a greater effort from wealthier countries. There is still time to put the world on a more sustainable course, but it is quickly running out.

3.       What do they mean by ‘poverty’?

When politicians talk about the eradication of extreme poverty, often they are thinking purely about income, and a very low income at that — currently $1.25 a day. This means that if someone is surviving on say $1.50, this person is no longer counted as extremely poor. While no one can deny that money can be important, this definition will create a false impression if it is allowed to dominate the conversation. A more ambitious agenda should go beyond income to consider poverty in all its forms. Guaranteeing human rights and addressing relative poverty and issues of power, such as gender-based violence, are all essential for the eradication of poverty.

4.       Are they willing to address conflict and disasters?

In 2014, the number of people around the world forced to flee their homes exceeded 50 million for the first time since World War II. Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines alone affected 14 million people and displaced more than 4 million. Conflict and disasters have made people more vulnerable and slowed poverty eradication, and yet the MDGs were silent on them. Since this is one of the more controversial areas, the new goals must have something to say about peace building and community resilience, and work to reduce the risk and impact of disasters. Developing accountable governance is key and investing upfront, before a crisis hits, is the best way to minimize its impact.

5.       Will the ambition for universal goals be realized and backed up by finance, resources and global cooperation?

This will of course be one of the stickier points, and estimates put delivery of the SDGs at over $1 trillion. While foreign aid will remain critical, especially for the poorest and least-developed countries, most of the funds will have to be raised and invested by national budgets. Yet we know that developing countries continue to lose huge sums of cash through tax dodging, other illicit flows and through debt repayments. Unless developed countries are open to reform on these issues, it will be hard to make progress. It is staggering for example that there is still no representative intergovernmental body on tax cooperation able to drive this agenda. All countries, including the United Kingdom, will also have to gear their own fiscal policymaking toward sustainable development — ensuring that sufficient resources are being allocated to achieve targets, promoting equality and guaranteeing transparency in decision-making.

If you want to know more about how we feel at Christian Aid about the post-2015 agenda, check out our new position paper, which details the proposals we have developed along with our partners around the world. It also provides some assessment of ideas that have already been put on the table by the U.N. Open Working Group on the SDGs.

The SDGs are likely to be finally approved by September 2015. Over the next 12 months, the world needs negotiators to strengthen, rather than weaken, the agenda for poverty eradication and sustainable development. This is our chance to envisage the world we want to see in 2030.

It’s likely that investment and political action, both at home and abroad, will follow these goals, and so it’s essential that our political leaders get them right.

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The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Helen Dennis

    Helen Dennis is senior adviser on poverty and inequality at Christian Aid, where she coordinates the organization’s sustainable development agenda and global conversation about what might replace the Millennium Development Goals in 2016. Previously, Dennis worked charities like Tearfund or YMCA England, with a focus on poverty, social exclusion and the role of faith in politics.