Are we ready for a 'universal' development agenda?

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and U.S. President Barack Obama meet on Aug. 4 in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, D.C. Photo by: Mark Garten / U.N.

In the same week U.S. presidential candidates take aim at each other for the first time on the debate stage, negotiators from 193 U.N. member states reached consensus on the sustainable development agenda that world leaders will meet to adopt at September’s U.N. General Assembly in New York.

After more than two years of negotiation and deliberation, the post-2015 agenda — covering 17 sustainable development goals and 169 individual indicators — is unabashedly ambitious. The first goal, for example, is “end poverty in all its forms everywhere.” The second? “End hunger.”

The sustainable development agenda is something else too: universal. It is meant to apply to developing and developed countries alike. And with so much ambition on the table, the post-2015 agenda could raise some tricky questions about living standards, environmental sustainability, and what exactly rich countries like the United States are agreeing to do over the next 15 years.

Any discussion of global goals, especially those determined and championed by the United Nations, risks raising hackles within America’s polarized political atmosphere. It’s worth wondering whether anxieties about global governance and national sovereignty might throw a wrench in the gears of U.S. support for the SDG launch and implementation process.

Indicators associated with goal 10, which deals with reducing inequality, venture into territory that is full of political minefields in the U.S. and other rich countries. Target 10.7, for example, directs signatories to “facilitate orderly, safe, regular and responsible migration and mobility of people, including through implementation of planned and well-managed migration policies.”

One of the education targets is to “ensure that all girls and boys have access to quality early childhood development, care and pre-primary education so that they are ready for primary education.” According to the Council on Foreign Relations, preschool enrollment rates in the United States have dropped to around 69 percent, and vary widely according to socio-economic status.

At the International Conference on Financing for Development in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, U.S. Treasury Sec. Jack Lew responded to a question from Devex about whether the United States would commit to implementing the SDGs at home.

“I think that there’s no comparison between the standard of living in the United States and the standard of living in many developing countries. So I think to treat them as if they’re comparable doesn’t reflect reality,” Lew told Devex at a small news briefing on the sidelines of the conference.

The secretary listed a number of areas where the administration has championed programs to lift Americans out of poverty and expand the middle class: raising the minimum wage, and jobs and skills training programs, for example.

“We’re seeing incomes rise again, and we have a safety net in place that protects people from the worst ravages of poverty, but I don’t think it’s fair to compare the United States to a developing country,” Lew said.

A U.S. government official, who wished to remain anonymous to avoid a lengthy clearance process, told Devex the SDGs are meant to be aspirational for all countries, and that it is unlikely any country, after a thorough evaluation of national performance against the indicators, will meet all of the goals, including the United States.

In response to a question about whether the U.S. would put in place a plan to achieve the SDGs, the official said the administration would likely do an assessment when the goals are finalized, but that poverty in developing countries and poverty in the United States do not present a fair comparison.

Extreme poverty is notoriously difficult — and contentious — to measure, especially when you venture beyond a set of developing countries with relatively harmonized data. Some have attempted to measure the prevalence of extreme poverty in rich countries though, including the United States. An article in Stanford University’s Pathways magazine, “The Rise of Extreme Poverty in the United States,” concluded that, among other things, “1.17 million children were in extreme poverty in mid-2011 under our most conservative measure.”

Subsequent findings from the Brookings Institution challenged that report, noting that “if we used the exact same criteria to measure poverty in the U.S. as is used by the World Bank to obtain official poverty estimates for the developing world, we would conclude that no one in the U.S. falls under the $2 threshold,” according to the paper’s co-authors, Laurence Chandy and Cory Smith. One main reason being that extreme poverty in the U.S. is often a temporary condition, “accounted for by life events such as moving between jobs that are not necessarily indications of diminished welfare,” they write.

It is likely more indices will emerge that do harmonize poverty rates and other standard of living measures across developed and developing countries as the post-2015 process unfolds. The Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative is leading an effort to do exactly that with its Global Multidimensional Poverty Index, a data set that expands standard of living measures beyond gross domestic product to include things like education, health and “lived environment” indicators.

This year OPHI expanded its index to include 101 countries, or 75 percent of the world’s population. It may be that soon poverty in the United States and poverty in developing countries will, quite literally, be comparable.

For the most part, the SDGs haven’t attracted much political vitriol from those who question U.S. involvement in a globally convened development agenda. In fact, supporters have been fighting to get them noticed at all by the general public. But with a U.S. presidential campaign gearing up and candidates grasping for ways to separate themselves from a historically crowded field, what one Fox News pundit described as the U.N.’s “multitrillion-dollar ... bid to reshape the planet along largely socialist or progressive lines” could present easy prey for skeptics of multilateralism, eager to land a political punch against the Obama administration.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon met with U.S. President Barack Obama a day after the latter’s clean power announcement, and told him: “This is a top priority now as we have successfully agreed on a sustainable development agenda with a set of 17 sustainable development goals. This is hugely ambitious and encouraging news. … On all these matters, we really count on your strong support.”

Some experts advocate for a more nuanced understanding of what it means for an agenda to be “universal” in the 21st century, and Obama’s action on climate change is illustrative of what they have in mind. While each country might face unique challenges in aspiring to achieve the goals at home, “universality” implies a recognition that the SDGs provide a framework for tackling problems that require global cooperation.

Issues of poverty, environmental change, migration and health are globally interdependent. Solving them requires attention to systemic challenges that are beyond any single country’s capacity to solve, Nancy Birdsall, founding president at the Center for Global Development, told Devex.

“The fact that the Treasury secretary [attended the Financing for Development conference in Addis Ababa] … suggests a little bit more emphasis on seeing the SDGs as part of a global system,” Birdsall said, noting that it was not the U.S. Agency for International Development administrator leading the delegation, but a high-ranking cabinet official with domestic policy clout.

“On the other hand, at the sort of working level in the U.S. government the SDGs are still thought of as mostly about where can we find more money for aid,” she added. “It’s not something that’s about money. It’s about the U.S. taking leadership on fixing the global system in the direction of development and shared prosperity and sustainable growth.”

Birdsall pointed to global public goods like clean energy technology, where research, development and market building by the U.S. could have a profound impact on the availability of new technologies in the developing world.

“The U.S. has huge assets … and domestic investment in clean energy is really very low, and it’s an area where domestic investment ... could generate new technologies or speed up the rate at which existing renewables become affordable … in other countries,” Birdsall said.

CGD has produced a new series of policy recommendations for the next administration to consider, but the think tank chief remains skeptical that questions about universality — and what it implies about U.S. obligations toward a global agenda — will feature prominently on any of the debate stages this year.

“I think it would be really healthy if issues of global governance came up,” Birdsall told Devex.

The rise of new actors like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and New Development Bank, both of them convened and created as alternatives to the Western-led Bretton Woods institutions, lend a sense of urgency to discussions about the role the United States is — or should be — playing in helping to finance and to achieve the SDGs.

But for now — for better or for worse — most U.S. candidates appear content to grapple with each other, not yet with the implications of a global sustainable development agenda they might be expected to implement.

Want to see more coverage of the SDGs? Check out Sustaining Development in partnership with Chevron, FXB, Global Health Fellows Program II, Philips, Pfizer, UNIDO, U.N. Volunteers and the U.S. Council for International Business. You’ll find more Devex news coverage of the SDGs like this article, plus opinion pieces, video interviews, and content provided by our partners.

About the author

  • Michael Igoe

    Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.