The SDGs risk failing the most vulnerable in fragile states

By David Miliband 09 September 2015

Syrian refugee children at a clinic in Ramtha, Jordan. The MDGs did not recognize the special challenges of war-torn, chronically impoverished countries. Nearly two-thirds of fragile states will fail to halve extreme poverty by the end of this year — the deadline for meeting the MDGs. Photo by: Russell Watkins / Department for International Development / CC BY

Negotiators from 193 countries met in New York City last month to discuss — and agree upon — the successor framework to the Millennium Development Goals, the targets which have provided focus and benchmarks for the efforts to tackle global extreme poverty over the past 15 years. The overriding aim of the new sustainable development goals is audacious: “to end poverty in all its forms everywhere by 2030.” But the aim will quickly become hubris unless the right lessons are learned from the MDGs and from the changing causes of extreme poverty around the world.

From migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean in hopes of a better life to income disparities and discrimination in the West, inequality is the central issue of the day. Countries, foundations, even businesses are pledging to make things right, perhaps because they care but also because they’re under scrutiny — and rightly so. But the fastest-growing inequality — between people in stable states and those caught up in conflict — is all but ignored. None of the SDGs — on education, health or gender equality — establish special targets for people in conflict-affected, so-called fragile states. We need a course correction, fast.

The statistics show dramatic reductions in poverty in the last 15 years. The greatest gains have come from economic growth in India and China. Chinese growth alone accounts for three quarters of the gains made during the MDG period. But the MDGs themselves, with narrow and focused targets on, for example, maternal mortality and childhood education, have made their contribution, bringing resources and attention to people who would otherwise have been left behind.

There are more SDGs than MDGs. There are 17 new goals, and 169 targets, rather than the original eight goals. They are also far broader. They embrace issues like energy and urbanization; they are also "inclusive" in the sense of targeting global poverty rather than just poverty in poor countries, so Baltimore, Maryland, is included as well as Bangalore, India.

This scale of ambition raises immediate questions about the capacity for implementation. After all, this kind of plan would tax even the most efficient and effective state administration. But there is a more fundamental aim for those committed to make these goals more than rhetoric: how to account for the changing geography of poverty around the world, and above all the rising proportion of the extreme poor caught up in conflict. These ‘most vulnerable of the poor’ are most likely to be left behind.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development classifies 50 states as “fragile,” defined not just by how much a state lacks the capacity, will or legitimacy to provide basic services or enforce rule of law, but also the extent to which that country is exposed to violence, poverty, economic instability and environmental shocks. Many, such as Afghanistan, Democratic Republic of the Congo and Somalia, have been unstable for decades. Others, like Syria, have only recently imploded.

Together, these fragile states account for one fifth of the world’s population but are home to 43 percent of people living on less than $1.25 per day. This proportion is set to rise to nearly two-thirds by 2030. So a strategy to combat global poverty cannot succeed unless it targets these people, and we have recent evidence of what happens when they are not targeted.

The MDGs did not recognize the special challenges of war-torn, chronically impoverished countries. Partly as a result, these states have fallen further behind the rest of the developing world in tackling poverty. Nearly two-thirds of fragile states will fail to halve extreme poverty by the end of this year (the deadline for meeting the MDGs). Only a quarter will cut the number of their citizens without access to safe water by 50 percent, and just one-fifth will secure universal primary education for their children.

The SDGs are set to repeat this pattern. Instead of specifically addressing the needs of people in fragile states, they set overarching goals: “Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.”

There is one goal dedicated to “promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development.” But this is focused on justice systems and institutions, not conflict resolution. The clear and present danger is therefore that the emerging divide behind poor people in stable and conflict states grows. In the implementation of the SDGs that danger must be averted.

The MDGs have shown the value of narrow and clear targets. That is what people in conflict states need to hold the world's attention to their plight. Call them “floor targets”: tailored objectives for the basic needs of civilians in conflict states, covering education, health care, violence against women and girls. For example, that 100 percent of children in conflict settings participate in safe education opportunities that advance their learning by 2030. There could be interim measurement points in 2020 and 2025 to track progress.

No one pretends that targets to tackle poverty would end the war in Syria, but they could have focused the world's attention on, for example, the more than 300,000 Syrian children in Lebanon without an education.

These “floor targets” would provide a measure to hold the international community to account, supply a rallying point for public opinion, and create a mechanism through which humanitarian and development agencies can align their efforts.

If it is too late to insert such targets into the SDGs themselves, which are slated to be officially adopted this month during the U.N. General Assembly, then a further opportunity presents itself next April, at the U.N. secretary-general’s World Humanitarian Summit. It should take as its mandate the development of a feasible plan to deliver the SDGs in fragile states. And it should start by developing agreed metrics of success in the form of floor targets for the essentials of life for populations displaced (or trapped) by conflict. These are the most vulnerable and innocent people of all, and it is vital they and their needs are not forgotten.

Sustaining Development is a three-month online series exploring the post-2015 development agenda hosted by Devex in partnership with Chevron, FXB, Global Health Fellows Program II, Philips, Pfizer, UNIDO, U.N. Volunteers and the U.S. Council for International Business. We will look at the practical steps needed to move the sustainable development goals from concept to reality. Visit the campaign site here and join the conversation using #SustainDev. 

About the author

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David Miliband

David Miliband is president and CEO of the International Rescue Committee, where he oversees the agency’s humanitarian relief operations in more than 30 war-affected countries and its refugee resettlement and assistance programs in 25 United States cities. From 2007 to 2010, Miliband was the 74th secretary of state for foreign affairs of the United Kingdom, driving advancements in human rights and representing the U.K. throughout the world. Miliband graduated from Oxford University in 1987 with a first class honors degree in philosophy, politics and economics, and received a master’s degree in political science in 1989 from MIT.


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