Why the last 50 years are key for the next 15

A street scene in Colombia. What does achieving the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development mean for the Latin America and the Caribbean region? Photo by: Remon Rijper / CC BY-NC-ND

Of the five decades that the United Nations Development Program celebrates this year, I have lived half in the organization, in different roles.

Our story began focusing on world poverty, on the most at-need women and men in the post-colonial era, with the emergence of new, independent countries beginning to trace their own paths to prosperity.

In Latin America and the Caribbean we have supported many countries in their transition to democracy, also in various national truth and justice commissions and strengthening institutional capacities. Our partnership with governments, civil society and the private sector has also been crucial to innovative public policies and job creation initiatives that have helped improve the lives of millions of people.

This is also a momentous year for our region. Over 50 years ago Colombia’s internal armed conflict began; it is now on the verge of coming to a close. The recent steps towards the normalization of relations between Cuba and the United States after more than half a century are also of historic importance, not only to these countries but to the entire region.

Looking back 50 years, the concept of development has shifted.

There was a change in the “what” and today it is evident that economic growth is not enough: the gains have to be in the social, economic and environmental realms — leaving no one behind. If it’s not sustainable, it’s not development.

The “how” has also changed. We no longer speak in terms of development “aid.” It’s all about “partnerships” for development. And the traditional “north-south aid” concept has opened essential space for south-south cooperation.

In Latin America and the Caribbean, the past 15 years coincided with the Millennium Development Goals, tailored for developing countries. In general, our region, mainly composed of middle-income countries, met this agenda. It grew, reduced the number of people in poverty by more than 90 million and registered tremendous progress, especially in education and health, with large investments and innovations in social policy. It was the only region that reduced income inequality over the past decade. During these years, countries have also consolidated the exchange of information and successful development experiences within the region — and beyond.

Now, boosting resilience has to be a central focus of our work. Despite the progress, UNDP estimates that more than 220 million people, a third of the region’s population, live in limbo: they are not classified as poor (living on less than $4 a day) but have been unable to reach the middle class (living on more than $10 a day). These are the vulnerable men and women in our region. In the case of an external shock — whether financial, a natural disaster or a serious illness in the family — they risk falling into poverty. A “cushion” is needed to keep up with times of crisis: decent work, social and health insurance and owning assets, such as a home, are a few examples.

The new Sustainable Development Goals, which all countries, from the richest to the poorest, begin to implement this year, also require new ways of thinking in public policies. We are moving away from the idea that each ministry looks after an isolated part of a scheme: health, education, housing, food or work. It is an opportunity to rethink progress, in its multiple dimensions.

People’s well-being means a lot more than living above or below an international poverty line. It’s more than income. That’s why we are focusing on “multidimensional progress” in our upcoming Human Development Report for Latin America and the Caribbean, with an SDG implementation entry point for each country in our region, according to their specificities and needs.

Achieving the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development in our region must mean reaching out to the most disadvantaged groups, such as indigenous peoples, Afro-descendants, women (especially in rural areas) and youth. It is time to face exclusion beyond the economic aspects, reaching populations that have not benefited from last decade’s boom and whose situation reflects historical gender, race and ethnic gaps.

This is a time of great challenges, but also opportunities.

The new sustainable development agenda is universal. It is not enough to talk about reducing inequality in developing countries. The issue is equally important for rich countries — as is climate change. The SDGs are 17 shared challenges.

Latin America and the Caribbean has played a key role in the new sustainable development agenda, also as a result of discussions at the Rio+20 Conference. The new agenda moves beyond the social components towards a universal sustainability agenda, emphasizing climate change, environment, sustainable energy, in addition to inequality reduction, as a global challenges.

The region that is a biodiversity superpower, with more than 40 percent of all biodiversity on the planet, has an essential role, along with the rest of the world, to rethink progress. The region aims to grow; but not at any cost.

There are urgent challenges to tackle, even in the current constrained global economy. The MDGs kicked off in better times. Now we must take advantage of all sources of funding, public and private, national and international, for people and the planet. The economic, social and environmental realms and cannot be dissociated, leaving no one behind.

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About the author

  • Jessica Faieta

    Jessica Faieta is the U.N. assistant secretary-general and U.N. Development Program regional director for Latin America and the Caribbean. She has worked as senior country director in Haiti, leading UNDP's recovery and reconstruction efforts in the country after the 2010 earthquake. She has held various positions in U.N. offices in El Salvador, Belize, Cuba, Panama and Argentina. Jessica holds a master's degree in business administration and another in international affairs, both from Columbia University. She is also a Yale University World Fellow.