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Cast a glance at the headlines and it’s clear: the world is a violent, cruel and unforgiving place. Inequality is rampant. Terrorists stalk our streets. Poor, homeless people crowd our shelters. It’s bleak and grim — and not getting better.

Only, it is getting better. Take a second look and its equally obvious, as Max Roser of the Oxford Martin School explains, that we are becoming less violent and increasingly more tolerant, that we are leading healthier lives, are better fed, and that poverty around the world is declining rapidly. Taking these facts into account paints a very positive picture of how the world is changing.

In fact, it could improve further. For most of this year, the United Nations, aid donors and world development agencies will be focusing on defining — and crucially also, on ways of implementing — a transformative global agenda that will shape our social, economic and environmental development for at least the next 15 years.

Agreement on the “Sustainable Development Goals” (SDGs) which are expected to follow on from the 8 Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) agreed in 2000, is expected at the UN General Assembly in September this year.

Taken together, the 17 SDGs and 169 targets represent a global wish list for a fairer, more just and more prosperous world. The proposed goals cover the broad themes of the MDGs — ending poverty and hunger, and improving health, education and gender equality — but also include specific goals to reduce inequality, make cities safe, address climate change and promote peaceful societies. There’s something for everyone.

It is hoped that the SDGs will encourage a more holistic approach to development at national and international level, and offer a chance for more partnerships and collaboration.

Crucially, the next set of goals will be universal, which means all countries will be required to consider them when crafting their national policies. Officially, the eight MDGs were applicable to all but they have been marketed as anti-poverty goals for poor countries that are funded by wealthy nations.

There have been grumbles that 17 goals are too many, but it is understood that the number is unlikely to be reduced. Instead, the number of targets may be trimmed. Implementation is expected in 2016.

Paying for the ambitious post-2015 agenda is a key task ahead. “Funding is crucial for credibility on climate and post-2015 efforts,” according to UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon. He has said all public, private, domestic and international funding sources needed to be tapped.

According to experts, public financing and donor aid will be central to support the implementation of the SDGs. But money generated from the private sector, through tax reforms, and a crackdown on illicit financial flows and corruption will be vital.

A major conference on financing for development will be held in Addis Ababa in July 2015.

Adoption of the SDGs goes beyond the pure development agenda. Their adoption will in fact reassure the world that, in spite of everything, 193 members of the United Nations are able to jointly respond to complex global challenges.

Second, they will reaffirm the validity of universal human rights and the principles of sustainable development as fundamental to human civilisation. Not least, they will reinforce an unprecedented process of international consultation and commitment that defies the swan songs to multilateral cooperation and international law.

Still, there is hard work ahead. One of the great successes of the MDGs was that they were brief and to the point. They could be communicated easily and provided a focus for advocacy.

The next time around, with 17 SDGs, it will not be the same. They bring together two frontiers — development and climate — and tackle global public goods problems as well as national obstacles.

They also apply universally — to all countries rich and poor — which has major implications. So it’s obvious that they are going to be much more complex to describe, implement, and monitor.

In short, they’re going to have to function quite differently from the MDGs.

Certainly, there will be less official development assistance to spur implementation. Aid flows look set to stagnate, at best and continue declining in importance to emerging economies.

If not aid, then what? Well, public-private partnerships will be crucial. New development actors are emerging as an important source of funds for developing countries, especially for the financing of infrastructure. Foreign direct investments in emerging countries are on the rise as are impact investments, Corporate Social Responsibility activities and philanthropy.

Remittances from workers abroad are a huge boon to their countries of origin. Governments are also under pressure to increase domestic resource mobilisation through more effective tax collection and anti-corruption measures.

The world in 2015 will continue to be a difficult, hazardous place. But behind the scenes, there will be people making sure that the vision of a fairer, more equal and more peaceful world is kept alive

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