In just one week, world leaders will gather at the United Nations General Assembly in New York to adopt the much-anticipated Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) designed to steer global economic, social and environmental policies over the next 15 years.
The SDGs are important and their implementation will have a critical impact on what the world will look like in 2030. After all, the previous Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) certainly contributed, among other things, to reducing extreme poverty and halving the number of annual deaths of children under five.
And yet. Promises about the future are fine but I can’t help wondering: shouldn’t the focus in New York be on the need for urgent global action to tackle a raging refugee crisis which is affecting not just Europe but number of countries, including many in the developing world?
The UN should use next week’s meeting to craft one over-arching “mother of all SDGs” which would tackle the deep, structural problems — poverty, inequality, conflicts, climate change — which lie behind the world’s growing refugee problem.
Instead of making speeches on the SDGs, world leaders would be more credible if they hammered out a global strategy to ensure a decent, dignified life for the millions of refugees on the move today — while also taking action to deal with the wars, conflict and persecution which cause people to flee their homes.
Such a blueprint should be about the current plight of the refugees — mostly from Syria, Iraq, Eritrea and Afghanistan — who are desperately seeking shelter in Europe but also in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and many African countries.
But it should be about much more as well. It should focus on the deficiencies in current global development policies which have helped to provoke the current disastrous situation.
In fact, the world body doesn’t have to add on another — eighteenth — SDG which focuses specifically on refugees. It could quite simply and forcefully put its full weight behind the urgent need to link the implementation of the SDGs to the resolution of the refugee crisis.
Certainly, there will need to be a sharper focus on fragile states. As Gideon Rabinowitz from the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) points out in a recent blog, “although certainly not its primary cause, the international community’s inadequate support for countries facing humanitarian and conflict-related challenges has contributed to this [refugee] crisis”.
Rabinowitz underlines that funding for food vouchers for Syrian refugees has been slashed. Aid to fragile states is down.
At a recent conference on the SDGs held in Brussels, there was agreement that the refugee crisis should lead to greater emphasis on peace and conflict resolution in the SDGs.
“The crisis is actually a test for many of the SDGs — some of the social ones and education, health, things like that,” said James Mackie, Senior Adviser on EU Development Policy at the European Centre for Development Policy Management (ECDPM). “But the one I would really focus on would be SDG 16 on conflict, peace, justice and inclusive institutions. I think that’s where the real solution to this crisis is, and we should learn that lesson looking forward.”
Certainly, attention at the moment is on European governments’ messy and discordant responses. Hungary’s odious mistreatment of the refugees is one cruel facet of the story, Germany’s still-humane reaction is another.
Most “ordinary” people are going out of their way to welcome the refugees even as the Far Right screams blue murder.
The sad truth is that Europe is overwhelmed by the number of people seeking entry, the collapse of its cherished Schengen border-free system and the need to rapidly craft a new and more intelligent asylum and immigration policy.
All this will take time. Speedy decision-making is not something the EU is good at.
But what about others? Where is the compassionate global response that could be expected, especially from Muslim Middle Eastern nations which have taken only a few escapees from the brutal conflict they are helping to finance in Syria. Saudi Arabia has offered Germany funds to build 200 mosques. Hopefully, Berlin will say no.
Japan took in eleven asylum seekers last year although Tokyo faces labour shortages and the huge problem of an ageing population. The US has been slow and lumbering in its grudging decision to take in about 10,000 Syrians.
Little can be expected meanwhile from Southeast Asian countries which were at loggerheads only a few months ago over their reluctance to house the Rohingya fleeing ethnic strife in Myanmar.
The problem won’t go away, however. The UNHCR has warned that that worldwide displacement is at the highest level ever recorded, with the number of people forcibly displaced at the end of 2014 rising to a staggering 59.5 million compared to 51.2 million a year earlier and 37.5 million a decade ago.
The increase represents the biggest leap ever seen in a single year. Moreover, the report said the situation was likely to worsen still further.
Since early 2011, the main reason for the acceleration has been the war in Syria, now the world’s single-largest driver of displacement.
If they are to mean anything to anyone in the coming years, the SDGs must focus on preventing, managing and resolving the many conflicts and the many inter-connected challenges of poverty, inequality and climate change which are devastating the world.
So here’s my advice to the great and the good as they head for New York: tone down the rhetoric, tear up your speeches. Remember your speeches and the SDGs will be meaningless unless the new set of global development priorities also help tackle the reasons behind the global refugee crisis.