This week, the United Nations convenes its sixty-eight General Assembly session, bringing together heads of state and other high officials from all 193 members of the UN. Although many pressing global challenges crowd the agenda of world leaders, the major theme of this year’s session is the global development agenda after 2015, when the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which have guided global development policy since 2000, expire. In several earlier blog posts, I discussed issues that should be considered in crafting the new development agenda. Now the international community must come together to determine what comes next.
Even though economic growth has brought wealth to many formerly poor countries such as China, India, and Brazil, over three billion people remain trapped in poverty worldwide. The tragedy of poverty is not restricted to poor countries. Indeed, many of the global poor live in rich or middle income countries, and have seen the fortunes of their neighbors rise, while they have been left out and left behind. Thus, the new post-2015 development agenda must address inequality as well as poverty, to ensure that average improvements do not mask intractable suffering, and to focus global attention on the challenges facing the most vulnerable.
At the same time, there is an emerging global consensus that environmental sustainability should be a central development goal. The landmark Rio+20 conference on sustainable development, which took place in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in June 2012, launched the drafting process of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The SDGs aim to build upon the MDGs, but with a clear commitment to safeguarding the environment for future generations. At a local level, environmental degradation threatens the resources and livelihoods of subsistence farmers and pastoralists; with rivers and forests polluted and misused, they have no way to make even a meager living. And at a global level, climate change caused by unsustainable fossil fuel use is increasingly generating unpredictable droughts and floods, which devastate the poor, and threatening small island nations with rising sea levels.
The UN must forge a new development agenda that tackles these concerns regarding environmental sustainability and inequality, in addition to other issues such as rule of law, good governance, personal security, and human rights — all of which are both critical means for improving wellbeing, as well as important ends in and of themselves.
The UN’s task is further complicated by the fact that many of the most potent tools in the fight against global poverty are outside the organization’s purview. Thanks to the integration of global markets, the rules governing the global economy are now some of most significant determinants of prosperity and poverty. These economic rules influence property rights, capital markets and global financial flows, multinational banks and investors, and legal claims and mechanisms for redress – all of which have profound implications for the global poor. The UN recognizes the importance of these issues, but economic governance negotiations usually occur in intimate meetings between finance ministers, not showy events among foreign ministers.
Still, the UN has the unique and crucial power to coordinate and solidify global development guidelines for the future. This coming week the General Assembly is holding six events on the theme “The Post-2015 Development Agenda: Setting the Stage,” including high-level events about women, youth, civil society, human rights, good governance, the rule of law, South-South cooperation, communications technologies, global partnerships, water, sanitation, and sustainable energy. Given that nearly half of the world’s population is still trapped in poverty, hopefully these meetings will be more than just rhetoric, and will bring the world one step closer to realizing sustainable and inclusive development.