New Development Goals for the planet of Earth

Can extreme poverty be eliminated in the next 20 years? Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono may well be pondering this question as he and other heads of state gather in New York for the 67th session of the United Nations General Assembly.

Perhaps some would consider the question ill-timed given that much of the world remains mired in an economic slump. Yet eradicating poverty should be at the top of the General Assembly’s agenda — for two compelling reasons.

First, this is a crucial chance to build on the progress in reducing poverty over the past two decades. With the UN-led Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) as a galvanizing force, the number of people living below US$1.25 a day fell from some 43 percent of the world population in 1990 to about 22 percent in 2008. In Indonesia, the number of citizens living on less than $1.25 per day fell from some 100 million to about 40 million in this period.

Second, a rethinking of global development in a way that reflects and responds to a world that has changed profoundly is urgently needed. With the world facing pressing environmental and social challenges, we must chart a new direction that addresses their root causes.

In response, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon recently established a high-level panel, led by President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, UK Prime Minister David Cameron and Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, to produce recommendations for an updated global development agenda.

This new roadmap must tackle the changing nature of poverty and the large unfinished agenda before us. While the rate of poverty has been cut, some 1.3 billion people in the developing world continue to live below $1.25 a day. Many of them suffer the impacts of deepening environmental destruction, especially water scarcity, forest loss and climate change.

As governments survey this altered landscape, one question is whether to simply extend the targets and timeframes for the current MDGs, which are set to expire in 2015. That we think would be a mistake. Our changing world demands an approach that sees the connection between poverty and the environment and offers a chance to benefit all people — today and tomorrow.

The new course needs to build on the MDGs in the areas of sustainability, equality and universality:

First, it must target environmental and social sustainability. Economic growth has drawn upon the planet’s resources at an unsustainable pace. Around 1.2 billion people live in water-scarce regions. And access to clean water and sanitation is a huge concern in many countries. In Indonesia, Health Minister Nafsiah Mboi noted in a recent speech that roughly half the population suffers from inadequate access to these services, in part reflecting significant access gaps between rural and urban areas.

More than 1 billion people, including many in Indonesia, depend on forests for survival. Yet high rates of deforestation, often fueled by industrial agriculture, threaten their livelihoods. And from India and Thailand to Russia and the United States, extreme weather and climate events have been playing havoc with people’s lives. In these circumstances, we simply cannot tackle poverty unless the sustainability of resources is placed at the center of the agenda.

Second, it is time to signal greater equality as a global goal. Income inequality limits the extent of poverty reduction generated by economic growth, as demonstrated across much of Asia in recent years. Policies that widen the gulf between the rich and the poor, such as regressive taxes or subsidies, not only worsen poverty but also encourage social and political unrest, further hindering growth.

Conversely, the more equal a society, the greater the contribution of low-income citizens to growth and the broader the avenues for economic expansion.

Third, the new goals should embrace universality. The MDGs focus squarely on developing countries. Yet, emerging development challenges — such as climate change, public health and resource depletion — require global solutions involving developed and developing countries alike. Universal goals would also help allay developing countries’ concerns that the burden to act will fall disproportionately or unfairly on them.

So, how do we make this happen? Heads of state at the Rio+20 summit made a start in addressing this broad, but essential agenda, agreeing to explore broader sustainable development goals as a vehicle that embeds sustainability, equity and universality in the fight against global poverty. But to succeed, the development agenda needs to go beyond government and aid agencies. It must engage the private sector and mobilize the global public.

The General Assembly and the newly appointed high-level panel, led by Indonesia’s president and others, must take the next step in turning this promising concept into reality.