The unfinished poverty agenda

The striking reduction in extreme poverty over the past two decades is in good measure a reflection of [People's Republic of] China’s ability to lift some 500 million people above the poverty line. But this progress begs the question if extreme poverty can be eliminated in the next 20 years.

With much of the world still mired in an economic slump, this goal might seem far-fetched. Yet, as world leaders depart the UN General Assembly meeting in New York, they should push to keep eradicating poverty at the top of the development agenda — for two compelling reasons.

First, this is a crucial chance to build on hard-won progress over the past two decades. With the UN-led Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) as a galvanizing force, the number of people living below $1.25 a day fell from some 43 percent in 1990 to about 22 percent in 2008. The largest decline, from some 680 million to 170 million, occurred in China.

Second, there is great urgency to re-think global development in a way that reflects and responds to a world that has changed, and continues to change, profoundly. With the world facing pressing environmental and social challenges, we must chart a new direction that addresses their root causes if progress is to continue.

In response to this reality, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has established a high-level panel to advise on the global development agenda beyond 2015. The panel is co-chaired by Prime Minister David Cameron of the UK, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono of Indonesia, and President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia, with Homi Kharas of Pakistan as the executive secretary. Yingfan Wang, former UN representative for China and former vice-chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Chinese National People’s Congress, is a panel member.

This new development 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, and many more subsist close to this threshold. Many are also suffering 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 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.

This new course needs to build on the MDGs and embody three attributes — 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. More than 1 billion people, including some of the world’s poorest, depend on forests for sustenance. Yet high rates of deforestation, often fueled by industrial agriculture, threaten their livelihoods.

From China and Thailand to Russia and the US, extreme weather and climate events have been playing havoc with people’s lives and livelihoods. We cannot tackle poverty unless the sustainability of resources is placed at the center of the agenda.

Second, the agenda ought to signal greater equality as a global goal. Income inequality limits the extent of poverty reduction generated by economic growth, as seen in much of Asia, including China, in recent years. On the other side of the equation, the more equal a society the greater the contributions 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 can this agenda be taken forward? Heads of state at the Rio+20 summit made a start, 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 governments and aid agencies. It must engage the private sector and mobilize the global public.

The newly appointed high-level panel must take the next step in turning this promising concept into reality.