'Revolution needed' for world to meet sustainable development goals


Heather Stewart

World leaders gathering at the UN in New York next weekend must pledge to make a revolutionary effort if they are serious about meeting the 17 ambitious anti-poverty targets for 2030 that they are due to sign, according to Britain’s leading development thinktank.

More than 150 leaders are expected to attend the UN’s sustainable development summit next weekend. The meeting, which will be addressed by Pope Francis, will set the anti-poverty agenda for the next 15 years, by agreeing the successors to the millennium development goals, which guided aid spending and public policy in the developing world from 2000.

The new sustainable development goals (SDGs), which cover everything from eliminating hunger to empowering women, are made up of 169 subsidiary “targets”, and have been described by UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon as “the people’s agenda, a plan of action for ending poverty in all its dimensions, irreversibly, everywhere”.

The London-based Overseas Development Institute (ODI) has chosen one key target in each of the 17 policy areas, and believes that more than half of them will be missed without what it calls a “revolution”: at least a doubling, and in some cases a quadrupling, of the current rate of progress.

Susan Nicolai, the report’s author, says: “Our research is a wake-up call for world leaders, highlighting the extra effort that will be needed to turn the SDGs’ idealism into reality. Our analysis shows countries can buck historic trends, with some governments already outperforming on key fronts like maternal mortality – but it will take an unprecedented, global collective effort to meet the ambition of the new goals.”

On maternal mortality, for example, many developing countries are already working to boost the availability of trained medical staff and drugs, and the global mortality rate of 195 deaths per 100,000 live births should fall to 152 by 2030. However, the SDG target, of 70, is less than half that. The ODI says east Asia and Latin America are expected to achieve the target; but in sub-Saharan Africa, rates of death in childbirth are far higher, and are expected to remain at more than 300 by 2030.

Providing universal secondary education is another central aim. The authors warn a trebling of progress would need to take place if this were to be achieved. In sub-Saharan Africa, for example, 64% of children are likely to complete secondary school by 2030 — an impressive 50% jump from today’s rate, but still well short of the UN target.

Other areas where revolutionary progress would be needed to meet the SDGs include significantly reducing violent deaths and ending hunger.

The ODI calls for leaders to learn from policy successes; and pledge to “leave no one behind”, as economic development lifts average incomes.

In Latin America, considerable progress has already been made in delivering what the report calls “pro-poor growth” over recent decades, through implementing generous social welfare payments, for example, to ensure that the poorest also benefit as economies develop. In Ecuador, for example, the incomes of the bottom 40% of the population grew more than eight times as fast as the average between 2006 and 2011.

“The SDGs represent the closest humanity has come to agreeing a common agenda for a truly inclusive future where no one is left behind. This could be within our reach; but not without a sharp, early increase in ambition and action,” the report finds.

On some aims, the ODI finds that current global trends are heading in the wrong direction, so success in meeting them would require a complete reversal. These include protecting the world’s fragile coral reefs, and cutting the size of slum populations in cities. “Put bluntly, the world is so far out of step with these targets that it is running in the wrong direction. They will only be achieved if radical change completely turns things around,” it says.

As next week’s summit looms, there are also growing questions about whether rich countries will be willing to devote the necessary resources to tackling poverty, with many still struggling to manage the legacy of the heavy public debt burdens that were run up during the global financial crisis.