Thursday 27 July 2017

Good intentions alone will not rid the world of the poverty afflicting millions

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon described the Millennium Development Goals as 'the most successful global anti-poverty push in history'
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon described the Millennium Development Goals as 'the most successful global anti-poverty push in history'

Mary Fitzgerald

How many times have we heard lofty pledges to end poverty? At the dawn of this millennium, 189 countries signed up to a commitment to reduce poverty, hunger, gender inequality, illiteracy, child mortality and environmental degradation. These ambitions became known as the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), with targets set for 2015.

The MDGs were hailed as the "world's greatest promise" and described by the UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon as "the most successful global anti-poverty push in history".

But as they expire this year, it is clear that progress has been patchy. While objectives like reducing the proportion of people across the world who live in extreme poverty have been met, others, like cutting child and maternal mortality rates, still have a long way to go.

So the international community has come up with another set of ambitious goals, this time with a broader reach and focus. Almost 200 nations, including Ireland, recently adopted the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a set of 15-year objectives to end poverty, tackle inequality, safeguard human rights, promote gender equality, protect the environment and create conditions for sustainable growth and shared peace and prosperity.

Ireland has played a key role in drafting what advocates now refer to more snappily as the "Global Goals", with its diplomats acting as co-facilitators with their Kenyan counterparts of high-level negotiations in New York over the past year.

Getting agreement on the goals from 193 countries was no easy task and Ireland's success is likely to help in its campaign to get a seat on the UN Security Council in 2021.

Following the launch of the SDGs, President Michael D Higgins called on all, from governments to civil society, to ensure that the targets are met.

"It is my hope that by 2030 we will look back on September 25, 2015 as a decisive moment in global history," he said.

How are the SDGs different to the similarly labelled MDGs? The UN argues that the SDGs go much further in tackling the root causes of global challenges, like poverty, and that they are intended to be universal, rather than applied only to the developing world, as the Millennium Development Goals were. In that sense, they reflect our increasingly interconnected world.

The new compact has been adopted at a time of rapidly mounting multiple global challenges, including spiralling conflicts in the Middle East and Africa, which are driving the worst refugee crisis since the Second World War, with 60 million people across the world displaced from their homes. Optimists, however, can point to signposts of progress, like the fact that almost 700 million people have been lifted out of poverty over the last two decades (though much of that is as a result of China's growth), average incomes in developing countries have doubled and the global average life expectancy has increased by four years.

But the SDGs have not been short of critics. Even Pope Francis cautioned at the SDGs launch that people should not "rest content" with a "bureaucratic exercise of drawing up long lists of good proposals".

The 'Economist' unpicked the 169 proposed targets outlined in the SDG framework and concluded that it was "sprawling and misconceived" and "unfeasibly expensive" at a cost of $2-3 trillion annually. It noted the long-standing yet unfulfilled promises made by Western nations, including Ireland, to commit 0.7pc of national income to overseas development aid. That target was originally proposed at the UN over four decades ago. The SDGs were so unlikely to be met, the 'Economist' argued bluntly, that they were "worse than useless".

Others have drawn attention to the fact the new agreement's headline goal - to eradicate extreme poverty everywhere - is based on an increasingly discredited measure of extreme poverty as being forced to live on less than $1.25 per day. Many development specialists argue this is not adequate for human subsistence in today's world.

Now with the SDGs inked amid much hoopla at UN headquarters in New York, the hard work of translating them into something beyond aspiration begins.

Feel-good slogans aside, striving to end abject poverty and hunger or tackling climate change and inequality means asking difficult questions of how our world works today.

Will the 169 targets embedded in the SDGs easily be incorporated into policy by governments worldwide, including Ireland's? Without the political will to truly address the root causes of extreme poverty and inequality, the SDGs might well remain just another list of hollow promises.

Irish Independent

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