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End Extreme Poverty, Increase Environmental Sustainability

04 Mar 2013
Lauren Barredo, Manager at the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network and Guido Schmidt-Traub, Executive Director at the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network,
The Millennium Declaration and the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) have put a human face on development. Common definitions of what constitutes development had been abstract and all too often solely rooted in economic policy and GDP. The MDGs provide us with a clear focus on extreme poverty in all its forms and how it can be tackled, e.g. through access to basic healthcare, safe drinking water, providing education for every child, empowering women, and being environmentally responsible. When first established, the MDGs seemed impossibly ambitious, but progress has been swift in some areas, thanks to governments making the MDGs a priority, and has improved (albeit far from perfect) international partnerships.

Unfortunately, MDG achievements have been uneven, and in many parts of the world the multiple stressors of conflict, poverty, isolation, and climate change have thwarted progress. Many countries have not received the international support that has been promised. Pockets of chronic hunger, rural areas with no access to healthcare, and unfulfilled pledges of funding remain a scar on the world’s conscience.

Inequality and social exclusion are widening within many countries, rich and poor alike. Labour markets are undergoing unprecedented changes driven in large part by globalization and technical change. Workers with low educational attainment increasingly find themselves without marketable skills, left unemployed or with wages at poverty levels. As a result, inequalities of earnings have soared in the past two decades, undermining the fairness, justice, and even basic human rights in many societies. Of particular concern is the high youth unemployment in many countries, rich and poor.

Despite major progress, gender inequality persists in many societies and violence against women remains widespread. In addition, discrimination against ethnic minority groups, indigenous peoples, geographically isolated populations, and other groups still exists in many contexts. Discrimination robs societies of the full productive potential of large shares of their populations. Realizing the economic and social rights of all members of society and reducing inequalities are therefore important elements of an effective development narrative.

Even at today’s global population and economic output, many key ecosystems are being threatened or destroyed. In spite of growing public awareness, environmental challenges have worsened considerably in the past 20 years: climate change, pollution and unsound chemicals management, unsustainable water use, unsustainable agriculture, unhealthy cities, massive biodiversity loss, emerging diseases, deforestation, desertification, and the depletion and degradation of oceans all threaten our planet’s ability to support human life. It is necessary and possible to reverse these trends, but countries lack long-term strategies to address these deep challenges, and there remains far too little environmental understanding and problem solving at local, national, and global scales.

The poor often depend heavily on natural resources for their livelihoods and survival, and are the most vulnerable to environmental change, so extreme poverty can only be ended if environmental degradation is halted and reversed. This will require inter alia a drastic reduction in key dimensions of primary resource intensity of production and consumption in high- and middle-income countries.

Pathways to sustainable development need to "decouple" economic growth from the rising use of primary resources, thereby reducing the resource-intensity of production. At a time when high-income economies are looking to maintain living standards and re-start growth, and middle- and low-income economies want to achieve economic convergence, decoupling is a fundamental condition of sustainable development.

Good governance is required of all sectors of society: governments, businesses, and civil-society organizations. National and local governments need to build effective institutions and pursue sustainable development with transparency, accountability, clear metrics, and openness to the participation of all key stakeholders. They should uphold and promote the rule of law as well as basic economic and social rights. Governments must design financing strategies, help mobilize the necessary resources, and provide the public goods needed for sustainable development. Public policy decisions must be made on the basis of scientific evidence.

Addressing these challenges of sustainable development over coming decades requires a shared focus on ending extreme poverty in all its forms and a fundamental transformation in the way our economies are organized. The necessary focus and collaboration across actors and countries can only be achieved through a shared development narrative and global objectives. For this reason the world needs effective and widely shared goals for sustainable development to follow-up where the MDGs will leave off in 2015. Of course, setting global goals will have little impact unless followed up by concerted action, but it is difficult to imagine a pathway towards global sustainability without an ambitious set of shared goals for sustainable development.

A new set of post-2015 goals till the year 2030 should apply to all countries, rich and poor. This does not mean that every goal must be a "stretch goal for every country". Rich countries, for instance, are likely to have met most goals relating to economic development, but may lag behind on goals relating to social inclusion, environmental sustainability, and governance. We should strive for convergence, and economic opportunity for all, not economic opportunity at the expense of others as in our current system. Countries that cannot meet the goals on their own should receive international support to do so.

Likewise, the post-2015 development goals must also mobilize and apply to all segments of civil society and the private sector. As the principal engine for economic growth and job creation, the latter will develop and deliver many of the new technologies, organizational models, and management systems that are needed for sustainable development. Good corporate governance therefore calls for all companies, especially the major multinational companies, to adopt transparent goals for sustainable development, and to hold themselves accountable for those goals vis-à-vis their investors, customers, suppliers, and society at large.

Well-crafted post-2015 goals will guide public understanding of complex long-term challenges, inspire public and private action, and promote accountability. Children will learn the goals at school as a short-hand definition of sustainable development. The goals will also promote integrated thinking and put to rest the futile debates that pit one dimension of sustainable development against another. They will mobilize governments and the international system to strengthen measurement and monitoring for sustainable development. By crafting the right goals, we can build on the success of the MDGs, eradicate extreme poverty, and move our economies onto a sustainable, inclusive path. Like the MDGs, this may seem extremely ambitious, but it is within reach.