The United Nations Millennium Development Goals will soon pass into history. Although the eight goals set out in 2000 committed world leaders to concrete, measurable improvements on poverty, education, health, hunger and other key social issues, progress was uneven. The bar must be raised even higher for the post-2015 development agenda.

It is not enough to reduce poverty, we must eradicate it. When world leaders commit to 17 new goals – Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – to end extreme poverty, fight inequality and fix climate change, the time for talk will be over. The time to act will have come.

The first UN ministerial conference to discuss the SDGs – the 14th session of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development in March 2016 – will be the starting point of translating the enlarged ambitions of the international community into concrete courses of action. The world needs to comprehend the scale of the challenge ahead, as well as understanding that trade, finance, investment and technology will need to be harnessed if that challenge is to be overcome.

A striking indication of the dimension of the ambition of the SDGs can be found in UNCTAD’s new report – From Decisions to Actions – which notes that the world’s least developed countries need an economic growth rate greater than China had during its boom years in order to eradicate extreme poverty by 2030; the level of extreme poverty in China in 1994 was 46% which is about the same as the current level in the world’s least developed countries. Despite China then growing at an average 9.4% per capita annually for 15 years, the country was only able to reduce extreme poverty to 11.8%, not to 0% – the scope of SDG Goal 1 for the least developed countries over the next 15 years.

SDGsSource: Jakob Trollbäck 

Achieving the new SDGs will require resource mobilization on an unprecedented scale. Developing countries alone will need to invest $3.3 to $4.5 trillion a year in basic infrastructure, food security, climate change mitigation and adaptation, health and education.

One of the main lessons to take away from the last 25 years of development, however, is just how much things actually can change, given the right policy mix. A number of developing countries today are important engines of growth not only for their own regions, but for the global economy at large.

Since 2008, developing countries export more to each other than to developed ones. Between 2000 and 2011, internet usage in Africa grew by 2,500% and the number of mobile phones increased 12 times.

One of the key challenges of the coming 15 years is how to better translate growth and technological change into sufficient poverty reduction and more and better jobs. This challenge has become more difficult since the 2008 global financial crisis. Trade is now growing at a slower rate than global output and the recovery of global foreign direct investment remains bumpy. Large, speculative capital flows put the debt sustainability and macroeconomic stability of many developing countries at risk.

What needs to be done?

  1. We need to build productive capacity to transform economies. This means investment, trade, technology and entrepreneurship as part of a broader industrial strategy for developing countries. Tax bases must be broadened, collection strengthened, evasion and avoidance reduced and capital flight and illicit financial flows stemmed.
  1. We need to create more effective states and more efficient markets. We need to understand that they are two sides of the same coin: if governments are not competent, transparent and responsive, markets can’t be efficient either. We must enhance competition and consumer protection, scale up infrastructure services and foster a better business environment by investing in skills and leadership development.
  1. We need to tackle vulnerabilities and build resilience. We live in a world increasingly full of economic, social and environmental crises and the poor are always less capable of dealing with sudden changes and shocks. We need to better manage financialization and its macroeconomic effects, as well as strengthen the link between fiscal and monetary policies and development goals. We also need to enhance the climate resilience of key transport infrastructure since extreme weather and rising sea levels are an increasing threat.
  1. We need to strengthen multilateralism and find common solutions. The need for global collective action is at an all-time high. We need more inclusive and better coordinated institutions, regulations, reforms and policies. We need to improve the effectiveness of the multilateral trading system and form global partnerships for development cooperation.

Islands of prosperity surrounded by poverty, injustice, climate change and environmental degradation are no longer either sustainable or acceptable. The time to act for multilateralism, for development and for our common future has come.

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Author: Mukhisa Kituyi, a former trade minister of Kenya, has been Secretary-General of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) since 2013.

Image: Students pose for a photo with a globe during a campaign to mark World Earth Day in a middle school in Dexing, Jiangxi province April 19, 2011. REUTERS/China Daily