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Is this the generation that eradicates extreme poverty?

A child watches a train passing through the Kibera slum of Kenya's capital Nairobi February 26, 2015.

Postponed action on poverty would have a devastating affect on the "bottom billion". Image: REUTERS/Darrin Zammit Lupi

Helen E. Clark
Chair, Lancet Countdown High-Level Advisory Board on Health and Climate Change
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Davos Agenda

The year 2015 was a once in a generation event for the world’s citizens and for the planet. In one year, a new blueprint was created to tackle the world’s thorniest issues. Issues that affect all of us, like climate change, sustainable development and natural disasters.

From the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction to the Addis Ababa Action Agenda on Financing for Development, from the Sustainable Development Summit in New York to the climate conference in Paris, it was a year in which the United Nations, in the words of Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, proved it is able “to deliver hope and healing to the world.”

Do global agreements, like those mentioned above, matter?

Yes, they do.

In September, world leaders came together to unanimously agree to a new set of goals that would guide sustainable development for the next 15 years. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) replace the previous goals, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

The MDGs were created to tackle some of the most challenging issues then faced in development; eradicating poverty; enrolling children in school; ending hunger; turning the tide on HIV/AIDS, malaria, and TB; and reducing infant, child, and maternal deaths.

There has been significant progress in the areas targeted by the MDGs - progress which would have been unlikely without the focus, funding, and action around these goals.

Yet there is also much unfinished business, and the new global development agenda must overcome some major challenges:

  • While the target of halving the proportion of people living in extreme poverty by 2015 was met, it is not much fun being in the other half - the so-called "bottom billion," for many of whom life has scarcely changed.
  • Child poverty is rising in 18 out of 28 EU countries, and has been linked by the International Labour Organisation to falling levels of maternal and child benefits. The era of austerity has not been kind to social protection systems in many countries.
  • Gender inequality remains pervasive - despite the fact that societies are the poorer if they fail to tap the full potential of half their population. Where women are "out of sight out of mind", disempowered and under-represented in decision-making circles, meeting their needs often isn't a priority.
  • The rapid pace of environmental degradation is damaging the ecosystems on which human survival and well-being depend. Species loss undermines livelihoods, health, and food and water security. While the damage done to natural ecosystems affects us all, it does affect the poorest and most vulnerable the most.
  • There cannot be sustainable development without peace and stability - alas, right now the world suffers a big deficit in that respect.

Catastrophic emergencies created by war and conflict are overwhelming the international community's capacity to respond. Humanitarian relief spending has trebled in the last decade. On current trends there will never be enough money to meet the demand for relief.

It is critical that we work to reduce the demand for humanitarian support by investing in building more inclusive and peaceful societies and in disaster risk reduction. The new global agenda calls for access to justice for all, for accountable, inclusive, and effective institutions at all levels, and for serious action to tackle inequalities.

The Sustainable Development Goals are universal goals, applying to countries at all stages of development. This highlights the fact that sustainable development in the 21st Century isn't something that happens to somebody else, somewhere else. We all have a stake in it - and every country has work to do to progress towards it.

But the best agendas are mere words on paper unless they can be implemented.

The good news is that our world has more wealth, more knowledge, and more technologies at its disposal than ever before. The challenges we face are mostly human induced. We can tackle them, but not if we keep doing business as usual and expecting different results.

Radical adjustments are needed in the way we live, work, produce, consume, generate our energy, transport ourselves, and design our cities. There is capacity to be built. Governance to improve. Sweeping policy, legislative, and regulatory changes are needed. A commitment to building lasting peace and stability based on peaceful and inclusive societies is essential.

Strong leadership at all levels is needed to realize the better world envisaged in the Sustainable Development Goals. First, leadership is needed on finding the funding required. Money isn't everything, but it certainly helps, including through Official Development Assistance.

Second, broad coalitions of leaders are needed. Clearly governments acting alone can't achieve the goals envisaged by the new global agenda. Their leadership is vital, but insufficient - broader leadership is also required. That includes leadership from civil society - from our NGOs, scientists, researchers, and academia; and from local government and the private sector too.

Third, leadership is needed more than ever from the multilateral system - including from the United Nations Development Programme. Our job is to support countries to eradicate poverty, and to do that in a way that simultaneously reduces inequality and exclusion, and avoids wrecking the ecosystems on which life depends.

The new Sustainable Development Goals will guide development for the next 15 years, offering a chance to meet the global citizenry's aspirations for a more peaceful, prosperous, and sustainable future.

Yet we will be striving to achieve the Global Goals at a time when volatility is the new normal. The realities of the world we live in must be acknowledged, and more pre-emptive investment must be made in risk-informed development:

  • The growing inequalities and unchecked discrimination which undermine social cohesion need to be tackled head on.
  • Environmental degradation must be arrested.
  • The downward spiral into conflict, instability, and crisis must be halted, and effective strategies based on building resilience must be adopted as ways of coping with protracted crises.

Ours is the last generation that can head off the worst effects of climate change. Postponed action will be too late. Ours is also the first generation that can eradicate extreme poverty and secure a more hopeful future for all. For this fearless leadership from us all is required.

Author: Helen Clark is the Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme and the former Prime Minister of New Zealand. She is participating in the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting in Davos.

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