Towards human development
In early December, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon released a report on the global development agenda for 2015 and beyond. Work on the so-called Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs, is based on one of the pillars of the United Nations charter: human development. Despite our prosperity and modern technology, many people in this world still live on the edge of survival, and easing their lives is not only a humanitarian effort: there are highly practical reasons why we should care deeply about global development. We can avoid the sparks that can ignite wars, open new markets for our industries, and harness - for all humanity’s benefit - the intellectual capacity of billions of people now handicapped by a lack of education.
At a summit of UN member countries in September 2000, the Millennium Development Goals were launched. This eight-point program set targets for a focused attack on extreme poverty, among them the eradication of extreme poverty and hunger and promotion of universal primary education. The program had significant but mixed success. Some goals have been achieved, others are well along, and a few are lagging. But it is fair to say that the progress we have made shows that these problems can be solved, given the necessary energy and effort.
But more has to be done. Even though half the people without safe water in 2000 now enjoy access to it, we cannot tell the other half that we are finished with our work. We also know that progress gained can also be lost; it takes constant work to make the gains permanent.
That is the focus of the SDGs, the post-2015 development agenda. In addition to committing ourselves to new goals and targets, we must preserve the progress we have already made. The UN, national foreign aid agencies, NGOs and business partners have been working for several years to develop this new program with constant advice and suggestions from all parties and from individual citizens around the world. The specific work plan has been condensed from over a thousand goals to the 17 announced recently by a UN working group. But there is some concern that even 17 goals, with 169 specific targets attached to them, may be too many. We do not live in a perfect world with unlimited resources at our disposal.
Secretary General Ban has stepped into the debate on these goals with his new paper to synthesize the consensus so far and outline his thinking on the next steps. He is trying to speed along the remaining work so that the UN General Assembly can issue a final work plan at a meeting next September.
In his paper, Ban stresses the need to make the goals both transformative and universal. I personally find the term “transformative” rather slippery. Any human development is a transformation. A child with an elementary school education is transformed; a village with safe water and sanitary facilities is transformed; and a nation with a new class of micro-entrepreneurs is transformed. But even if the word is not concrete, “transformative” does sound challenging and ambitious, so if it lends some energy to the effort, I won’t argue with the term.
“Universal” is quite different. The word is concrete and specific. It says that a goal of helping 50 percent or 80 percent of needy people is not enough. Unfinished work is not universal, and Ban’s emphasis on universality is very important.
I also admire the bold language in many of the 17 goals developed by the UN General Assembly’s open working group. Ban believes extreme poverty can be eliminated in another generation, and the working group’s proposed goal reads, “End poverty in all its forms everywhere.” Other goal statements say, “Ensure … water and sanitation for all,” and “Ensure healthy lives … for all at all ages.” Can you feel the energy in these calls for change? They reflect the successes of the work on the Millennium Development Goals. There is no more equivocating - no call for bringing better lives to 50 percent of those who need help. The operative words are “all” and “everywhere.” This is true universality.
One key contribution Ban makes to the debate is his call for the new agenda to be built around six key points: dignity, people, prosperity, planet, justice, and partnership. He wants every goal in the development agenda to reflect the need for human dignity, for putting people first, and for promoting prosperity and justice for all. He wants the goals to address the need to protect our planet’s ecosystem, and he wants a private-public partnership that includes all elements of society. These are excellent lenses to use in examining the proposed goals.
We have a little over a year before this new program is to go into effect, and about nine months before the UN General Assembly approves the final work program. With good planning and determined work, the Sustainable Development Goals will be seen as one of the defining legacies of Ban’s tenure as UN secretary general.
The author, former ambassador to the United Nations, is president of the World Federation of United Nations Associations.
by Park Soo-gil