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5 questions for world leaders about the future SDGs

September 2014 - By Helen Dennis

During the third week of September, you’re likely to hear about government ministers gathered for the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in New York making speeches about ending world poverty by 2030.

The week will begin a year of what threaten to be increasingly complex international negotiations about the new global goals, the so-called Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which will replace the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in 2016. Arguments are likely to centre on where (and who) the funding for the new Sustainable Development Goals should come from, long-standing controversies around women’s rights, and debate around ‘new’ issues such as climate change and disasters, good governance and peace and security.

But back to those speeches. They will inevitably centre on the importance of ending poverty by 2030 - but what will mark the genuinely ambitious out from the pack?

1. Will they ensure that no one is left behind and take economic inequality seriously?

When the High Level Panel on the Post-2015 Development Agenda, co-chaired by the UK Prime Minister, published its conclusions in 2013, one of its rallying calls was ‘leave no one behind’. This means that no SDG should be considered met, unless it is met for all income and social groups. In some countries this might mean people affected by caste, in another it might be afro-descendants and in another it might be migrant workers. In all countries, gender inequality will of course require particular attention. Governments must embrace the ‘leave no one behind’ principle and face up to their own domestic challenges.

They also cannot afford to ignore economic inequality. Growth which increases the gaps between rich and poor will inevitably leave people behind, undermine democracy and reinforce entrenched poverty. The inclusion of targets on progressive taxation, decent work, land rights and social protection are therefore all essential, as is an explicit and meaningful objective to reduce economic inequality.

2. Will they take radical steps to address climate change and other environmental challenges?

All the talk of poverty eradication sometimes sounds as though it is happening within a vacuum. Beautiful graphs project how it might be achieved by 2030 but with little reference to the severity of climate change. Have our leaders looked at the latest IPCC report? If they have, then they will understand the consequences for food production, health and disaster frequency.

Jeffrey Sachs has rightly said that unless the SDGs include climate change as a headline then they will be ‘unusable’.. The UK Prime Minister talks about the ‘golden thread’ of good governance and rule of law but Christian Aid and others have also long argued for a ‘green thread’. All the targets, including on energy and on economic growth, should promote, and be careful not undermine, low-carbon and climate-resilient development. There must also be targets – for example on renewables, waste and energy efficiency – which require a greater effort from wealthier countries. There is still time to put the world on a more sustainable course but it is quickly running out.

3. What do they mean by ‘poverty’?

When politicians talk about the eradication of extreme poverty, often they are thinking purely about income, and a very low income at that – currently $1.25 a day. This means that if someone is surviving on say $1.50, this person is no longer counted as extremely poor.  Whilst no one could deny that money can be important, this definition will create a false impression if it is allowed to dominate the conversation. A more ambitious agenda will go beyond income, to consider poverty in all its forms. Guaranteeing human rights, addressing relative poverty and issues of power, such as gender-based violence, are all essential for the eradication of poverty.

4. Are they willing to address issues of conflict and disasters?

In 2014, the number of people around the world forced to flee their homes exceeded 50 million for the first time since the Second World War. As an example, it is estimated that Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines affected 14 million people and displaced over 4 million. Conflict and disasters have made people more vulnerable and slowed poverty eradication and yet the MDGs were silent on them. Whilst this is one of the more controversial areas, the new goals must have something to say about peace-building, community resilience and work to reduce the risk and impact of disasters. Developing accountable governance is key and investing up-front, before a crisis hits, is the best way to minimise the impact.

5. Will the ambition for universal goals be realised and backed up by finance, resources and global cooperation?

This will of course be one of the sticking points and estimates put delivery of the SDGs at over a trillion dollars. Whilst aid will remain critical, especially for the poorest and least-developed countries, most of it will have to be raised and invested through national budgets. Yet we know that developing countries continue to lose huge sums of cash through tax-dodging, other illicit flows and through debt repayments. Unless developed countries are open to reform on these issues it will be hard to make progress - it is staggering for example, that there is still no representative inter-governmental body on tax cooperation able to drive this agenda. All countries, including the UK, will also have to gear their own fiscal policy-making towards sustainable development - ensuring that sufficient resources are being allocated to achieve targets, promoting equality and guaranteeing transparency in decision-making.

So those are our 5 questions for Ministers and Heads of State at UNGA, and our new position paper gives more detail on our proposals which have been developed with Christian Aid partners around the world. It also provides some assessment of ideas that have already been put on the table by the UN ‘Open Working Group’ on SDGs.

The SDGs are likely to be finally approved by Heads of State in September 2015. Over the 12 months left, the world needs negotiators to strengthen, rather than weaken the agenda for poverty eradication and sustainable development. This is our chance to envisage the world we want to see in 2030. It is likely that investment and political action, both at home and abroad, will follow these goals and so it is essential that our political leaders get them right.

Helen Dennis is the Senior Adviser on Poverty and Inequality at Christian Aid

Notes to editors:

1. Christian Aid works in some of the world's poorest communities in around 50 countries at any one time. We act where there is great need, regardless of religion, helping people to live a full life, free from poverty. We provide urgent, practical and effective assistance in tackling the root causes of poverty as well as its effects.

2. Christian Aid’s core belief is that the world can and must be changed so that poverty is ended:  this is what we stand for. Everything we do is about ending poverty and injustice: swiftly, effectively, sustainably. Our strategy document Partnership for Change explains how we set about this task.

3. Christian Aid is a member of the ACT Alliance, a global coalition of more than 130 churches and church-related organisations that work together in humanitarian assistance, advocacy and development.  Further details at http://actalliance.org

4. Follow Christian Aid's newswire on Twitter: http://twitter.com/caid_newswire

5. For more information about the work of Christian Aid visit http://www.christianaid.org.uk

 About the author

Helen Dennis, senior adviser, poverty and inequality

Helen Dennis is Christian Aid's senior adviser on poverty and inequality.

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