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Another Great Leap Forward for Development

MADRID – Next month, the world will achieve a milestone for global development efforts. The United Nations General Assembly will adopt the Sustainable Development Goals, an ambitious set of global objectives expected to improve the lives of millions of people by 2030.

The fact that the SDGs are being established on the UN’s 70th anniversary could not be more appropriate. Though the UN’s record over the last seven decades has not been perfect, with many instances of inadequate responses, its success in engaging the world in the pursuit of shared objectives like development has been impressive.

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In 2000, the UN adopted a development agenda underpinned by the so-called Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and guided by the principle that no one should have to suffer the consequences of extreme poverty. At that time, very few people believed that the goals could be attained by the 2015 target date. But, although poverty has not been eliminated, there has been significant progress – and some major victories.

Since 1990 (the reference year for measuring improvement), the number of people living in extreme poverty (living on less than $1.25 a day) has fallen by 33%, from 1.9 billion to 836 million worldwide, with most of that progress coming after the MDGs entered into effect. The number of people with access to safe drinking water has increased by 15%, to 1.9 billion. Infant mortality has been cut by more than half, and maternal mortality by 45%.

Likewise, primary-school enrollment rates have risen from 83% to 91% since 2000. The number of new HIV/AIDS infections has dropped by 40%. And official development assistance from developed countries has risen by 66%.

These figures show that, with well-defined objectives and real action, it is possible to bring about big changes. This idea was instrumental in designing the post-2015 development agenda. The SDGs build on the MDGs’ success, while adding a new dimension: sustainability. World leaders now recognize that efforts to meet development needs today must not jeopardize future generations’ prospects.

The sustainability dimension brings with it a universality that was lacking from the MDGs. Developed countries are no longer just enablers of progress, earmarking a percentage of their GDP to support the efforts of developing countries to reduce poverty, improve health, and raise living standards. Instead, they must be committed and active participants in the effort to achieve the agreed goals, in some cases even modifying their own domestic policies.

In this sense, the SDGs more clearly reflect the conviction, upheld by the UN, that all of us are global citizens. This conviction lies behind the establishment of international humanitarian law and the supranational courts that address violations of it. And it underpinned the adoption of the “responsibility to protect” principle, which demands that the international community defend a country’s people from mass-atrocity crimes when their own government fails to do so.

It comes down to personal dignity. No matter who you are or where you were born, you have a basic right to be protected from brutal crimes like genocide or the undue suffering of extreme poverty. Future generations, too, deserve personal dignity – including that afforded by a clean and healthy environment. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has emphasized personal dignity in the discussions leading to the adoption of the SDGs, even asking Pope Francis to address the General Assembly on the subject at its next meeting.

So what exactly is on the next development agenda? The draft agenda, on which agreement was reached at the beginning of this month, contains 17 goals – including ending poverty in all its forms, achieving food security, promoting sustainable agriculture, providing quality education to all, ensuring access to energy and clean water, and adopting urgent measures to combat climate change – backed by 169 targets.

Fulfilling this ambitious agenda will require realistic and effective evaluation mechanisms that help reveal the best policies and keep countries’ efforts on track. According to the draft agenda, the monitoring procedures will be directed by individual countries, so that each government can tailor them according to national priorities.

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But it is up to the international community to ensure that all governments establish specific goals and deadlines for meeting them. Without strong accountability mechanisms, the SDGs will amount to little more than an exercise in raising awareness, effectively subordinating the health, dignity, and prosperity of all humanity to short-term national interests. The upcoming SDG summit, which will bring together the largest concentration of heads of state and government in the history of the UN, presents the ideal opportunity to establish such mechanisms.

The SDGs are extremely ambitious. With a sustained commitment from all countries, developed and developing alike, the world can ensure that it celebrates another great leap forward in 2030.