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UN’s ambitious new development goals could fall flat

The world cannot afford for another round of multilateral negotiations to implode

May 28, 2014 3:00AM ET

United Nations bureaucrats work hard to ease the woes of the world. Apart from war, they also tackle poverty, climate change, inequality, joblessness, weak governance, discrimination, shabby schools and crumbling hospitals. Ambitious U.N. targets for addressing these woes are being drafted and are expected to be called the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) when they are signed by world leaders in New York in September 2015. The SDGs will succeed the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), the poverty-reduction targets that reach their deadline next year after 15 years in place.

Like all examples of U.N. idealism, the initiative looks good on paper. The problem is not that the new goals are too ambitious but that the world cannot handle watching another round of important multilateral negotiations do a belly flop. Diplomats are already quibbling over the details. A failure to negotiate meaningful SDGs will mark another failure of nations to come together on the most important global issues. Not only would that kill a useful deal, but it could also kill the spirit to negotiate.

A clear purpose

Though they are not legally binding, U.N.-set goals serve a purpose: giving NGOs and governments something to aim for. Advocates have a yardstick to measure governments’ progress. Leaders do not want to be outpaced by school enrollment and maternal mortality figures from next-door nations.

Even so, the MDGs have had a mixed record. Halving the number of people living in extreme poverty was reached ahead of schedule. Targets for reducing hunger, childhood deaths and primary school enrollment are likely to be missed.

But the headline target of halving the global number of people living in extreme poverty (on less than $1.25 a day) was almost certainly achieved by export-driven growth and industrialization in China and India. Targets set in New York cannot take credit for the results of a more globalized world economy. 

Wiping out poverty among the first half of the world’s poor population was a success of the Millennium Development Goals. But it was low-hanging fruit, with swaths of easy-to-reach city dwellers being nudged across the poverty line.

The SDGs are much grander than the MDGs. They draw together input from the Rio+20 U.N. Conference on Sustainable Development, a 27-member panel of politicians and luminaries and a survey of 2 million people in mostly poor countries. They concern rich and poor states alike and expand the MDGs’ remit of poverty reduction to a more ambitious but poorly defined goal of sustainability. It will almost definitely include eliminating extreme poverty by 2030.

The new SDGs are already showing their frailties. First, the global economy is in much worse shape than it was in 2000, when world leaders signed the MDGs into life at the Millennium Summit. It’s harder to improve livelihoods when the world is still recovering from the effects of the global recession. The MDGs’ budget was effectively the $130 billion annual foreign aid packages of rich countries. Sustainability targets are much more expensive: Limiting global warming to a rise of 2 degrees Celsius, for example, would cost $1 trillion a year, says the International Energy Agency.

Second, the headline SDG target of eliminating extreme poverty, everywhere, is a stretch. Wiping out extreme poverty among the first half of the world’s poor population was a success of the MDGs. But development workers acknowledge it was low-hanging fruit, with swaths of easy-to-reach city-dwellers being nudged across the poverty line.

The global poverty that’s still around will be tougher to get rid of. One study, “Work With Us: How People and Organisations Can Catalyse Sustainable Change,” found the world’s poorest are often handicapped, LGBT or elderly or from indigenous, religious or ethnic groups that are more likely to be eschewed by their government than to benefit from largesse.

Likewise, there are some states where poverty eradication is close to impossible. The people of Syria, South Sudan and the Central African Republic will continue to suffer hardship while their countries are riven by civil war. No magic U.N. wand can tackle poverty during conflict.

Third, the SDGs seek to measure all countries on one scale. Grading such divergent states as Bolivia, Belarus and Botswana was already difficult. Adding Belgium to the mix is even more of a headache.

Finally, the U.N. has set itself up for a negotiation process in which the lowest common denominator will prevail. Rich countries will struggle with meaningful targets for tackling income inequality, even if it is a policy for left-leaning politicians in those economies. Likewise, U.N.-set immigration targets, which are featured in drafts of the SDGs, will encounter resistance, despite the potential boon for migrants from the developing world.

High bar

Countries with poor records on government corruption, accountability and political freedom are already raising objections to committing themselves to targets for cleaning up the political class. That leads to the root problem of the SDGs: They come in an era when multilateral talks tend to flounder. Whether it’s the World Trade Organization’s Doha trade negotiations or a new U.N. climate change treaty, when discussions get too big, complicated and expensive, they tend to collapse.

This raises questions about why the U.N. is setting the bar so high. Reaching for the stars and then falling short is OK under normal circumstances because some people will benefit from whatever gains are achieved. But setting another lofty target when world powers disagree on so much else — from Syria to Iran’s nuclear ambitions and next year’s climate treaty in Paris — could overload the diplomatic wagon.

James Reinl is a multimedia journalist who has reported from 30 countries and won awards for covering Haiti’s earthquake, Sri Lanka’s civil war and human rights abuses in Iran.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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