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4 Key Factors for the Sustainable Development Goals

Earlier this week, I participated in a United Nations Special Event Panel on “Conceptualizing a Set of Sustainable Development Goals,” which took place before an audience of senior policymakers and UN ambassadors and delegates.

At the Rio+20 summit in June, world leaders agreed to create global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as a means to embed sustainability into economic development. This week’s event sought to start a discussion about what these goals might look like and how they could build on the existing Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which expire in 2015.

Here are four important messages that I presented about how to make the SDGs effective and why they are critical to our planet’s future:

1. New Global Development Goals Must Look to the Future

The world looks quite different today than it did in the 1990s when the MDGs were conceived. It will look even more different in 2030. For the next set of global goals to succeed, they must grapple with several paradigm-changing trends.

First, the location of poverty is shifting. Today, India and China house more than half of the 1.3 billion people still living under $1.25 a day. Most poor people in the next 10 to 15 years will likely be concentrated in Africa and other fragile states.

Second, inequality is on the rise, undermining efforts to reduce poverty and promote sustainable development in both poor and rich countries. Asia’s widening inequality gap, for example, reportedly held back 240 million people from escaping extreme poverty over the past 20 years.

Third, dangerous environmental thresholds are being crossed at an alarming rate. About 1.2 billion people live in water-scarce regions today, and 1.8 billion people may do so by 2025. Concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere already exceeds 390 parts per million (ppm), although most scientists argue that the threshold to avoid catastrophic climate change is 350 ppm. If we are already exceeding planetary limits, how will Earth absorb a global economy that is four times larger in 2050?

These trends hold two lessons for the next set of development goals: Africa and fragile states are central to solving the poverty challenge; and sustainability and equity must be embedded in all development efforts.

2. Goals Need to Be Multi-Dimensional and Universal

The MDGs were responsible for spurring progress in tackling extreme poverty, but they prioritized social needs over economic and environmental ones. Future development goals will need to combine these three dimensions to be effective. Public health goals, for example, should promote clean air and water; energy goals should set targets for energy efficiency and the use of wind and solar power, as well as for universal access to electricity.

At the same time, we will need to set explicit universal goals to address global sustainability challenges, such as climate change and deforestation. The MDGs, by contrast, focus the burden of action on developing countries.

Beyond engaging all countries, universality must also embrace the explosion of new players seeking to combat poverty, including emerging powers like China and Brazil, and private foundations.

3. Goals Should Be Few, Focused, and Simple

Sustainable development means many things to many people, and the prospect of global goals has already produced a vast array of proposals from governments and civil society.

Some focus on sustainability, including goals for protecting biodiversity, oceans, and clean water, and promoting sustainable cities. Others are tightly tethered to the current MDGs – proposing goals that would focus on poverty, health, education, and gender, with only a nod to topics like sustainable development or infrastructure. Dozens more groups are advocating one particular goal or theme, such as peace, human rights, or climate change.

Given these competing agendas, tough choices will need to be made. Prioritizing and simplifying areas for action will be critical to producing SDGs that are practical, actionable, and that can deliver measurable results.

4. Goals Must Belong to Everyone

The discussion of how to shape global development beyond 2015 must go far beyond the UN system, traditional aid agencies, and civil society. Most importantly, the new development agenda must empower the poor. Eradicating extreme poverty is a realistic goal, but it will only succeed if we heed poor communities’ own views of what they need.

At the same time, new goals must speak to and inspire not only governments and aid agencies, but the private sector, investors, and the public at large. To succeed, we should ask ourselves: What kind of goals could spur action not only in Kenya or Brazil, but also with the giant U.S. pension funds and major, multinational corporations?

Shaping the Global Development Agenda

Delegates at the packed event, hosted by the Economic and Financial Committee of the UN General Assembly, embraced the urgent need for global development goals that reflect today’s rapidly changing world. Among the major questions we wrestled with were how to achieve an agenda that is both transformative and pragmatic? And whether wealthy countries should set different objectives than developing ones?

The aim of the event was to inform the thinking of the intergovernmental open working group and high-level panel on the post-2015 development agenda, which will take the SDGs process forward. I think we achieved that goal, and WRI looks forward to helping shape the global development agenda in the days and months ahead.

Read Manish’s detailed notes for the panel discussion.

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