The SDGs are the right medicine for an insecure world

As Heads of Government gather in New York for the UN’s 70th General Assembly, the world is facing a 1940s moment.  After a pause for relative unity at the end of the cold war, great-power tensions are rising again.  Concerns over inequality and migration have spurred the rise of left- and right-wing parties (and candidates for existing parties) across the developed world.  More people have been forcibly displaced from their homes than at any time since the end of World War II.   The Islamic State has shocked the world by claiming large swathes of territory and attracting thousands of foreign fighters for its brutal caliphate.   

The 1940s are remembered for the new international architecture launched in the aftermath of World War II – the UN.  But they were also the start of a serious 30 year program of investment in social and economic progress – a new social compact in both West and East. Governments now need to turn global tensions into a similar dynamic of opportunity, undermining the appeal of extremist movements by giving an economic, social and civic stake to young people.  

The UN’s new sustainable development goals (SDGs) are a good start to doing just that.   They may seem like typical UN bureaucratic Utopianism, but they are the right medicine at the right time.  Just as the Millennium Development Goals helped underpin large reductions in aggregate poverty around the world, the new global goals aim to go beyond averages to ensure that no one is left behind, addressing the disparities in opportunity that spur global and local tensions.   Two new elements in the goals are key to reducing global insecurity.

First, the goals have universal coverage – they apply to the US, Italy and Sweden as much as to Uruguay, Indonesia or Somalia.  This addresses the problem of whole countries being left out of global prosperity (Somalia during 30 years of conflict).  But it also means pockets of marginalization that create suffering and insecurity in the developed world  - in Detroit or in Bradford, say - are not forgotten.  Universality removes the sting of old colonial practices in past development debates.   It is the right positioning to navigate the shifting landscape of global power in the next 15 years.    

Second, the goals cover inequality, corruption, peace and access to justice.  These are exactly the issues that have fueled discontent worldwide.  The SDGs aim to measure income, jobs, access to services and participation for the most marginalized groups as well as the average citizen, a key element in relating to the grievances that have spurred recruitment into extremist movements.   They address institutions and infrastructure, gaps which have allowed violent movements to flourish in remote places.

The SDGs are not perfect.  They are complex, with 17 goals and 169 indicators.  But this is what it takes to get all 193 member states of the UN to agree.  The complexity comes from compromise: the goals needed to represent the worldviews of all parties, including China, India, Brazil, the United States, Scandinavian countries and the members of the African Union. 

Of course, a comparison with 1945 argues not only for giving an economic and social stake to all, but also for a similar reinvention of the international architecture.   To take just one example, the crisis in the Mediterranean has again laid bare the inadequacy of international peace and security coordination to resolve or even contain the Syria conflict, or to provide for fair and orderly treatment of the refugees in the region.  

Development alone is not the answer to global insecurity, but it is an indispensable part of the puzzle.  Development investments give people hope, no matter what their location.  Stronger assistance to help Syria’s neighbors integrate refugees, for example, might have mitigated the desperation that led parents to put their children onto rickety boats in search of a better future.   

The challenge for governments meeting this month will be to take the SDGs as seriously as a new global social compact deserves.  Universal coverage cannot mean we all ignore them together.   The world’s leaders need to recapture the urgency of the United Nations founders, who understood that development progress is crucial to “save succeeding generations from the scourge of war”.

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Sep 23, 2015
Sarah Cliffe
2030 Agenda