The big pledge: Sustainable Development Goals for all

By By Sean Carroll

September 25, 2015   |   0 comments


At a recent Summit on School Dropout Prevention convened by the U.S. Agency for International Development and Creative Associates International, a school district superintendent shared with the audience his school system’s mission statement:

Empower all students to be lifelong learners, inspired to pursue their dreams and contribute to the global community.”

He asked us to identify the most important word in that mission statement—the most important word to actually achieve the school system’s mission. Audience members guessed: probably “empower;” perhaps “inspired,” or “dreams;” maybe “contribute” or “community.”

The answer, he told us, is “all.”

A mission of inclusion

Over the past two years, the UN, its member governments and civil society have drafted, commented on, expanded and redrafted the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), to follow-up on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). And, the SDG’s 17 goals, 169 indicators and nearly 15,000 words in the accompanying agenda document, can all be boiled down into one word—“inclusive.” Or, I now realize, synonymously, “all.”

On September 27, as the 70th UN General Assembly sessions come to a close, and with fewer than 100 days left in the 15-year lifespan of the MDGs, the long process of defining the post-MDG Sustainable Development Goals will culminate with ratification of an agenda by the world’s nations. With it, the UN will make the biggest pledge of its 70-year existence­:

“…we pledge that no one will be left behind. Recognizing that the dignity of the human person is fundamental, we wish to see the Goals and targets met for all nations and peoples and for all segments of society. And we will endeavour to reach the furthest behind first.”

In just the headline texts of the 17 goals, “inclusive” appears six times, and “all” is written 10 times. In the whole document, “inclusive” is used 40 times (and “inclusion” another 15). “All” appears a whopping 163 occasions.

Reaching the furthest behind first

The past 15-year focus on poverty and inequality reduction interventions and indicators in the MDGs lifted a lot of boats. The number of people living in extreme poverty has been more than halved; primary school enrollment is much closer to universal; and millions of lives have been saved by fighting HIV, malaria and TB and cutting child and maternal mortality rates nearly in half.

But the MDGs, as the SDG agenda acknowledges, were far from met. Three billion people in the world still live in poverty; more than two billion on less than $2.00 per day, and about one billion in extreme poverty, on less than $1.25 a day.

So, the idea that the SDGs and associated targets will be met for “all nations and peoples and for all segments of society” and that we will “endeavor to reach the furthest behind first” is audacious. On top of the sheer numbers and economics of it, our socio-political incentive structures do not help.

Darwinism, survival of the fittest, conflict, war, resource allocations, power politics are common characteristics (or the same one by several names) of human and societal nature and work against the aim of taking care of the most marginal and vulnerable.

Governments and their political leaders, whether elected, appointed or self-appointed, are almost always beholden to the majority and/or the power and moneyed elite. To keep governing, be reelected or avoid dethronement, rulers need to play to their power bases. Often, this includes evading doing anything that could give the powerful a sense, real or perceived, that they might lose any of their advantage.

Afflicting the comfortable, leaving no one behind

Because of these dynamics, Pope Francis, in the U.S. and at the UN this week, takes a dual-approach to tackling the big issues of poverty, inequality and climate change. As one commentator noted, the Pope is “comforting the afflicted, and afflicting the comfortable.” And, while he pushes political leaders to do more for the poor, and for peace on a sustainable earth, he is also careful not to disparage them, and to recognize their central, critical role.

Perhaps now the lessons of contentious, hard-fought transitions, liberations and recognitions over the past 200 + years foretell a turning of the tide.

We have seen The Civil Rights movement in the U.S., the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, recognition of indigenous rights in Latin America and Australia, and local protests turning back or modifying plans for destructive dams, urbanization or mines. All of these movements began with seemingly impossible goals for change against all odds. All achieve success when governments recognize that to ‘give in,’ to change and to include all, will in the end be the right path, the victory.

Those battles and victories taught us that if one among us is unjustly impoverished, imprisoned, or infirm, disenfranchised or marginalized, then we all are. A former minister of police in South Africa’s apartheid government once told me that he celebrated on the night his government, and the whole white power structure, ended. When reporters asked him why he was dancing, he said, “Because I too am now free.”

Institutions and programs now regularly focus on how governments and organized civil society, which often represents minorities and the formerly voiceless, can work together to achieve equality, prosperity, education and climate justice for all. The Rio and Rio +20 climate change process, the World Movement for Democracy, the Open Government Partnership, the Shared Societies Project of the Club of Madrid—to name a few among many—are all structured to bring governments and citizens together.

These movements recognize that governments and citizens need one another to achieve progress together, and that one acting without consulting and supporting the other, is not sustainable. Working together to leave no one behind, will result ultimately in dignity, equality and prosperity for all.

This is the message and the promise of the SDGs. It is a message the Pope is echoing, as will every UN member state leader during his or her turn at the podium. And civil society—together representing all people everywhere—will work with governments, and hold them accountable, to ensure that “all” really means “all.”

Sean Carroll is Senior Director at Creative Associates International.

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