With a new focus on sustainability, the United Nations’ post-2015 International Development agenda can eradicate extreme poverty. To do so, we must learn from international development’s past successes and failures.
2015 marks the end of one development era and also the beginning of another. At the 2000 United Nations Millennium Summit, world leaders came together to address extreme poverty. The result was the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which introduced a set of targets for hunger, education, health, and other poverty-related issues that were to be met by 2015.
Now, in the year of the MDGs' expiration, new goals are taking shape. Dubbed the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), they include accountability, private-sector and donor collaboration, Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), and most conspicuously, "sustainability." With the SDGs to be adopted in late September, now is the time to assess “sustainable development”: what it is, why it’s necessary, and why it will work.
The MDGs did reduce global poverty. From 2000 to 2015, the number of people living in extreme poverty was reduced by more than 50%. Maternal, newborn and child health greatly improved, primary education enrolment in developing countries grew to 91%, and the fight against HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria has seen important advances. These are quantitative, important, and progressive results.
However, the MDGs have not been met without criticism. One of the main critiques of the goals is that they led to unequal development, and as a result most marginalized groups in the developing world were "left behind" in the fight against poverty. In light of this, the SDGs propose a new agenda, where “the new global goals will be judged on what they achieve for all,” not just for some.
The core aspects of the SDGs are outlined in the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, to which 193 countries agreed in August 2015. This Agenda, in recognition of the economic, environmental and social pillars of sustainability, includes five "Ps" of development: People, Planet, Prosperity, Peace and Partnership. The Agenda’s overarching goal is to provide universal development that will end poverty everywhere.
But what is "sustainable development"? The International Institute for Sustainable Development defines it as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Sustainable development is multifaceted, and includes eradicating poverty for all, managing the impact of climate change, encouraging the adoption of sustainable consumption and production practices, supporting resilience alongside development projects in conflict-stricken areas, and forming partnerships between private sector companies, governments and local enterprises. In addition, progress on all these goals will be made as transparent as possible. This new development approach takes into account a wide range of economic, social and environmental factors which inhibit wide-reaching change.
So how will the shift to SDGs affect Canada’s aid policy? I spent this summer in the midst of Canada's international development agenda, as a co-op student at the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development (DFATD). Although my experience was limited to my section and four-month term, I learned several important ways that Canadian development policy is moving towards sustainability.
First, private sector engagement in aid is not strictly good or evil – though corporations may be getting involved to boost their CSR image, corporate collaboration is a strong financial resource, creates important knowledge-sharing, and can be an important step towards lasting change.
Second, as aid projects become more accessible to the public through social media and monitoring websites, a balance must be struck between engaging the public through the development narrative and maintaining transparency through data.
Third, strong development programs are not about building infrastructure or providing resources, but capacity-building. This means that incentives should be created for domestic growth using local resources with lasting partnerships and long-term commitments.
These three features demonstrate how the shift to the SDGs generates new strategies for providing effective aid. Canada is moving towards productive and diverse partnerships in transparent and accessible development programs, all with the goal of capacity-building.
The results of the MDGs made it clear that the SDGs need to engage with the systemic causes of poverty, as well as provide local populations with the tools for capacity-building. Based on my experience at DFATD, Canada is on the right track. In September, as world leaders come together to adopt the post-2015 sustainable development agenda, the next global development path will be set—the SDGs provide a real opportunity to address the inequalities that the MDGs could not, and Canada can play a central role in shaping this path.