Next week, a dazzling array of world leaders will gather in New York for the annual opening of the United Nations General Assembly, sometimes called UN Week. Speeches are made, initiatives are launched and deals are signed. Amid the din, political stories often grab the most attention. It goes without saying that this year, North Korea, the Rohingya in Myanmar or some other urgent flashpoint will dominate the news.
Yet a far more important story will be told alongside it, one I truly do hope gets the attention it deserves. It’s the story of our progress as a world, one in which all of us have a role to play.
The idea that there should be clear, specific targets for global development took its first steps towards reality in the 1990s, when the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) proposed a set of eight goals, from universal primary education to improved maternal health, which all countries could aim to achieve. Launched in 2000, they were known as the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).
By the end of the decade, they had become a driving force for developmental work across the world. Developing-country governments, aid donors and those working in the field found it helpful to have a yardstick to measure progress and prioritise resources. By the MDG deadline of 2015, some goals had not been met, but still, incredible progress had been made on all of them. Most strikingly of all, the number of children dying each year fell by even more than the target of 50 per cent, beating all expectations.
As the 2015 deadline for the MDGs drew near, people began to ask what would happen next. Would the goals be consigned to history as a useful experiment? Or would they be a springboard for even more progress?
In response, during UN Week in September 2015, while the media focused on the unusual presence of Pope Francis among the ministers and diplomats, something even more remarkable happened in New York.
Every single one of the UN’s 193 member states signed an agreement on a new set of Global Goals. Unlike the previous MDGs, these new Global Goals were agreed upon collaboratively with the input of every country and they reflected the combined aspirations of humanity for a better world. The seventeen Global Goals, which range from gender equality to eradication hunger and protection of life under the ocean, show that for the first time in the the history of humanity, the entire world has come together on a single plan for the future. When you step back and think about it, that’s a truly incredible thing.
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Next week, the UN Week circus will come to town for another year. And behind the flash of cameras and the security details, a diverse group of people – activists, advocates, decision makers and influencers – will gather at a special event to take stock of progress towards the Global Goals. More than half will be under 40; sixty per cent will be women. They will come to New York from every corner of the world and from the full spectrum of social and economic backgrounds. But they will be united in one cause. They are Goalkeepers, committed to keeping the world focused on the Global Goals.
Just two years into the goals' 15-year timespan, the time is right to check in on their progress. The Goalkeepers will listen to a range of inspiring stories, as well as the most critical causes for concern. Most importantly, they will be confronted by the hard data, which is released today in the Global Progress Report[AL1] , launched by Bill and Melinda Gates. This document is nothing less than a report card for humanity, holding us to account for the goals we have set ourselves.
Happily, much of the news is positive. At current rates, the number of children dying will fall by half once again, from the current 5 million per year down to just 2.5 million by 2030. The proportion of people with no access to any banking services – an important part of economic inclusion – is also set to fall by around half, from 35 per cent of the world’s population to just 18 per cent.
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Despite that, Goalkeepers need to face up to three important facts. First, for some of the goals, we’re still flying blind. We’ve signed up to provide a high quality education for every child, but don’t have the data to tell us how many children in every country are learning. Secondly, where we have data, even the great progress we are on track to make will not get us to the goals we set ourselves just two years ago. Whether it’s ending absolute poverty, reducing deaths in childbirth or ensuring access to sanitation, it will take a far bigger scale of ambition if we are to reach them. Thirdly, and most worryingly, there is a risk that we will take our eyes off the ball and start sliding backwards. Malaria and HIV are just two examples of diseases that are currently falling in prevalence, but which are likely to come back in a big way if planned cuts to foreign aid by the United States and other donors are implemented.
Creating the Global Goals was an unprecedented act of international collaboration. But the coming years will determine whether humanity has the determination to reach its own targets ... or at least come close. If developing countries do not continue to increase their focus on health, education and other services and if donors cut back on their important work, the incredible progress of the last two decades can be undone. To stop that from happening, we must all be Goalkeepers, making the case to our governments, businesses and communities that the progress of the world towards our Global Goals is the most important legacy we can leave for the next generation.
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