current affairs development

A to-do list for humanity

If you’re a watcher of  international affairs, you may have noted the latest missive from the UN last week. It’s the report from the ‘high level panel of eminent persons‘ advising Ban Ki Moon on what the UN’s goals might be after 2015. The Millennium Development Goals expire then, and we’d like some new goals to rally around.

It’s easy to be cynical about or bored by such things, but they’re worth keeping an eye on. If nothing else, they are the nearest thing we have to being able to sit down, as a species, and decide what it is that we want out of the next couple of decades. That’s a thought that I find inspiring and depressing in equal measure – inspiring in the scope and ambition of our goals, depressing when you remember our track record on working together to meet them.

Either way, there’s something compelling about the exercise of writing the list. The sense of possibility is always there, the same childlike simplicity that characterised John and Yoko’s anti-war billboards: “war is over (if you want it)”.

So what’s on the list? These are still recommendations at the moment, but here are the proposed 12:

  1. End poverty
  2. Empower girls and women and achieve gender equality
  3. Provide quality education and lifelong learning
  4. Ensure healthy lives
  5. Ensure food security and good nutrition
  6. Achieve universal access to water and sanitation
  7. Secure sustainable energy
  8. Create jobs, sustainable livelihoods and equitable growth
  9. Manage natural resources and assets sustainably
  10. Ensure good governance and effective institutions
  11. Ensure stable and peaceful societies
  12. Create a global enabling environment and catalyze long-term finance

There’s a lot to discuss in there, particularly since some of them double up. Number 12 looks a lot like it has a Number 13, 14 and 15 bundled in with it: it includes climate change, maintaining the goal of 0.7% of government spending as an aid target, tackling tax havens and eliminating agricultural subsidies, none of which are immediately apparent from the wording of the basic goal. It’s the ‘any other business’ goal at the end of the agenda.

Those familiar with the MDGs will find some comparisons – poverty and hunger have been separated and food security gets a goal of its own. Water and sanitation is in, universal energy access is in, education has a qualitative element to it and goes beyond primary. These things all matter. There are long running debates and campaigns behind each of these seemingly innocuous phrasings.

There are also success stories there that allow us to raise our sights. Education now includes universal access to secondary school because enrolment in primary school has risen from 80 to 90% in the last 15 years. As new infection rates continue to decline, HIV no longer needs a headline goal of its own.

Another thing that’s encouraging is the integration of environmental concerns and economic and social goals. It’s present in energy and resource goals, but crops up elsewhere too. The food security goal includes reducing food wastage, for example.

Of course, there will be plenty of people clamouring for other things, and no list could be perfect. But it’s a good start in my opinion.


  1. Great summary and I would not have otherwise had time to do the same myself – thank you. I think they are pretty spot on transitioning into Sustainable Development Goals. I like the MDGs as they are a framework for those who want to work towards a common goal… I am really encouraged by the outlook of these and will definitely follow them more closely from here.

  2. It is good to see trade being a topic on the list, shame it is in the AOB point 12. As the Economist said this week,

    “the aim of halving global poverty between 1990 and 2015 was achieved five years early. The MDGs may have helped marginally, by creating a yardstick for measuring progress, and by focusing minds on the evil of poverty. Most of the credit, however, must go to capitalism and free trade, for they enable economies to grow—and it was growth, principally, that has eased destitution.”

    Trade is the key. The humble shipping container has done more for the poor than all foreign aid.

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