Looking Back, Moving Forward

©UN Photo/Devra Berkowitz

Seventy years ago, during the closing days of the Second World War, representatives of 50 nations attended the United Nations Conference on International Organizations in San Francisco, leading to the signing of the Charter of the United Nations, that came into force on 24 October 1945. The Charter is as relevant today as it was seven decades ago. The United Nations was forged through a unified resolve to uphold peace and security, development, and human rights for all and these remain the three pillars that frame the work and mission of the Organization.

The turn of the century marked a major milestone in development, when political leaders revised the terms of development cooperation. The United Nations Millennium Summit in 2000 convened the largest gathering of world leaders, which saw Heads of State adopt a new framework for human development, the United Nations Millennium Declaration. A year later, a set of eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) distilled from the declaration was presented to the General Assembly of the United Nations. While there was criticism on what was not included in the MDGs and what should have been emphasized more, such as economic growth, governance, land degradation and climate change among other issues, the MDGs represented a fulcrum for a new development collaboration between developed and developing nations.

The MDGs had a difficult birthing process. Some would say it also had a multi-year launch. From the start, it lacked inclusive consultations and was essentially devised by a few experts at the United Nations. The first few years were in part stagnant, and the excitement and anticipation dissipated just as the hype around Y2K, a few months into the new millennium.

However, looking back at the last 15 years, the MDGs have become a landmark agenda that has transformed the world. The MDGs provided the first attempt of an integrated prescription for the social agenda to address the world’s toughest challenges with incredible precision and focus on the poor, combining vertical efforts, such as health and education, in one common strategy. The process brought together vertical subject-specific goals from various international and United Nations conferences of the 1990s, including priorities such as education (Jomtien, 1990), children (New York, 1990), the environment and development (Rio de Janeiro, 1992), population (Cairo, 1994), social development (Copenhagen, 1995) and the status of women (Beijing, 1995). Standing alone, these prescriptions were half-empty, but together they provided an opportunity to make a real difference in addressing poverty and inequality. Over the years, the MDGs have demonstrated that an integrated agenda and target setting work. The results have been impressive and have required the partnership of Governments, businesses, civil society, international institutions, foundations, academia and other stakeholders to make meaningful gains. It is these gains that have provided the credibility to embark on the successor agenda to the MDGs.

It was not until 2002, during the first United Nations International Conference on Financing for Development (FfD) in Monterrey, Mexico that the means of implementation for the MDGs took root. Attended by Heads of State, ministers of finance and foreign affairs, and international institutions, world leaders agreed that developed nations should provide the financial resources and support mechanisms for developing countries to implement the MDGs, and set a goal of 0.7 per cent of gross national income as official development assistance to developing countries. Given the backdrop of the 1990s as a decade of major scale back in spending on public programmes in developed and developing countries, this was a major milestone in supporting the implementation of the MDGs worldwide.

I have seen first-hand how the MDGs catalysed deep transformations in my own country. In 2005, Nigeria was granted debt relief from the Paris Club of Industrial Country Creditors. This effectively freed up US $1 billion in savings annually. In addition, as part of the debt deal, the President had committed to investing the entirety of debt relief gains to accelerating Nigeria’s efforts to achieve the MDGs. As the adviser to the President, I assisted in setting up a Virtual Poverty Fund that would effectively deploy, coordinate and track the money from the debt relief gains towards the achievement of the MDGs.

We were able to achieve impressive results: access to water increased for over 40 million people, the rate of poverty declined, primary school enrolment significantly rose and fewer people live in slums. Service delivery institutions were strengthened and allowed for improved monitoring of development outcomes. We were also able to achieve a 30 per cent reduction in maternal mortality, more than double the enrolment of girls in school, and bolster community health insurance for pregnant women and children under five years of age, that included investments in routine immunization with a subsequent impact upon strengthening health systems.

Similar to the experience of many other countries, the MDGs gave us an opportunity to make positive substantive gains. They gave us the opportunity to go to scale with key structural, economic and social interventions to address imbalances and gaps. They supported us in building public service capacity, multi-tier government collaboration and the leverage of additional resources. They helped to put people and their immediate needs at the centre of national and global public policy.

With growing political will, media attention and a series of major donor pledges, the MDGs made a breakthrough and gained policy traction. World leaders at the 2005 United Nations World Summit underscored the need for the international community to align the MDGs with its core processes, which resulted in countries developing and implementing comprehensive national development strategies to achieve the MDGs. In addition, over US $50 billion per year was promised by 2010 to fight poverty, and agreement was reached to provide immediate support for quick impact initiatives to support the fight against malaria and the promotion of education and health.

In 2010, the MDG Summit alongside the sixty-fifth session of the General Assembly provided a review of the progress and challenges in addressing poverty, hunger and gender equality, meeting the goals of health and education, addressing emerging issues and evolving approaches, with a focus on needs of the most vulnerable, and widening and strengthening partnerships. It was also a time of forward looking for the Organization that focused on how to promote sustainable development. This process set the course for the Secretary-General to lead the way for the Rio+20 Conference in 2012.

The Rio+20 conference, drawing on the outcomes of the Rio Conference in 1992, spelled out change for the international community and began the process of metamorphosis of the development agenda. It represented the first step in a paradigm shift in development that required the integration of economic development (including the end of extreme poverty), social inclusion and environmental sustainability—through sustainable development.

Since 2012, the United Nations and its partners have engaged in an unprecedented process of inclusive consultations at the country, regional and global level, all over the world, to define the post-2015 development agenda. It has mobilized global leaders, parliamentarians, and the business, academic, scientific and civil society communities through its vast networks. Further, millions of people have expressed their priorities for the Future We Want—the largest global survey ever conducted in the context of a United Nations initiative, with the majority of participants being young people, under 30 years of age.

Similar to the MDGs, the sustainable development agenda is grounded in the Charter of the United Nations with “We the peoples” at its heart. Universality is at the core of sustainable development and translates into leaving no one behind. Unlike the MDGs, the sustainable development agenda will require all countries to mobilize and contribute. All countries will need to change, although in different ways. If we are to eradicate poverty, grow inclusive economies and preserve the environment, both developed and developing countries have to do their part at home. All stakeholders—public and private—have responsibilities and need to be accountable.

A universal agenda that aims at ending poverty everywhere and irreversibly will require massive transformations. This means, first and foremost, that poverty is eradicated in all its forms, irreversibly and everywhere, human rights are universally protected, and shared prosperity is achieved globally within the world’s planetary boundaries.

Business-as-usual will not lead the world to a sustainable development path and will not allow us to respond to the new and emerging challenges. As the Secretary-General of the United Nations Ban Ki-moon phrased it in his Stanford address in 2013, “There can be no Plan B because there is no planet B. Both science and economics tell us that we need to change course—and soon.” A paradigm shift must take place to bring about a radical change of course and action. This means decoupling economic growth from environmental degradation. In the absence of inclusive economic growth and environmental stewardship, poverty eradication and social justice will be fragile if not impossible.

This ambitious agenda will be mere rhetoric if it does not foresee the necessary means to implement this vision into reality. It will remain only an aspirational set of goals if it does not mobilize and unlock the means of implementation needed—public and private—and forge principled multi-stakeholder partnerships, at all levels—global, regional, national and local—to carry out this sustainable development agenda.

The year 2015 represents a once-in-a-generation opportunity for a paradigm shift in development, building and expanding on the strengths of the MDGs, to eradicate poverty in all its dimensions, preserve our environment and promote inclusive economic prosperity, and especially for women and young people. As Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said, “We are the first generation that can end extreme poverty and the last to tackle the worst impacts of climate change.” At the end of this year, we will have seen the adoption of a set of sustainable development goals, a meaningful climate change agenda and a financing framework to provide the resources to achieve this people-centred and planet-sensitive common agenda to safeguard the environment and the future of our children and grandchildren.

As we realize sustainable development, imagine a world where a girl in Nigeria has the right to go to school and acquire the requisite knowledge and skills to attain her aspirations; where a migrant boy can travel across regional borders safely and without violence. Imagine a world where all pregnant women have access to safe conditions for child birth; a world without child labour and exploitation; a world where people with disabilities have equal opportunities. This is the world we deserve.

Since 1945, the United Nations has upheld peace and security, development and the advancement of human rights. The world has radically changed since and continues to evolve rapidly. Old challenges are intensifying and new complexities emerge every day. That is why the United Nations has also begun to take steps to change the way it operates—to be fit-for-purpose—to better serve the world, while remaining anchored by its core values.

As we mark and commemorate the 70th anniversary of the founding of the United Nations, I cannot imagine a world without it. The Charter of the United Nations is as relevant today as it was seven decades ago. As we head into a new chapter, the Organization will require the same resolve and commitment in upholding the three pillars of peace and security, development, and human rights. Let us work together to realize the future we want.