The Secretary-General’s Agenda: Prioritizing Commitment To Combat Global Poverty

As the first Secretary-General of the United Nations elected in the twenty-first century, Ban Ki-moon has inherited responsibilities that span the globe and run the gamut of issues, which included peace, prosperity and everything in between.

Global interconnectedness and rapidly advancing technology have spawned a whole new set of challenges and opportunities, without closing the book on the old. In these increasingly complex times, the Secretary-General will be pressed to manage an array of difficult and deadly conflicts that will flare up in a moment's notice. However, it is imperative that he also prioritizes the global poverty agenda -- humanity's pre-eminent moral issue.

Poverty is a chronic problem that impinges on global security issues and plagues nearly half of the world's people. Poverty is a threat to peace. By awarding the Nobel Peace Prize for 2006 to Grameen Bank, the Norwegian Nobel Committee has given support to the proposition that peace is inextricably linked to poverty. About 40 per cent of the global population lives on 94 per cent of world income. Half of the population lives on $2 a day, with over a billion people living on less than half of that. This is no formula for peace -- the frustrations, hostilities and anger generated by abject poverty cannot sustain peace in any society.

Poverty is not new, but there are creative new strategies for addressing it. The new millennium began with a great global dream. In 2000 and again in 2005, the United Nations affirmed the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) as the world's anti-poverty agenda, with an overarching objective of eradicating extreme poverty and hunger in half by 2015. The eight MDGs reinforce the reality that poverty must be fought on multiple fronts and that economic and social developments are inextricably linked. Thus, the MDGs include benchmarks for achieving universal education, protecting the environment, improving maternal and children's health and fighting diseases. Reminding nations of the importance of marshalling the political will necessary to implement these goals should be a primary objective of the new Secretary-General's term.

The United Nations convening power can also help advance the cause of poverty alleviation. As former Secretary-General Kofi Annan has said, the MDGs can be accomplished "only if we break with business as usual". Mr. Ban, as the current head of the world's platform for international cooperation, is in a unique position to bring together the disparate sectors that have the power to make enduring change: Governments, business, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), foundations, individuals and the United Nations itself. With proper leadership, all sectors and individuals, including the poor, can be empowered to foster social, economic and environmental progress.

One area that is begging for such progress and cooperation is the energy sector. No corner of the planet or any of its inhabitants is free from the need for affordable and easily accessible sources of energy -- and it is an absolute necessity for growing economies. As the recent report of the Inergovernmental Panel on Climate Change made clear, increasing reliance on fossil fuels is pushing the Earth closer and closer to a point of no return, beyond which irreparable damage is inevitable. Ironically, that impact will be felt most harshly by the poor in developing nations, especially in low-lying islands and coastal States. Therefore, the path towards reducing greenhouse gas emissions can and must be one that also addresses poverty.

Although the challenges are great in shifting to a new energy economy, so are the opportunities; but the solution is well within our grasp. New energy technologies offer developing nations the opportunity to leapfrog and harness new, decentralized low-emitting forms of energy like solar, wind and biofuels, while developed nations are given the opportunity to transform their economies and limit their dependence on others, often volatile regions, for a secure source of energy. The opportunity for international cooperation is ripe.

Secretary-General Ban has declared that climate change would be a top priority during his tenure, adding that it would inordinately affect the impoverished and would require close cooperation between nations. He has even addressed the issue in his meetings with President George W. Bush and members of the United States Congress. His vigilance must not fade. Also, according to several media reports, the Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, Yvo de Boer, has said that the United Nations should host an international summit, where Heads of Government or State can chart the next steps against global warming, a suggestion that Mr. Ban is said to be considering strongly. This is exactly the right path to take. The international community must negotiate constructively in the coming years to develop a follow-up agreement to the Kyoto Protocol, which has the effect of stabilizing as soon as possible greenhouse gas concentrations. This will lead to reducing dangerous emissions, creating economic opportunity and helping to eradicate global poverty and ecosystem degradation.

Corporations, NGOs and foundations must also be encouraged to continue to play a vital role in this fight, as their ability to find innovative solutions and broaden the reach of the global institutions is unparalleled. Grameen Shakti, a member of the Grameen family, is a non-profit organization that was created over a decade ago to promote and develop renewable energy technologies in remote rural areas of Bangladesh. It has used a market-based approach and micro-finance principles gleaned from the Grameen Bank to supply over 42,000 rural households with solar-power systems. Grameen Shakti's scope increased rapidly since 2000, an example of the immense power of public-private partnerships.

Shifting to a new energy economy is an issue of utmost importance, with an immeasurable potential for poverty reduction. However, it is not the only challenge that must be faced by the international community, with the United Nations in the lead, nor should the UN role in poverty reduction be limited to initiatives at the institutional level. UN vast efforts on the ground in individual communities are vital and must continue to be bolstered by Secretary-General Ban. In other words, when bringing together disparate actors in the fight against poverty, he must not forget the individual.

Almost two thirds of the global population lack access to formal banking services or the capital necessary to build assets of their own. Micro-credit institutions like Grameen and other innovative initiatives have worked to expand access to credit, land title and other essential building blocks of human progress. At Grameen, we have demonstrated that empowering individuals and creating an enabling environment can do much to eliminate poverty. What started with a $27-loan out of my own pocket to 42 individuals has now grown into an institution that has loaned over $6 billion to nearly 7 million poor people -- over 58 per cent of the borrowers have crossed the poverty line. Although Secretary-General Ban sits at the head of an organization with immense responsibilities and powers on the international stage, billions of impoverished people would be well served if he did not to forget the importance of empowering the individual.

I believe that together we can build a poverty-free world. Poverty is not created by the impoverished. It has been created and sustained by the economic and social system that we have designed for ourselves, the institutions and concepts that make up that system, and the policies that we pursue. The Secretary-General is in a unique position to reshape that entire framework, address humanity's pre-eminent moral issue and confront the many issues that poverty impinges upon.