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Symposium 2015

Solution for Putting the SDGs to Work

The Challenge

Much of the recent public debate on international development has revolved around the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which are due to expire in 2015. Negotiations on a new set of Sustainable Dev ...

Much of the recent public debate on international development has revolved around the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which are due to expire in 2015. Negotiations on a new set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are now under way. While the MDGs had a rather narrow focus on key issues of human development such as income, poverty, basic health, and education, the scope of the SDGs is much broader. The SDGs follow up on the previous poverty-oriented goals which have not been met completely, but they then also include distributional considerations as well as environmental objectives such as the protection of oceans and tropical forests. The SDGs are thus firmly rooted in the sustainable development paradigm, which renders them conceptually appealing. At the same time, the SDG list is extremely long, comprising 17 goals broken down into 169 sub-goals (so-called targets) as compared to the 8 MDGs with their 21 targets. This new complexity may pose a risk to the popularity and realization of the new development goals, given that the MDGs' appeal to a wider audience also originated from their catchy simplicity and measurability.

Achieving the SDGs by Tackling Inequality

Clearly the SDGs address several shortcomings of the MDGs: they seek to eradicate—not just reduce—extreme poverty. They address systemic change which the MDGs failed to do. And they oblige all countries to achieve them—not only the Global South. No doubt, the new Sustainable Development Goals are ambitious on paper—and they could be historic in their impact.

However, they cannot be achieved by “Business as Usual.” Systemic change requires strong policy change. The SDGs put the right topics on the agenda—for example, without fighting income inequality (SDG 10) it won’t be possible to eradicate poverty and meet the SDGs until 2030. Recent World Bank projections suggest that without measures against inequality, even taking into account optimistic assumptions about global growth, 200 million people will be trapped in extreme poverty by 2030 unless poor people’s incomes grow faster than those of the rich. Whilst we saw poverty levels reduced by one billion between 1990 and 2015, still 836 million people live on less than 1.25 US dollar a day—rising inequality in many countries prevented greater progress.

The challenge is to develop policies enabling the poorest to benefit most from economic growth. Experience shows that, despite some progress in, for example, China, there is no automatic trickle-down effect that lets the poorest take advantage of growth. At the same time, we have to overcome isolated growth-based strategies to fight poverty, taking into account planetary boundaries and the need to develop alternative economic models in a resource-constraint world.

So what to do? Closing the gap between the rich and the poor is one of the answers. We live in a world in which one percent of the population owns as much as the rest of the world combined. 80 people have accumulated as much wealth as the poorer half of the world’s population (around 3.5 billion people). This is inacceptable. In other words: We need redistributive policies to welcome the richest people back in touch with the rest of society.

Policies must involve measures to ensure tax justice. This means clamping down on corporate tax dodgers that cheat developing countries out of billions of dollars each year, and making multinational companies pay their fair share of tax in all the countries where they do business, as well as introducing more progressive taxation that allows richer parts of society to pay their fair share. Additional revenues must be invested in public services so that all citizens have access to good education, health care and social protection, which have been proved to be strong weapons in the fight against poverty and inequality. And it is indispensable to ensure decent jobs with decent wages. The private sector is key in this regard. Whilst it of central importance to build-up public systems in areas as health and education to ensure services will provided for all, private finance is also needed to meet the SDGs—especially when it comes to large-scale job-creating infrastructure projects (roads, railways, telecommunications). A prerequisite for private sector engagement is to put in place proper checks-and-balances to ensure these activities work in the public interest and safeguard people’s rights.

The main responsibility for introducing these policies is with the governments, as they are the decisive drivers of development of their respective countries. However, taking into account the huge challenge many developing countries face with regard to achieving the SDGs, a true Global Partnership, as envisaged in SDG 17, has to be established, and this must entail a fair sharing of financing for the SDGs as well as a balance in negotiation power between industrialized, emerging, and developing countries.

More specifically, it means that the international community, e.g., the rich countries, has to fulfil its international financing obligations by meeting the 0.7% of GNI aid target as soon as possible. Furthermore, the international community has an important role to play in setting the right international rules to increase domestic resource mobilization in developing countries, for example, by setting fair international tax rules. For this to happen, developing countries need an equal say in international tax negotiations to put their issues on the agenda, but so far deals are only made in exclusive clubs such as the OECD or the G20, and not the UN. Just recently, at the Financing for Development Conference in Addis Ababa, nearly all industrialized countries refused the G77 call for an inclusive UN tax body. It shows that a true Global Partnership is far away from being a reality.

It is one of the main tasks of civil society actors to further demand a fair global partnership and comprehensive action against inequality, showing injustices in the current system, and to hold governments to account with regard to the implementation of the SDGs. Both, CSOs in poor and rich countries, have to demand viable and ambitious national action plans that foster the achievement of the SDGs at home and abroad, they have to participate in national SDG policy dialogues and monitor SDG processes in their countries. As the SDG agenda aims at “leaving no one behind,” this requires especially the participation of the most vulnerable and marginalized people so they can claim their rights. Women must be central to realizing these goals, while at the same time the concentrated power of vested interests must be challenged and those interests held more accountable by governments and citizens.

We can eradicate extreme poverty—but, to do this we must tackle the growing gap between the richest and the rest.

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