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Looking Back, Looking Forward: The Millennium Development Goals

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Below are the remarks of John Podesta, Chair of the Center for American Progress, as delivered at the St. Regis Hotel in Washington, D.C., Friday, April 5, 2013.

It is a pleasure to be with you all today. Let me begin by thanking Kathy Calvin and her team at the U.N. Foundation for graciously hosting and organizing this event today, and being terrific partners throughout my tenure serving on the U.N. High-Level Panel developing a post-2015 agenda. We’re partners on many things. I want to do a shout out to my friend Tim Wirth, the founding president and CEO of the U.N. Foundation; Kathy has just recently taken over both titles. Tim and I both had the good sense to turn the whole kit and caboodle over to outstanding women leaders in the organizations we founded to take those organizations to a whole new level.

I also want to thank Jim Kolbe, who I had the pleasure of getting to know during my days in the Clinton administration. Jim has always been a voice for well-reasoned international engagement, first in Congress and now at the German Marshall Fund, and his common-sense approach to these issues is something I’ve always appreciated.

Today marks an important milestone. One thousand days away from the end date of the Millennium Development Goals, we should take stock of what we’ve accomplished—and should consider what remains to be done. And in defining the post-2015 agenda, we should reflect on the ways in which our world today is different than the world in 2000.

Why should America care about the Millennium Development Goals?

The response, I think, is quite simple, even in our poll-driven culture: We should care about the MDGs because it’s the right thing to do.

And I would go further and say Americans already do care about this agenda, even if they don’t know what “MDG” stands for.

We all know the conventional wisdom. The American public hates foreign aid. Polls show it is the least popular item in the budget and the only area where people consistently support spending cuts.

But when asked about targeted programs for health care, education, and poverty reduction, a very different picture emerges. And Americans are personally supporting the development agenda in record numbers. American private giving to international development is far greater than that of any other country.

Official development assistance is critical to achieving the ambition of the MDGs. Indeed, the United States has made an enormous effort to move us toward these goals through our bilateral aid programs and our contributions to multilateral institutions. And that effort is supplemented and is sometimes surpassed by the enormous dynamism of our NGOs, universities and private philanthropies, and through the power of the private sector.

What I am saying is, we shouldn’t despair because the American public knows little about the MDGs, or assume that Americans are opposed to lifting up the poorest people in the world based on polling questions of dubious reliability.

What’s more, I believe this is the very moment to make those arguments and to show Americans that the MDGs and the development agenda are something they already believe in. We can do that without resorting to the strategic arguments for development, although those are true and important as well. After all, everyone in this room knows that gross underdevelopment fuels instability. We all know that stable, democratic countries with healthier, better-educated populations make better allies and better trading partners.

And trying to address the real causes of poverty and give people the tools they need to succeed suddenly has resonance. As a Catholic, Italian American, Georgetown alum, I am glad to see that an Italian-Argentinian Jesuit became pope. It was refreshing to learn that Cardinal Bergoglio told his countrymen that instead of flying to Rome for his installation ceremony, they should instead donate the money to organizations that work with the poor. As Pope Francis said when asked why he chose his name, “He is the man who gives us this spirit of peace, the poor man. How I would like a Church which is poor and for the poor!”

The MDGs began as a monologue of expert opinion directed at development professionals. Over the next 1,000 days, organizations like the U.N. Foundation, the Center for American Progress, the ONE Campaign, Save the Children, and many others need to turn that monologue into a national and, indeed, a global dialogue.

We need to bring attention to the MDGs using tools that were certainly not available in 2000, like the #MDGmomentum global social media rally taking place today and through the weekend to spark global conversation. I recently took the leap to Twitter myself, and I don’t want to sound like the recently converted, but I am hopeful that initiatives like this online rally will help ensure broad public discussion on these issues going forward.

The process of developing the post-2015 agenda has deliberately been open and collaborative. I’ve felt incredibly fortunate as a member of the High-Level Panel to be able to hear from civil society, activists, women, the disabled, the private sector, and young people about their priorities for development.

The post-2015 agenda will be shaped by input from all of these groups and by the changes we’ve seen in the world since the MDGs were adopted. And that agenda will obviously also be shaped by the lessons we’ve learned from the MDGs.

But before looking beyond 2015, I want to talk briefly about the near term. I am convinced that we can accomplish a great deal in the next 1,000 days.

I think U.S. efforts will be particularly crucial in several areas between now and 2015. Reducing extreme poverty is one. While the goal of halving the proportion of people living on less than $1.25 per day has already been achieved—moving more than 600 million people out of extreme poverty in the process—we must not let up on pushing this target forward. Evidence suggests that economic growth is the main, but certainly not sole, determinant of poverty reduction. The U.S. government is committed to continued support for broad-based economic growth and democratic governance as a foundation for poverty reduction. The United States has been thoughtful in its approach to poverty reduction, building and implementing key partnerships to tackle some of the biggest development challenges of our time.

The United States has been a cornerstone of the effort to combat infectious diseases, bringing together partner governments, donors, and pharmaceutical companies to make an AIDS-free generation a reality. Through PEPFAR, the United States is currently directly supporting more than 5.1 million people in treatment—up from 1.7 million in 2008.

As a result, the number of people dying of AIDS-related causes has fallen by 24 percent since its peak in 2005. This falls short of the current MDG target but it is nevertheless a substantial step forward.

To combat global child mortality, last year the United States partnered with UNICEF and the governments of Ethiopia and India to create the Child Survival Call to Action, a hugely ambitious joint partnership to end preventable deaths for children under 5. This partnership has created a global road map to reduce under-5 mortality to below 20 deaths per 1,000 live births in every country by 2035.

This effort exists alongside other partnerships, including the Every Woman Every Child initiative, which aims to save the lives of 16 million women and children by 2035. The U.N. secured $40 billion in commitments from 243 partners for the Every Woman Every Child initiative, and has helped to distribute more than $118 million in funds. Although much progress has been made, the world has more to do in the fight to end needless deaths of mothers and their children.

Maternal mortality has declined 47 percent since 1990 but that level is far short of the 2015 target and developing regions still have maternal mortality rates 15 times higher than developed regions. Likewise, the world is still only halfway to reaching the MDG target of a two-thirds reduction in the under-5 mortality rate. We need to accelerate our efforts in the next 1,000 days to bring maternal and child mortality rates in line with the MDG targets.

This is by no means the sum of all the important work the U.S. government and its partners will be undertaking in the next 1,000 days to realize the ambition of the MDGs. But I wanted to highlight these examples because they all utilize broad and cooperative partnerships—between government agencies, other countries; between the public, nonprofit, and private sectors—to achieve their goals. By working with bilateral and multilateral partners, leveraging the capital and expertise of the private sector, and engaging with nonprofits and with civil society, each of these efforts can have a far greater impact than if the U.S. government tried to do it alone.

This growing emphasis on partnerships reflects the changing nature of development and the context in which we must frame the post-2015 agenda. For years, the debate about poverty, development, and sustainability was framed around divisions between North and South, developed and developing nations. That bipolar world simply no longer exists.

Nations like Brazil and India still have sizeable populations living in extreme poverty, but these countries are now donors themselves as well as political and economic dynamos. In 2000 conversations about development focused largely on official development assistance. Today we recognize that private capital, domestic resource mobilization, philanthropy, public-private partnership, and technology innovation and transfer are equally important parts of the equation.

And the profile of global poverty is changing as well. In 1990, 80 percent of the world’s poor lived in stable low-income countries. Today roughly half of the poor live in stable, middle-income countries, while 41 percent are living in fragile and conflict-affected states. This means that ending extreme poverty in our time will require us to assist the marginalized poor in middle-income states while helping fragile states put in place the political and economic systems that will help break repeated cycles of crisis and violence.

Within countries the MDGs have often been insufficient to reach traditionally marginalized populations. Geography, ethnicity, gender discrimination, caste, religion, and conflict have all contributed to this isolation. This marginalization harms more than the affected individuals—it hinders and inhibits economic growth. We know, for example, that as women achieve greater levels of social and political participation, living conditions and public policies improve accordingly. Countries that still systematically exclude women from public life are limiting themselves economically and socially.

To ensure that our efforts truly stimulate inclusive economic growth, we must increase GDP and also deliberately focus on breaking down the barriers that prohibit individuals, families, and entire communities from connecting to opportunities within their countries.

This is perhaps the greatest philosophical shift from the original MDGs. We now know that sustainable economic growth is not simply about increasing the size of national economies but about shaping enduring systems and institutions that respect the rights of individuals and give them the tools they need to help lift themselves out of poverty. Sustainable economic growth requires ensuring the poor have what I call “connectivity.” Connectivity broadly encompasses issues like access to health care, education, and job opportunities; connections to physical, financial, and energy infrastructure; and the opportunity to actively participate in the civic and economic lives of their countries and to be recognized legally by their governments.

The High-Level Panel has made significant progress in crafting a vision for a post-2015 development agenda over the course of our four meetings in New York, London, Monrovia, and Bali. Our mission is “to end extreme poverty in all its forms in the context of sustainable development and to have in place the building blocks of sustained prosperity for all.” Given this vision, I was pleased when President Obama’s State of the Union speech staked out very similar ground. The president said:

… progress in the most impoverished parts of our world enriches us all. … In many places, people live on little more than a dollar a day. So the United States will join with our allies to eradicate such extreme poverty in the next two decades by connecting more people to the global economy; and empowering women; by giving our young and brightest minds new opportunities to serve, and helping communities to feed, power, and educate themselves; by saving the world’s children from preventable deaths; and by realizing the promise of an AIDS-free generation.

President Obama’s bold vision can be realized. The MDGs show it is possible to unite the nations of the world in the pursuit of a broad and ambitious development agenda and to strive to ensure accountability for those goals and targets. But now we should move beyond the framework of eight separate silos, which are insufficient for the world we live in today.

To meet the post-2015 challenge, and to meet President Obama’s ambitious call to action and address the needs of the poorest of the poor, the post-2015 agenda should:

  1. Take into account the changing distribution of poverty and the end of the donor-recipient paradigm
  2. Be focused on sustainability—the creation of sustainable economies, the sustainable management of natural resources, and the use of sustainable development practices
  3. Recognize that it isn’t enough to try to mitigate the symptoms of poverty; we must also be honest about its sources and dedicated to addressing its root causes

The poorest of the poor operate on a very uneven playing field and remain highly disconnected from the societies and economies around them.

We have learned the hard way that even the very best and most well-financed programs meant to lift the poor out of poverty won’t make a dent in some places if families don’t have the right to own land, lack a legal identity, and are under constant threat of violence. We know we won’t achieve broad-based and inclusive economic growth if government budgets remain cloaked in secrecy, or if a country’s natural resources are looted by a kleptocracy.

This goes back to the need for the post-2015 agenda to focus on connectivity and sustainability. The extreme poor lead lives of extreme isolation. It is difficult to be included in an economy that is growing when you have no points of connection to that economy or to the larger society.

Think about the deep economic and social isolation experienced by a young couple trying to scratch out an existence in a rural village. They may not have secure land rights, meaning that if the husband dies, his wife may not inherit the land and will be dispossessed. And if the land is degraded by environmental damage, severe weather, or climate change, food insecurity can quickly morph into hunger or starvation.

They cannot access a road to get to a market to sell the food they grow. And they don’t have access to electricity, so their children are unable to study at night. They make an enormous effort to gather fuel, which they use to cook in stoves that fill their home with soot and smoke and poison their children. The government may provide a skilled birth attendant if the wife gets pregnant, but our disconnected couple has no practical way to travel to the see the attendant when she goes into labor.

Their choice is often to remain in hopeless conditions in their rural village or move to an urban slum. Once they get to the city, there is a good chance they will lack access to sanitary facilities. If they try to work, they may lack a legal identity, which means they will be taken advantage of by their employers. The women and girls may be subject to sexual exploitation. The entire family certainly will have little or no access to social protection or to a justice system that can redress abuse.

Individual goals and targets—to increase school enrollment, say, or to provide that trained birth attendant—aren’t sufficient on their own to address the breadth and depth of extreme poverty. This isn’t to say that the post-2015 agenda shouldn’t be specific; indeed, I strongly believe that specific, measurable targets are important for accountability and for tracking progress. But as I’ve said to my fellow panelists, individual goals have to be embedded in coherent national strategies to connect that couple to economic opportunities, to jobs, to justice, to reproductive health care, and to broader society that in turn will engender greater equity and opportunity—particularly for women—and will create the conditions for stronger, more sustainable growth as well.

I should note that the High-Level Panel is more like the first chapter rather than the last word on the post-2015 agenda. Our work and recommendations are just the beginning of a process that will eventually grow to involve every U.N. member state. Certainly, the High-Level Panel will not be a substitute for the series of other ongoing negotiations on crucial issues such as international trade and climate change. And I anticipate our recommendations will emphasize the linkage between poverty alleviation and sustainability, and will be harmonious with the conclusions of the concurrent Rio+20-mandated Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals.

Without taking on tasks that are beyond our purview, I believe the High-Level Panel can pursue a number of sustainability goals and targets that are universal in their nature, have direct links to extreme poverty, and would help shape a far better world by 2030.

For example, I would like to see the High-Level Panel embrace the existing G-8 and G-20 commitment to eliminate fossil fuel subsidies. The world currently spends roughly $700 billion a year underwriting fossil fuels. A meager 7 percent of these subsidies actually benefit poor households. Ending fossil-fuel subsidies would not only benefit the planet; it would also free up much-needed financing to be redirected to the poor and the post-2015 agenda.

Similarly, I think efforts to reach zero net deforestation and zero net desertification deserve serious consideration in the new agenda, as do efforts to dramatically reduce food waste, replenish fish stocks and sustain fisheries, improve energy efficiency and rely more heavily on renewable sources of energy. We need to understand that ending extreme poverty and promoting sustainability are not at odds with each other but are indeed mutually reinforcing and beneficial.

There is a firm commitment within the High-Level Panel to keep goals and targets measurable, specific, and accountable, as in the original MDGs. But the emerging post-2015 vision is different from the original goals in very important ways. The post-2015 vision moves beyond the artificial divide between North and South. It is a vision that recognizes the need to foster and support the kind of open, transparent public institutions and private-sector businesses that engender inclusive and sustainable economic growth. And it is a vision which takes account of different capacities, but in which every nation has a responsibility to contribute to the development agenda, a vision of a true global partnership which holds all of us accountable to one another.

The world has changed considerably since the U.N. Millennium Declaration was signed in 2000. But the need for an ambitious and far-reaching development agenda is just as keen as before. The difference is that we know now that such an agenda can be successful. For the next 1,000 days, governments, international organizations, NGOs, the private sector, and philanthropic actors around the world will continue to pursue the Millennium Development Goals—improving maternal health and reducing hunger, striving for gender parity in education, and reducing the incidence of malaria and HIV.

Beyond those 1,000 days, we will have a new agenda—one that builds on what we have learned from the MDGs. It will be an agenda tailored to some very new and the very old social, environmental, and economic challenges we face. It will be an agenda that I think the American people will support, whether they know the details of its programming and the genesis of its ideas or not. And it will be an agenda that moves us closer—ever closer—to eradicating extreme poverty in our time and for all time.

Thank you.

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