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Ending Poverty in a Generation: The Post-2015 Development Agenda

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Below are the remarks of John Podesta, Chair of the Center for American Progress, as delivered at Georgetown University on October 1, 2013.

Good afternoon. I want to begin by thanking Ambassador Verveer for that kind introduction. Melanne and I had the unique privilege of being chiefs of staff together during the last years of the Clinton administration; me for a former president, perhaps she for a future president. It’s always a real pleasure to be able to work together again, especially on issues as critical as the one on our agenda today.

I would also be remiss if I didn’t thank the Georgetown community—of which I am so proud to be a part, both as an alumnus of the Law Center and as a visiting professor there—and in particular the Global Human Development Program and the Institute for Women, Peace and Security for making this event possible.

We’re here today to talk about a subject that is both morally straightforward and politically complex.

We’re here to talk about ending extreme poverty in a generation.

It will come as a surprise to none of you when I say that we are facing some truly historic global challenges. And I’m not talking about the Tea Party shutting down the government. I’m talking about trends that are far more serious. We live in the most prosperous epoch of human history, and yet there are people each day who starve to death. We live in an era of unprecedented medical knowledge, and yet children still die of preventable diseases. We live in an era that has seen the meteoric rise of new economic powers in some of the poorest corners of the globe, and yet that rise has been accompanied by an even more staggering increase in inequality.

We live teetering on the edge of catastrophic climate change; we live shaken by repeated extreme weather events. And yet we still pump toxins into our air and land and water. And there are even those, in our country and elsewhere, who deny that our actions are contributing to the planet’s stress.

Global challenges like these require global cooperation, global solutions, a global sense of responsibility. If we can’t agree in this country that being able to access health care is a basic right, how can we hope to save the poorest women in the world from needlessly dying in childbirth? If our government can’t pass a budget, how can we hope to build sustained and shared economic growth in the most neglected corners of the Earth?

Well, as I said, we’re here to talk about ending extreme poverty. So I think there’s hope. I think there’s a way forward. And I don’t think we have to look very far to find it. I think that if we look back to the year 2000, we will find a really inspiring, truly effective example of international, multilateral cooperation. We’ll find it in an agreement among all the world’s nations that created the Millennium Development Goals [or MDGs], a set of eight big, ambitious targets to—over the next decade and a half—dramatically improve the lot of humanity.

Now I think the past decade has been a tough one for multilateralism. From the Iraq invasion and its messy aftermath, to the inability to contain the spread of violence in Syria, with a last minute save to end Syria’s chemical weapons program, to softer failures of the Doha round and glacial pace of climate negotiations, multilateralism and global cooperation almost seem out of reach in today’s world.

But I think the Millennium Development Goals are a firm example of the fact that the sun has not yet set on the multilateral ideal. During last week’s U.N. General Assembly meeting in New York, a good deal of conversation, from official U.N. events to side meetings around town, was focused on issues around global development—both as we approach the end date of the MDGs in 2015 and look beyond them to a post-2015 agenda.

Back in 2000, there was skepticism about the practicality or effectiveness of a broad, ambitious global development agenda. World leaders had long pledged to eradicate poverty and hunger, to reduce disease, to increase access to primary education for the poorest of the poor. Too often those pledges were simply platitudes, and nothing changed. But the Millennium Agenda was different.

The Millennium Development Goals were clear and measurable, easy to understand, and came with a deadline—December 31, 2015. They sought, among other achievements, to halve the rates of hunger and extreme poverty; to achieve universal primary education, and eliminate the gender gap in primary and secondary education; to reduce the maternal mortality rate by three-quarters; and to halt and begin to reverse the spread of HIV/AIDS.

Not all of these goals will be achieved by the end of 2015, but we’ve made considerable progress in most areas and have reached some targets ahead of schedule. For instance, the very first goal—to halve the rate of people living in extreme poverty by 2015—was met five years before the deadline, mainly thanks to efforts in China, India, and Brazil. But it’s important to note that poverty rates have continued to fall in all regions despite the global recession. The world is also on track to halve the proportion of people who suffer from hunger by 2015.

In education, 90 percent of children now attend primary school, but there will be significant challenges in reaching the goal of achieving universal primary education by 2015. In positive news, the world has achieved gender parity for boys and girls in primary education. However, only 2 countries out of 130 have closed the gender gap in all levels of education. And continued discrimination and violence against women and girls has hampered progress toward gender equality.

Rates of new HIV infections continue to decline in most regions, and more people than ever before have access to antiretroviral drugs. But we missed the 2010 target for universal drug access for those living with HIV. More than 7 million people still lacked access to life-saving HIV drug therapy in 2011.

There is good news: 11 low- and middle-income countries, including Rwanda, Zambia, Cambodia, and Mexico, achieved universal access by 2011. We can take the lessons from those success stories and apply them elsewhere, until we have truly achieved an AIDS-free generation, as Secretary Clinton called for last year.

Yes, progress has been uneven as we’ve worked toward achieving the Millennium Development Goals. Even in countries that are doing well overall, people who are isolated because of geography or gender, caste or class, or gender identity, race or religion, disability or ethnicity have too often been left out.

But as Bill Gates wrote recently, we should think of the MDGs as a report card, not as a final exam. We can take lessons from what the MDGs have done well—and what they have not—and apply them to the next global development agenda beyond 2015.

That’s what I and the 26 other members of the High-Level Panel on the Post-2015 Development Agenda attempted to do, from the time the secretary-general announced our appointment last summer to the release of our report at the end of May. A few of the panel members were development experts, but most of us came from government service, social advocacy, or the private sector. We came together to talk and debate, to learn from one another’s experience and expertise, and—above all else—to listen.

We held consultations with women, people with disabilities, young people, activists, civil society groups, businesses, development experts, government, academics, and other groups all over the world. The U.N. and civil society also created an online platform, “The World We Want 2015,” to host thematic and national consultations, collect survey feedback, and engage more generally with anyone interested in having their voice heard.

The original MDGs were largely formulated behind closed doors at United Nations headquarters, far away from the people and problems they were hoping to target. The MDGs reinforced the longstanding North-South paradigm of development, in which money—and directives—flowed from the wealthy countries of the developed world to the global South.

But the world in 2015 will be very different from the world of 2000. In 2000, we could not have predicted that by 2015, official development assistance from rich countries, while still important, would make up a much smaller piece of the financial pie for developing countries than in the past. Domestic revenues, remittances, philanthropic dollars, and particularly private investment have in recent years played an increasingly important role in development, and will continue to do so in the future.

In 2000, we could not have predicted that by well before 2015, inexpensive mobile phones would allow financial services, agricultural and medical knowledge, and government services to outstrip the built infrastructure and reach the remotest parts of the world through SMS technology.

In 2000, we knew that climate change would continue to be a challenge in 2015, but I don’t think we could have predicted exactly how quickly the number of extreme weather events would increase, nor that China, now the world’s number one total emitter, would have emissions levels on a per capita basis nearly equal to those of the European Union.

And in 2000, as I’ve said, I don’t know that we could have predicted how successful the Millennium Development Agenda would have proven to be by today, particularly at that most nebulous of goals: the task of uniting the many nations of the globe behind a common set of targets and ideals.

While the High-Level Panel’s report is by no means the last word on the post-2015 development goals, I do think we were largely successful in articulating both an ambitious narrative and an illustrative set of goals that reflect the lessons we learned from the Millennium Agenda, as well as the many voices, particularly those from the global South, that we heard during the consultation process.

Our report outlines five big, transformative shifts for the post-2015 agenda.

First, it is essential that we leave no one behind. If we want to end extreme poverty by 2030, we must ensure that no one is left isolated owing to any demographic or geographic factor. That means that we can’t only tackle the symptoms of extreme poverty—hunger, disease, poor sanitation—but we must attack the means by which poverty takes root. We must strive to ensure that the poorest of the poor have connectivity to the physical, economic, social, and political infrastructure of their countries so that they have the access and opportunity to build better lives for themselves.

Next, we must correct one of the oversights of the Millennium Agenda and put sustainable development at the core. MDG 7, to “ensure environmental sustainability,” blended targets like increasing access to clean drinking water and basic sanitation with more vague goals like “integrating the principles of sustainable development into country policies.” The clean drinking water target has been met—though, as with all the Millennium Goals, there is still considerable work to be done. But environmental degradation—desertification and deforestation, pollution, and the loss of biodiversity—has continued at an alarming rate since 2000.

The post-2015 agenda must thoroughly integrate the principles of sustainable development into the poverty-reduction agenda, including promoting patterns of sustainable consumption and production. Any progress we make toward ending extreme poverty stands to be undone as sea levels rise, extreme weather events increase, and environmental shocks create volatility in agricultural production and commerce.

The third shift is to transform economies for jobs and inclusive growth. Strong economic growth and widespread opportunities for employment are the best tools we have for ending extreme poverty. We must do more to focus on increasing employment for young people and marginalized populations, and actively seek to ensure that the benefits of growth are broadly shared in all countries.

The fourth big idea is politically difficult but fundamentally critical to ending extreme poverty. We must build peace and effective, open, and accountable institutions for all. War, conflict, and violence are vehicles of pain and impoverishment. Freedom from fear is essential for building prosperous, stable, equitable, and just societies.

As is trust in government. All people expect and deserve their governments to be accountable to their needs and wishes, fair and honest in their dealings, and transparent about their actions. Peace and good governance are the foundations of strong societies, and therefore are not optional components of a post-2015 development agenda.

However, the inclusion of the governance and institutions agenda is far from assured. Important elements have garnered support from member states. Measurable targets like universal legal identity and effective property and land tenure rights get at the efficacy of critical institutions without threatening national sovereignty.

But other areas like corruption, judicial sector reform, and budget transparency face stiff opposition from many countries. Despite their centrality to the eradication of poverty, these areas lack the reliable, systematic data that made goals on poverty reduction and HIV/AIDS so successful.

To ensure peace, good governance, and strong institutions are a part of the post-2015 agenda—and I firmly believe they must be—we must use the next two years to show member states that governance and peace are not only critical to the long-term sustainability of poverty eradication but that they are underpinned by strong indicators with wide-ranging support from the international community.

And finally, all of these shifts are underscored by the fifth, to forge a new global partnership. The North-South paradigm of official development assistance interactions between governments is a thing of the past. The post-2015 agenda must bring together the public, private, and philanthropic sectors with civil society, the scientific and academic community, and individual actors in the spirit of partnership, mutual accountability, and shared responsibility for the future. The post-2015 agenda, we concluded, should be a truly universal agenda that applies to every country according to its respective needs and abilities, rather than being targeted only at the developing world.

In our report, the High-Level Panel tried to make these five transformative shifts more tangible by providing a list of illustrative goals and targets, including:

  • Increasing land tenure rights
  • Ending child marriage
  • Ensuring that every child leaves primary school able to read, write, and count
  • Guaranteeing sexual and reproductive health and rights
  • Reducing bribery and corruption
  • And doubling the share of renewable energy in the global energy mix, among many others

Not every target we identified will be part of the final post-2015 agenda, and there may be additional goals that we did not include.

But our targets include both the big goals and some of the fairly simple things that can be done to end extreme poverty, like ensuring that every person has a valid and recognized legal identity. You might think that an identity card or birth certificate is too easy and straightforward a solution for a problem like endemic, intergenerational poverty, but sometimes that’s the start of someone’s path out of exploitation and into economic and social security.

Before we turn to the panel discussion, and to your questions, I want to offer just a few final thoughts.

As we move forward in the post-2015 process, there will be those who urge us to stick to the areas identified in the Millennium Development Goals, lest we make our task too arduous or complex. But I think a key lesson of the MDGs is that we must not abandon important goals just because they will be difficult to achieve. Certainly, the process of negotiating targets in—for instance—accountable institutions and governance will be very contentious. But we have seen that transparency, openness, and accountability are non-negotiable elements of social and economic progress.

The final piece of the High-Level Panel report is a call for a data revolution. We want to see the world’s researchers, academics, development experts, and local and national governments to spend the time between now and 2015 building up baseline data and creating more nuanced tools to measure progress. Better data and better measurement tools will have the added benefit of helping persuade skeptics that we can accurately track metrics other than those related to birth, death, and disease.

Second, the process of crafting the post-2015 agenda is far from over, and must continue to be as open and consultative as the High-Level Panel process was. One proposal, which I am pleased to support, is to create a separate Youth High-Level Panel that would bring together young people from around the world to formulate their own priorities for post-2015 development. I think that the voices of the world’s youth are very much present in the High-Level Panel report, particularly in the presence of a specific target to reduce youth unemployment. But since today’s young people will inherit the world in 2030, in my view, it is only right that they should have a strong presence in drawing the map to get us there.

Finally, and though this may prompt some resistance from our own government, I think it’s essential that the universality of the post-2015 agenda be maintained. Climate change, social and economic inequality, and the process of creating sustainable, shared economic growth are challenges we face as keenly in the United States as developing countries do abroad. We can continue to lead the world only if we acknowledge our own shortcomings and prove ourselves equal to the task of overcoming them.

It’s always been easy to grow cynical about the state of the world, and cynicism has perhaps never been an easier or more natural response than it is today. But as I said in the beginning of my remarks, I’m hopeful for the future. The experience of being on the High-Level Panel, I must say, played no small part in making me as hopeful as I am.

On the High-Level Panel, 27 people, from very different countries and backgrounds, with very different priorities, were able to come together throughout an intense nine-month process and emerge not only as colleagues, but as allies and as friends. We were able to resolve some really difficult disagreements and to produce a report we all stand behind, even though we may still individually have issues over one point or another. If we could produce a comprehensive and coherent set of recommendations in just nine short months, then I have to be optimistic about the potential for the formal U.N. process.

We can end hunger by 2030. We can see every child educated and keep every woman safe from violence. We can see every country reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. We can rebuild forests and fisheries. We can continue the arduous but worthy task of creating accountable governments and institutions, especially in post-conflict states.

We can end extreme poverty in our time.

Thank you.

John Podesta is Chair of the Center for American Progress.

To speak with our experts on this topic, please contact:

Print: Katie Peters (economy, education, poverty, Half in Ten Education Fund)
202.741.6285 or kpeters@americanprogress.org

Print: Anne Shoup (foreign policy and national security, energy, LGBT issues, health care, gun-violence prevention)
202.481.7146 or ashoup@americanprogress.org

Print: Crystal Patterson (immigration)
202.478.6350 or cpatterson@americanprogress.org

Print: Madeline Meth (women's issues, Legal Progress, higher education)
202.741.6277 or mmeth@americanprogress.org

Spanish-language and ethnic media: Tanya Arditi
202.741.6258 or tarditi@americanprogress.org

TV: Lindsay Hamilton
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Radio: Chelsea Kiene
202.478.5328 or ckiene@americanprogress.org