Applying Universal Goals to the United States

One of the most innovative elements of the emerging post-2015 global development agenda is a focus on universality. What would that mean in the United States?

People buy vegetables at a market in Hyderabad, India, Saturday, March 15, 2014. (AP/Mahesh Kumar A.)
People buy vegetables at a market in Hyderabad, India, Saturday, March 15, 2014. (AP/Mahesh Kumar A.)

Read the report: Universality in Focus by John Norris, Molly Elgin-Cossart, and Casey Dunning

Since 2000, the world has made commendable progress in sharply reducing extreme poverty and improving the lives of hundreds of millions of people under the umbrella of the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals, or MDGs. This set of voluntary global goals was designed to accelerate progress over 15 years in key areas such as health, education, and the environment. The eight MDGs—which ranged from halving the rate of extreme poverty to reducing the rate of under-5 mortality by two-thirds—have formed a blueprint to help the world’s poorest people.

The theory behind the MDGs was simple: By establishing a shared set of priorities in crucial areas, setting measurable targets to achieve those goals, and creating transparency around data to track progress, the goals could catalyze resources, new partnerships, and action—driving a race to the top. In many ways, the MDGs represented a global to-do list for lifting vulnerable populations out of poverty.

However, with more than a billion people globally still living on less than $1.25 a day, there is still considerably more work to be done. U.N. member states and a range of other actors are currently engaged in discussions regarding what the successor to the Millennium Development Goals should look like; in the language of the United Nations, these are the “post-2015” goals. (U.N. member states haven’t agreed formally on what exactly they should be called.)

Center for American Progress founder and former Chair, John Podesta, served on the U.N. High Level Panel charged with taking a first look at the contours of the post-2015 development agenda, and that panel turned its report over to the secretary-general in May 2013. The panel’s recommendations for the world’s next development agenda were generally well received. The report suggested a set of 12 global goals and 54 national targets that would allow some flexibility to reflect each country’s distinct circumstances and priorities while maintaining a lofty level of global aspiration. Although just one of a series of inputs into the process, the High Level Panel report offered the first real concrete glimpse of what the new agenda might look like.

In particular, one key difference from the original MDGs was proposed: The new agenda was to be “universal,” and not just applied to developing countries. And while it is important to stress that the post-2015 goals, like the original MDGs, are non-binding commitments, a universal agenda encourages every country to embrace specific goals and targets that range from cutting maternal mortality rates to increasing energy efficiency.

This report takes the High Level Panel’s “illustrative goals and targets” as a logical jumping-off point for exploring what universality might mean in practical terms for a given member state, in this case the United States. This report also replicates the organizing structure of the High Level Panel report, with each section divided into goals and targets falling under each goal, followed by a discussion of what that target would imply in the United States. Could the United States reach such a target? Should it aim higher, setting more ambitious goals? What is the current state of play with regard to a given issue in the United States? Is it in the social or economic self-interest for the United States to make progress on a given target? Is the target measurable, realistic, and achievable?

It is striking how beneficial it would be for the United States to achieve the majority of the goals and targets. And in fact, from trying to reduce infant mortality rates to increasing agricultural output, the United States is already engaged in trying to make gains on most of these fronts. Why wouldn’t the United States want to reduce malnutrition, improve education, or reduce food waste?

In a number of cases, research suggested that some of the High Level Panel targets were not workable in their current form and will require reworking if they are to be of use in setting agreed-upon international aspirations. Obviously, sorting out anti-poverty targets that make sense for all countries, even with a degree of flexibility in the agenda, is a complicated matter and deserves thorough review. Targets that are not clearly measurable usually don’t lead to changed policies or improved results.

Several key points emerged from the findings. First, achieving these goals and targets by shaping healthier, more prosperous, productive, and stable societies would serve U.S. national interests both home and abroad. Second, the post-2015 agenda will need to embrace a careful balance between targets set at the national level and those at the global level. Allowing some targets to be set nationally allows for greater flexibility and is important in shaping an agenda that can be truly universal. If the agenda excessively relies on national targets, however, it may quickly lose its broad aspirational and mobilizing qualities—the features that made the MGDs a success in the first place. Lastly, good data are crucial in setting effective targets and measuring progress toward them.

It is hoped that this report represents the beginning of a broader conversation regarding the practical implications of universality and the post-2015 agenda, and we encourage member states and independent researchers to undertake similar efforts for countries across the development spectrum.

John Norris is the Executive Director of the Sustainable Security and Peacebuilding Initiative at the Center for American Progress. Molly Elgin-Cossart is a Senior Fellow with the National Security and International Policy team at the Center. Casey Dunning is a former Senior Policy Analyst for the Sustainable Security and Peacebuilding Initiative at the Center.

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John Norris

Senior Fellow; Executive Director, Sustainable Security and Peacebuilding Initiative

Molly Elgin-Cossart

Senior Fellow

Casey Dunning

Senior Policy Analyst