What the World Wants From UN Goals

A woman collecting clean water in Pune, East Timor, site of a United Nations water project Photograph by UNMIT/Martine Perret

On Sept. 25 the annual jamboree of presidents, potentates, and assorted world leaders will take place in New York, as the 67th debate session of the United Nations General Assembly is called to order. Accompanying the usual podium speeches will be the start of backroom discussions as to what will replace the Millennium Development Goals, a set of targets for global progress agreed to at the 2000 General Assembly meetings.

This time the process and the targets should better reflect popular opinion worldwide—and give both jobs and economic opportunity far higher billing.

The original Millennium Goals committed the world to halve poverty between 1990 and 2015, alongside ambitious targets to reduce childhood deaths, ensure that every child worldwide completes primary school, safeguard equal access to education for girls, improve access to sanitation, and reduce deaths from maternal mortality, AIDS, and malaria.

The planet has actually done pretty well in meeting these initial targets. For example, according to the official UN count, the target of halving the proportion of the world’s people living on less than $1.25 per day from 1990 was actually reached five years early, in 2010. During the same 20-year period, over two billion people gained access to improved drinking water sources, and more than 100 million slum dwellers saw improvement in their circumstances—meeting Millennium Development Goals in those areas as well.

As 2015 is the end point for all the original goals, negotiations on what will replace them for the next 15 years has begun. And that has opened up the question of what ought to be in the new set.

The first lot of Millennium Goals were largely designed behind closed doors in the marbled rooms of the Organization for Economic Development and Cooperation in Paris—the rich world’s think tank. They were built around the idea that aid was perhaps the primary tool for the rich world to help poor people, and that what it could most help accomplish was progress in health and education. Aid has played a vital role in development. Take progress against measles worldwide: Deaths from the disease fell from about 360,000 to 140,000 from 2000 to 2010, and much of that decline is thanks to aid-financed vaccination campaigns. Any new set of development goals should acknowledge health, education, and the role for aid, front-and-center.

Still, despite the fact these are meant to be goals for progress for people worldwide, there has been no effort to ask people where they would like to see progress.

Ben Leo at the anti-poverty ONE campaign suggests a global poll to fill that gap. That is a great idea, but we already have some idea as to what such a poll would suggest in terms of priorities. Ask Americans what is the most important issue facing the nation and the answer is clear: jobs and the economy. That reply regularly gets more than 50 percent in polls on the question. The same is true the planet over. World Values Survey evidence from 97 countries worldwide, covering 90 percent of the global population, clearly suggests that pocketbook concerns are universal.

When asked to choose among four aims for their nation—economic growth, a strong defense, people having more say about how things are done, and making the country more beautiful—just shy of half of Americans pick economic growth. In India and China, the proportions are similar. And across the planet, according to the Values Survey, about 60 percent prioritize strong economic growth. Leo has found similar evidence that jobs rule (PDF) from other surveys in Africa and Latin America. Perhaps that’s not a surprise when, according to evidence from Gallup, only 12 percent of people above the age of 15 are working full time for an employer in Sub-Saharan Africa, compared to one third in Europe and 41 percent in North America.

Work and the economy more broadly got short shrift in the first set of Millennium Goals, perhaps because aid is a minor factor when it comes to global progress in employment and growth. But if the international community isn’t going to sell poor people short and wants to help them get what they say they want most, it is clear what progress needs to happen: reforming economic relations so that the world’s most-disadvantaged benefit further from trade, investment, and migration.

East Asia has demonstrated that export-led growth is the secret to rapid development. So if world leaders really care about people in the poorest countries, why are world trade talks stalled?

In particular, why is duty-free, quota-free access to rich country markets for goods from the poorest countries still a dream? That is in part because of trade barriers—alongside subsidies for domestic agriculture—that tip the playing field against developing-world farmers. Non-oil imports from the least developed countries account for only 1.3 percent of total European Union imports and a pathetic 0.6 percent of U.S. imports.

Moreover, remittances—payments from migrant workers sent home—are worth $325 billion to developing countries each year, compared to aid flows of around $130 billion. If global leaders really care so much about the world’s most disadvantaged, why are barriers to migrants growing ever-higher? Harvard economist Lant Pritchett has estimated that if rich countries were to increase the size of their labor force by just three percent, by allowing a few more migrants to enter each year, this would add an additional $300 billion to the citizens of poor countries.

It is time that the member states of the United Nations lived up to the poetic language of global opportunity and hope for the world’s poorest that they unanimously endorse year after year. It’s time to promise real reform of a global economic system that helps keep poor people poor.

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