This blog post is published as part of a Series by UNRISD Director Paul Ladd, called Through the Social Lens. In the Series, Paul shares his reflections on current issues in development and how UNRISD's work on social development ties in to these concerns. We would love to hear from you if you have any thoughts while reading the piece. Put your comments in the box at the end and we will do our best to get back to you.
The launch today of UNRISD’s new Flagship report, Policy Innovations for Transformative Change
, coincides with the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty.
When the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were being constructed, some people were concerned that the focus on poverty reduction that had characterized the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) would be diluted. The job of poverty eradication was far from complete they argued—indeed, the UN’s own final report card on the MDGs shows over 836 million people still living in extreme poverty. This led some to suggest, early in the “post-2015” process, that the MDGs should be kept in place until they had been fully met.
This didn't happen of course. The nature of the open process, and the views of governments (and activists) on what was important to them, led inevitably to an agenda that covered a much larger set of issues. The 17 Goals still include income poverty, health and education—but now add climate change, environmental degradation, inequalities, decent work, urbanization and better governance to the ‘to-do’ list.
In moving to such an expansive agenda did we lose the focus on poverty?
Over the lifetime of the MDGs we saw a lot of progress on poverty. Some of that progress would have happened without the MDGs—the Goal on income poverty can claim little influence over GDP per capita growth in China for example. But it is likely that some progress was indeed supported by the additional pressure created by the MDGs, especially on health and education, or in countries that really took the Goals to heart.
But we saw time and time again that this progress was often fragile. The food and fuel price shocks of the mid-noughties threw millions of people back into poverty. The global economic and financial crisis has kept many of those same people in poverty ever since. Then there are the shocks that affected individual countries or regions. MDG progress had been strong in Tunisia, but this did not mean people felt included in the economy or in politics. Natural disasters in Haiti, the Philippines, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and other countries had horrific human consequences and wound back development, in some cases by decades. Conflicts and violence in many more countries were the ultimate force for de-development and poverty creation.
Goals for sustainable poverty reduction
Whether or not goals—and the SDGs specifically—help to address these broader challenges is a valid question. Will they spur a greater focus on risk reduction? Will they lead to a real commitment to tackle inequality or improve decent employment? Will they make our agriculture more sustainable?
Goals probably help at the margin, to remind us of what we should be focusing on when we lose perspective. But what is very clear is that the issue of poverty, as felt and experienced by millions of people, cannot be divorced in real life from all these other factors. If these are not addressed too, the risk is that people will never be able to extricate themselves from poverty traps, or that they will fall back into poverty when they get hit by shocks.
So even if we have an Agenda that is a little unwieldy, we certainly have an Agenda that better reflects the real world. To eliminate different forms of poverty, we need a stable environment, more inclusive economic and political processes, and as little violence and conflict as is possible. And it would help to have lower inequality in all of its manifestations. Taken together, these provide the foundations for sustainability.
The new report that UNRISD is launching today, Policy Innovations for Transformative Change
, highlights policy innovations that many governments and others, often in the Global South, are already leading to address the challenge of sustainability.
It provides insights to the question: “How can we make the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development live up to its transformational potential?” That is, it sheds light on how governments and other national stakeholders can begin to implement the Agenda in a way that addresses the root causes of problems rather than just the symptoms, works truly across silos in an integrated way, and forges inclusive political processes and new partnerships.
In doing so, countries will not only be creating the conditions that can reduce poverty now, but also help to alleviate the risks that may push people back into poverty in the future.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Paul Ladd is the Director of UNRISD.