The U.N.'s new development roadmap must tackle the pressing economic and environmental challenges we face. Photo credit: Gates Foundation/Flickr
The U.N.'s new development roadmap must tackle the pressing economic and environmental challenges we face. Photo credit: Gates Foundation/Flickr

This post was co-authored with Vinod Thomas, Director-General of Independent Evaluation at the Asian Development Bank.

Can extreme poverty be eliminated in the next 20 years? With much of the world still mired in an economic slump, the question might seem ill-timed. Yet, as heads of state arrive in New York on Monday for the 67th United Nations General Assembly, this goal should be at the top of the agenda.

There are two compelling reasons why world leaders should seize this moment. First, this is a crucial chance to build on the hard-won progress in reducing poverty over the past two decades. With the UN-led Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) as a galvanizing force, the number of people living below $1.25 a day fell from some 43 percent in 1990 to about 22 percent in 2008. But far more still needs to be done. Second, there is great urgency to re-think global development in a way that reflects and responds to a world that has changed profoundly. The pressing economic and environmental challenges we face demand a new direction that takes into account the root causes of these problems.

In response, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has recently established a high-level panel on the post-2015 development agenda. He just appointed Homi Kharas, Senior Fellow and Deputy Director in the Global Economy and Development Program of the Brookings Institution, as the lead author and executive director of the panel. Kharas will join the co-chairs--Prime Minister David Cameron of the United Kingdom, President Susilo Bambang Yudyohono of Indonesia, and President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia--to produce an outline for a refreshed global development agenda to be launched at the General Assembly.

This new development roadmap must tackle the changing nature of poverty and the large, unfinished agenda before us. While the rate of poverty has been cut, some 1.3 billion people in the developing world continue to live below $1.25 a day. Many of them suffer the impacts of deepening environmental destruction, especially water scarcity, forest loss, and climate change. Furthermore, inequality between rich and poor has increased in far too many countries in recent years.

As governments survey this altered landscape, one question that emerges is whether to simply extend the targets and timeframes for the current MDGs, which are set to expire in 2015. We think that would be a mistake. Our changing world demands an approach that, at its core, sees the connection between poverty and the environment and offers a chance to benefit all people—today and tomorrow.

The new course needs to build on the MDGs in three ways:

  1. First, it must target environmental and social sustainability. Economic growth has drawn upon the planet’s resources at an unsustainable pace. Around 1.2 billion people live in water-scarce regions. More than 1 billion people, including some of the world’s poorest, depend on forests for sustenance. Yet high rates of deforestation, often fueled by industrial agriculture, threaten their livelihoods. From China and Thailand to Russia and the United States, extreme weather and climate events have been playing havoc with people’s lives and livelihoods. In these circumstances, we simply cannot tackle poverty unless the sustainability of resources is placed at the center of the agenda.

  2. Second, it is time to signal greater equality as a global goal. Income inequality limits the extent of poverty reduction generated by economic growth, as seen in both developing countries, such as India, and developed countries, such as the United States. Policies that feed the gulfs between the rich and the poor--such as regressive taxes or subsidies--not only fuel poverty, but breed social and political unrest, further hindering growth. On the other side of the equation, the more equal a society, the greater the contributions of low-income citizens to growth and the broader the avenues for economic expansion.

  3. Third, the new goals should embrace universality. The MDGs focus squarely on developing countries. Yet, emerging challenges of global development—such as climate change, public health, and resource depletion—require global solutions involving developed and developing countries alike. Universal goals would also help allay developing countries’ concerns that the burden to act will fall disproportionately or unfairly on them. Furthermore, the poverty rate is unacceptably high not only in many developing countries, but also some developed ones, notably the United States.

Heads of state at the Rio+20 summit made a good start, agreeing to go beyond the MDGs to explore broader Sustainable Development Goals as a vehicle that embeds sustainability, equity, and universality in the fight against global poverty. But to truly succeed, the development agenda needs to go beyond government and aid agencies. It must engage the private sector and mobilize the global public.

The UN General Assembly and the newly appointed high-level panel must take the next step in turning this promising concept into reality. The UN General Assembly meeting would be a great place to start.

A version of this post also appeared in "The Jakarta Post." Manish Bapna wrote a piece on the Millennium Development Goals for "Nature."