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The United Nations’ New Task

Nothing is perfect, but seventeen years after the United Nations issued the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), world poverty has declined, people are better educated and have higher incomes, and more countries have adopted democratic systems in which people participate in the decisions that affect their nations. Nations around the world have agreed on seventeen Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), with 169 targets designed to blaze new and ambitious paths towards continuing to close gaps in equality, economic growth, fair employment, justice, and peace.

 Text and Photos: Carlos Eduardo Gómez

Under the auspices of the United Nations, in the year 2000 world leaders endorsed a commitment to fight poverty and its multiple dimensions, outlining eight goals including cutting extreme poverty rates by 50%, ensuring universal primary education, and stopping the spread of AIDS over a period of fifteen years. “Implementation of these Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) made it possible to concentrate the efforts of governments, the international community, civil society, and the private sector to generate the most successful movement against poverty in the history of the planet and create hope for a better world,” commented Ban Ki-moon, Secretary-General of the United Nations, at the time the program issued its final evaluation.

And, in fact, the MDG evaluation report presented in 2015 by Wu Hongbo, UN Deputy Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs, concludes that the number of people living in extreme poverty has fallen by more than half, from $1.9 billion to $836 million in 2015, and gender parity in primary schools was achieved in most countries. In addition, women have gained parliamentary political representation in more than 156 countries and doubled their presence in collegiate bodies during the past twenty years. The mortality rate of infants and under-five children fell from 90 to 43 deaths per thousand live births. Similarly, the maternal mortality rate was reduced by 45% and, starting in 2000, AIDS contagion declined by 40%.

The United Nations report also highlights that, from 2000 to 2015, more than 6.2 million deaths by malaria were prevented and tuberculosis treatments saved 38 million lives. Approximately 2.1 billion people have gained access to improved sanitation and the proportion of people without a toilet or latrine has declined by almost half since 1990. Between 2000 and 2014 the figure for official development assistance from industrialized countries increased by 66%, to $135.2 billion.

Despite this notable progress, the MDG evaluation reports also point to pending tasks. Only half of pregnant women in developing regions receive the recommended minimum four prenatal visits and 35% of deliveries take place without medical assistance. In developing regions, the maternal mortality rate is fourteen times higher than in developed countries and 16,000 children under the age of five die every day, most of them from preventable causes. More than 800 million people still live in extreme poverty and face hunger daily. More than 160 million children under the age of five are short for their age due to insufficient food. Currently, 57 million primary school-age children do not attend school. Almost half the world’s workers continue to labor under vulnerable conditions and seldom receive the benefits of decent employment. To make matters worse, global carbon dioxide emissions have grown more than 50% since 1990 and droughts now affect 40% of the world’s population, a figure that is expected to increase.

Conflicts: The Greatest Threat to Human Development

UN Secretary-General António Guterres has emphasized the importance of focusing international efforts on the prevention of wars and conflicts, saying that this should be the priority of the United Nations, since “millions of people in crisis look to this Council to preserve global stability and protect them from harm. And yet we spend much more time and resources responding to crises than preventing them.”

According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), by the end of 2014, conflicts had forced nearly 60 million people out of their homes, the highest figure since World War II. Every day some 42,000 people are forced to flee and require protection from armed confrontation. Worst of all, half of these people are children. In conflict-affected countries, the proportion of children out of school increased from 30% in 1999 to 36% in 2012.

Sustainable Development 

Objectives (SDGs)

Having complied with the deadline for the Millennium Goals, and taking into account tasks pending and lessons learned, the United Nations created a broad-based global committee incorporating civil society organizations, representatives from the private sector, academics, scientists, and world leaders to propose and build new goals. “We are determined to end poverty and hunger throughout the world by 2030, to combat inequalities within and between countries, to build peaceful, just, and inclusive societies, protect human rights, and promote gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls, and to ensure lasting protection for the planet and its natural resources,” says the September 2015 Resolution.

Working together for more than two years, the committee created a new and ambitious agenda, which includes seventeen Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and 169 targets that, according to the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, will lay the groundwork for new strides in closing gaps in equality, economic growth, fair employment, justice, and peace for all the Earth’s inhabitants.

Expectations are high. This is the first time that the United Nations has considered collaboration and commitment between public and private entities to be fundamental, recognizing companies as an essential part of the scope of SDGs. Vanesa Rodríguez of the United Nations Global Compact says that each country and company must analyze the objectives and put them to work in the field; more than 13,500 companies in 170 countries have already done so, joining in the sustainable corporate citizenship initiative to achieve the 2030 goals.

Countries such as Colombia, Ecuador, Panama, and Bolivia have incorporated some of these objectives into their development plans and are working to design metrics for analysis. The United Nations Population Fund will rely on its statistical capacity for monitoring the progress of this new development agenda. On February 14, 2017, Bangladesh, Ivory Coast, Ethiopia, Ghana, India, Malawi, Nigeria, Tanzania, and Uganda pledged to reduce preventable deaths among pregnant women and newborns in their health facilities by half over the next five years.

But it’s not all roses; during the presentation of the 2017 Situation and World Outlook report, Diana Alarcón, chief economist of the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, stated that in certain regions economic recovery has not been enough to achieve these SDGs. She pointed out that the average income in a number of countries in Africa and South America showed a worrisome decline last year and that only slight growth has been projected for 2017 and 2018. “Ending poverty under current economic circumstances will require countries to address inequality issues more rigorously,” she concluded. The SDGs are under way; we now have thirteen years left to confirm whether governments, businesses, and civil society leaders are truly committed to them.