The nations of the world approved a new development agenda in New York over the past weekend. The United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals cover topics ranging from poverty reduction to environmental sustainability, and are accompanied by 169 detailed targets that are intended to help governments and aid organizations to focus resources. It is a noble initiative, in principle, and the world would undoubtedly be a better place by its target year of 2030 if these goals were met. But despite the promotional efforts — one of the main side events over the weekend culminated in pop diva Beyoncé and the rock band Pearl Jam performing Bob Marley’s ‘Redemption song’ in New York’s Central Park — it remains unclear what impact the goals will have on global affairs.
One problem is that there is a sense of déjà vu here. Back in 1992, the world set out a 351-page manifesto for human justice and environmental sustainability at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Eight years later, the UN adopted the eight Millennium Development Goals, which included halving extreme poverty rates and achieving universal primary education by 2015.
The aspirational agenda is still clear, but so too are the barriers to investment — they include corruption, political instability, poor education systems, malfunctioning regulatory systems and the lack of a skilled workforce.
The real challenge is to identify and implement realistic policies that will get us where we say we want to be, and this is where academics must engage. The next step for the Sustainable Development Goals is to identify a range of health, economic and environmental indicators that can be used to track progress.
That debate is expected to extend into next year, and researchers should work to ensure that governments are collecting and reporting data. Scientists and policymakers must also redouble efforts to identify effective — and politically viable — strategies in which to invest a limited supply of money. Increasingly, development economists are doing just that, complete with rigorous testing, but there is scope for much more research in this important field.
The first and perhaps biggest opportunity to address some of these issues in a significant way will come when global leaders converge on Paris for the UN climate summit this December. Attempts to develop a telling international climate regime have languished for a quarter of a century, but there are signs of life, and governments around the world — rich and poor alike — are beginning to engage. The world is unlikely to see a single solution emerge, but the summit could produce a framework that will push all governments to invest in the policies, as well as in the science and technology .
Trillions of dollars of investment over the coming decades, public and private, are on the table. Directing that money to the right technologies and the right places would go a long way towards improving lives.
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