Dominic MacSorley: Two things we must do to ensure that UN global development goals are not hollow promises.

Humanitarian funding and an end to conflict are the priorities.

      “Ebola and mass displacement are everyone’s problem, and everyone’s responsibility.” Migrant arriving on Lesbos.  Getty Images

“Ebola and mass displacement are everyone’s problem, and everyone’s responsibility.” Migrant arriving on Lesbos. Getty Images


Negotiating your way around the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (the SDGs) is easier than getting around New York this week.

The Pope’s visit, the UN’S 70th birthday, the Clinton Global Initiative’s Annual Meeting and the ratification of the Sustainable Development Goals are all happening at the same time, and all in New York. There is even a concert in Central Park with Beyoncé and Ed Sheeran.

The Millennium Development Goals (the ground-breaking forerunner of the SDGs) never got this much attention.

Despite all of the hoopla, this is an important and hugely significant week. The heads of state of 193 countries are here to commit to the SDGs, a new global compact of 17 goals and 169 targets. Over the next 15 years, these goals seek to achieve extraordinary things by ending extreme poverty and hunger, tackling climate change and inequality.

They are the successor to the simpler, less ambitious MDGs, which were seen as targets for poor countries with rich countries providing the funding. The SDGs are universal, indivisible and interlinked. They belong to all of us. They are global. If we ever needed to be reminded of our interconnectedness, the Ebola outbreak and the current refugee crisis brutally highlight that no problems exist in isolation ‘over there’ - the world is shrinking and is increasingly connected.

Ebola and mass displacement are everyone’s problem, and everyone’s responsibility.

The new set of priorities and pledges are being ratified against the backdrop of multiple global challenges - from the worst refugee crisis since the Second World War to the threat of dramatic climate change.

It is, as the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has said, a time of “turmoil and hope”.

The hope is built on the fact that much progress has been made. Within the last two decades, 660 million people have been raised out of poverty. Average real incomes in developing countries have doubled, and the world’s average life expectancy has increased by four years. There are real reasons for optimism and ending extreme poverty and hunger is no longer aspirational - it is truly within reach of this generation.

The turmoil is in part as a result of the fact that, over the last four or five years, there has been an increase in global levels of conflict and violence. Conflict has become a key driver of poverty, massively increasing the scale of humanitarian needs which have quadrupled in the last decade.

The total number of displaced is now at a staggering 59.5 million people as a result of 15 new and ongoing conflicts across the globe. Syria, Afghanistan and Somalia account for the largest number of displaced people. Women and children make up some 80 per cent of refugees around the world, and the majority of people are displaced within their own countries.

Conflict and violence are stalling progress in poverty reduction. A civil war costs on average 30 years of economic growth. We know already that by 2030, 62% of the world’s poor (or 1 billion people) will live in what we call fragile states, countries that are beset with crisis, insecurity, conflict, and disasters.

Over the next decade, we will be working against the tide of rising conflict and violence.

Conflict is development in reverse.

Simply put, unless the causes and consequences of conflict are addressed head on, the lives of millions of innocent people will be devastated, and we will not meet our ambition of eradicating extreme poverty by 2030.

The rallying call for the SDGs and the big promise that we are making in signing up to them is that, this time we will ‘leave no one behind’. To ensure that this does not become another hollow promise, here are two things that we need to do:

Firstly, we need to address the current humanitarian funding crisis. While the humanitarian budget is at an all-time high, one third of the identified needs are still not covered. Inadequate funding leads to impossible choices; cutting food rations, reducing shelter kits, reaching fewer people. Impossible choices when the people who are most affected by them have the most acute and desperate needs.

The news that the European Union has committed an additional €1 billion to the UN appeal for Syria is to be welcomed. It marks a significant step in the right direction, but let us remember the shortfall in identified needs is still $4.7 billion. There are multiple other conflict-based crises such the Central African Republic, Yemen, Somalia that are less than 50% funded.

Europe must do more.

Here in Ireland, while we recognise the necessary constraints that austerity has brought, the economy is turning the corner and we need to renew our ambition and commitments to reaching the goal of an aid budget that is 0.7% of our GNP - a target originally set in the United Nations General Assembly as long ago as October 1970.

The second priority is to end conflict. The SDGs state it clearly:

“Sustainable development cannot be realized without peace. We must redouble our efforts to resolve or prevent conflict and to support countries emerging from conflict situations so as to lay the foundations for sustainable development.”

We need constructive ways of bringing peace - new and creative thinking is needed to address the problem of long-term displacement. Solutions are not easy, but we simply cannot consign millions of people to live lives in refugee or displaced camps for decades, surviving on an insufficiently funded humanitarian lifeline.

We need to acknowledge that the digital world has amplified the speed, scale and intensity of conflict. Non-state actors and terrorist groups are using social media effectively and destructively. We need to find ways to combat this with our own aggressive strategic use of social media and push back with the force of human values of decency, respect, and dignity.

Ireland has a key role to play in conflict resolution and prevention.

These issues are already embedded in the government’s new foreign policy, drawing on learning from Northern Ireland, but we need to amplify this and to strengthen the policy and programme links. It is going to be hard and slow and progress may be incremental at best, but we have to do it.

As a neutral nation spared the history of colonising others, Ireland can assume an international role in conflict prevention and mediation and use this role, alongside our leadership on hunger and our focus on the least developed countries, to strengthen our bid for a seat on the Security Council in 2020. It is there that we can legitimately seek to influence and bring about the political change that is necessary to achieve the global goals.

It is the absence of political will that has, for generations, haunted our ability to deliver on our promise to end poverty and hunger.

We can go back to June 1963, at the opening session of the World Food Congress, when John F. Kennedy said: “We have the ability, as members of the human race, we have the means, and we have the capacity to eliminate hunger from the face of the earth in our lifetime. We need only the will.”

That was 52 years ago.

Today, we are richer, more connected and better informed than ever before. As world leaders ratify the SDGs in New York, we must celebrate this great milestone and then immediately start pushing for the indicators, the resources, the diplomatic muscle and the political will to prevent the appalling levels of poverty, suffering and horrific brutality that seem commonplace in too many of today’s conflicts.

This is how we can ensure that, this time, no one gets left behind.

Dominic MacSorley, CEO Concern Worldwide, writes from New York where he is part of the Irish delegation.

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