An Astonishing Year for the War on Global Poverty

An Astonishing Year for the War on Global Poverty

Are we on the verge of World War III? Is global suffering actually at an all-time high? Is the planet spiraling into chaos and taking a once-great America down with it? If the nightly news or those 20-hour-long Sturm und Drang Republican debates are any guide, you could be forgiven for thinking the end is nigh.

But beyond the bombast of politicians and cable news commentators, the real big-picture story of this past year was something else entirely — something far more positive: a startling confluence of international commitments to tackle the biggest challenges the planet faces. Indeed, in terms of change-the-trajectory-of-history moments, 2015 was a banner year. From July to December, a period of just six months, world leaders came together to finalize three interlocking agreements, one setting the parameters on how to end extreme poverty, create gender equality, and protect the planet; another that devised a plan to slow the devastating impacts of climate change; and a third that (sort of) settled on a plan to finance all of this.

While this once-in-a-generation confabulation of global summitry produced better-than-expected results, the real test of 2016 will be the initial proof that these commitments will take hold. Agreeing on near-term targets, gathering data about what’s happening and what works, translating the theory of public-private partnership into real deals — these are the concrete steps needed to tip the world forward. First, it’s worth reviewing how we got there.

This defining period of 2015 began with a remarkable gathering in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia — remember Ethiopia, the modern face of famine? While still quite poor, Ethiopia has one of the world’s fastest-growing economies. In July, Ethiopia hosted a conference to discuss how the world will pay for badly needed global investments in education, health, energy, and infrastructure — the often missing but very essential ingredients for growth and shared prosperity.

The leaders hammered out a slate of agreements, including the Addis Tax Initiative, which will invest in the institutions and efforts needed for developing countries to dramatically increase their domestic revenues, and the Sustainable Development Investment Partnership, which is bringing together banks and investment firms with donors and recipients to leverage much larger pools of private finance for energy, infrastructure, and other long-term, capital-intensive investments.

Several months later, in September, leaders from 193 nations, with an eye toward setting new global development goals through 2030, convened in New York for a sustainable development summit at the 70th United Nations General Assembly session. The aim of this gathering was to continue the work started in 2000 — a time when fin de siècle fever was running high — the year the world, for the first time, agreed on the Millennium Development Goals, which would expire in the then-distant year of 2015. Those goals, which included a commitment to cut extreme poverty in half and institute universal access to primary education, went relatively unheralded at the time. But they eventually spawned a diverse movement of governments, foundations, U.N. bodies, and civil society organizations dedicated to meeting them and charting their progress. In the end, world leaders embraced the goals and the remarkable achievements, including successfully halving both extreme poverty and child mortality and achieving equality in primary education between boys and girls.

As a result, the formulation of the goals this time around was a much bigger deal. In the months leading up to the summit, the U.N. organized hundreds of forums around the world where government representatives and civil society activists debated priorities, ranging from how to stop overfishing and ocean acidification to the expansion of labor rights. In addition, nearly 10 million people participated in a U.N.-administered online survey that identified access to education and health care, sound employment, and responsive government as the top issues. The result of all this engagement was an ambitious new sustainable development agenda through 2030 that had buy-in from countries and activists around the world.

As a result, the U.N. summit in September was an electric three-day gathering, kicked off by a stirring address by Pope Francis. Hundreds of heads of state, CEOs, pop stars, religious leaders, and Nobel laureates from virtually every country pledged to meet the new goals and targets, which included an end to extreme poverty everywhere. The development agenda agreed to in New York is bold, wide-ranging, and universal, requiring substantial commitments from countries both rich and poor, north and south. The 17 goals and 169 targets include, for example, agreements to end extreme poverty, double productivity and incomes of small farmers, and double energy efficiency — all by 2030.

As Paris reeled from grotesque extremist violence in early December, global leaders arrived to negotiate a historic climate deal. The accord brought together several important pieces: all nations pledged to keep global warming under 2 degrees Celsius (above which many predict irreversible catastrophe), to save and replenish the world’s forests, to develop a transparent reporting regime so we all know who is doing what sort of environmental damage and how quickly, and to keep coming together to refine targets and continue the financing necessary to meet these targets. While the language of the new climate agreement offers more shoulds than musts, it represents a leap toward concrete collective action that far exceeds what has come before.

What is perhaps most remarkable about these agreements is that they were not fanciful aspirations, but a collection of goals that we know we can reach based on the astonishing record of what has been accomplished over the last 25 years. It’s not clear that we will reach these goals, but there is overwhelming evidence, only recently available, that we can.

In 1990, around 37 percent of the world’s population lived in extreme poverty — the equivalent, at the time, of less than $1 per day. That means hunger, no medical care, and little to no education. The promise of a life of basic human dignity denied. Today, that percentage, according to the World Bank, has fallen to under 10 percent. This rapid decline, as well as the number of people affected by it, has no near-historical parallel. In 1990, nearly 13 million children under age 5 died every year of easily, cheaply preventable causes, chief among them malaria and respiratory and intestinal infections. Today, that number is just under 6 million — still far too many to be sure, but more than 6 million children are no longer dying every year as a result of these advances. That’s about 16,500 children saved every day. The contributions of U.S. taxpayer-funded development programs, which amount to less than 1 percent of the U.S. federal budget, have been a key driver of these advances. Or consider the climate. In 1990, around 90 percent of global energy production came from fossil fuels. Today, it is below 70 percent, even as global energy consumption has shot up. That means a lot more carbon emissions, but it also means a lot more successful investment in clean alternatives. Deforestation in Brazil, which was leading to the loss of a Massachusetts-sized forest every year until as recently as 2004, has dropped by 80 percent.

Much of this progress is, of course, a result of big increases in investment. While poor countries mostly relied on limited handouts from wealthier countries for decades, that too has changed dramatically. There is far more aid, philanthropy, and private investment going into the poorest countries than ever before. But the biggest headline of all is that countries are increasingly paying for development out of their own domestic revenues.

With the support of the U.S. Agency for International Development, El Salvador, for example, raised an additional $1.5 billion in domestic resources between 2005 and 2010 without increasing any tax rates. A recent report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies noted that total domestic sources of revenue in 54 sub-Saharan African countries grew from $100 billion to $513 billion between 2000 and 2011. This shift toward fiscal self-reliance is a game-changer for any country. When accountability is owed to the citizens who are taxed, rather than to a foreign donor, the social contract is immeasurably strengthened.

The point of all this is not that success on big issues like poverty and climate change are preordained. Far from it. Conflict and corruption, drought and disaster, and greed and inequality all conspire every day to reverse progress, not to mention the ongoing refugee crisis, the aftermath of Ebola, and the terrorism of the Islamic State. The point, rather, is that the world — despite some notable rough patches and backsliding — has achieved incredible progress on the thorniest challenges to emerge in recent years. And we now know that even in the hardest places, a combination of political will, additional financing, and setting and measuring big but achievable goals will get us there.

For the first time, the agreements in Addis Ababa, New York, and Paris weaved together essential, interdependent strands that have previously been dealt with separately: people, planet, good governance, and the dilemma of financing it all. After all, there’s little use in talking about how to feed 9 billion increasingly middle-class people by 2050 without factoring in the consequences that this will inflict on our forests and fresh water. Similarly, providing another 2 billion to 3 billion people with reliable energy while cutting emissions and paying for all the other rising demands requires new models of financing and consumption.

All that can be accomplished only by bringing everyone to the table — rich and poor, finance and industry, activists and governments — and by taking into account the complex dynamics of all these systems working in conjunction, rather than in stovepipes where trade negotiators agree on one thing and food security advocates another. Getting everyone on the same page is not easy in a multipolar world. Seeing the opportunity early, U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration and a number of like-minded allies from around the globe opted for interwoven, ambitious agreements over business as usual. It wasn’t easy.

Beyond the agreements themselves, two far-reaching ideas are in this spasm of global Kumbaya. The first is a recognition of our common humanity. The agreements are not about advanced countries helping poor countries; rather, they are grounded in universality, the idea that the goals apply to all of us and that we all can, and must, contribute. They also commit to a social protection floor, the idea that everyone should have access to those things — sufficient nutrition, education, medical care — to live a life of basic human dignity.

The second is the belief, backed by recent evidence, that we really can make progress in combating our biggest challenges. Nothing has so undermined our global commitment to big, complex efforts like the conventional wisdom that the challenges are too great and that our resources are wasted in pursuit of fairy-floss fantasies of a better world. But now we know better. By almost any measure, more people are becoming better off more quickly than at any other time in human history.

So, victories in hand, it’s time to step up, not walk away. Continuing to lead on this agenda is not only the right thing to do — it’s good for America. The country’s technology, approach to innovation and trade, and inherent values are the superstructure upon which the hope of reaching these goals ultimately rests. But 2016 is a crucial test. We must start allowing a spirit of creativity and risk-taking to define more of what the country does abroad. And we must have the evidence, and the courage, to say what’s working and what isn’t. We must also increasingly support the country’s partners and hold them accountable. A commitment to the long view — from 2016 to 2030 — that’s founded on these basic principles could mark this year as significant as the last.

As we wrestle with a climate of fear and what is sure to be a hyperbolic political season in 2016, the crucible of 2015 should stand as a reminder of what is possible.

Photo credit: Anadolu Agency/Anadolu Agency