How to End Extreme Poverty

If the world hopes to meet the lofty aspirations of the Sustainable Development Goals, it needs to find a better way to work together.


Never before has the world been closer to ending extreme poverty. This Friday in New York, as world leaders gather for the United Nations General Assembly, they will adopt new global goals that will guide international efforts to do so by 2030. These goals will play a critical role in helping vulnerable people around the world meet basic human needs and overcome chronic hunger, malnutrition, poor health, limited education, and marginalization or exclusion from society.

Reflecting the shared hopes of men and women across the globe, the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, ranging from health to gender equality to climate change, are necessarily ambitious: They are also critical. Having deployed across the world for military and diplomatic service from Southeast Asia to Europe to Africa — I have seen how the devastation of extreme poverty routinely pushes millions of people to the edge of survival, threatening our collective security.

Defining the goals, however, is only the first step in achieving them, and challenges like conflict and climate change threaten to turn back progress at every step. To achieve these ambitious goals, the international community will need an enhanced approach to development that goes far beyond business as usual — an approach grounded in partnership, innovation, local empowerment, and accountability.

The United States Agency for International Development, or USAID, has put such a model to work in President Barack Obama’s signature development initiatives, and it is already delivering unprecedented results on behalf of the American people in countries around the globe. From food security to global health to energy access, we are reducing hunger, saving lives, and turning the lights on for millions of vulnerable people around the world.

For people like Aporna Shikder, a 23-year-old married mother of one, who invited me into her home in southwestern Bangladesh last month, these results can be life-changing. Her husband’s income as a day laborer was not always enough to support their whole family, often leaving Aporna without full meals to eat during her pregnancy. That changed when she attended a farmer nutrition school in her community, supported through Feed the Future, the U.S. government’s global hunger and food security initiative. Aporna learned new techniques for raising chickens and growing nutritious vegetables to feed her family from a Feed the Future agriculture program. She told me the health of her daughter — now a rambunctious 2-year-old — has improved, and her family’s income has increased because of the extra produce she sells at the nearby market.

Together with other development efforts, Feed the Future is having a measurable impact reducing poverty and the childhood stunting that results from chronic malnutrition and hunger. In Bangladesh, where rates of malnutrition are among the highest in the world and 36 percent of children under 5 are stunted, Feed the Future activities in two major cities, Barisal and Khulna, have helped cut stunting by more than 14 percent and poverty by nearly 16 percent in recent years. Uganda has seen similar poverty reductions in rural areas, and in Honduras, the average income among Feed the Future beneficiaries increased by over 50 percent.

The United States isn’t achieving this success alone. The U.S. government has partnered with top U.S. universities and partner country research institutions to develop cutting-edge innovations, such as high-yielding seeds and climate-tolerant crops. Our civil society partners provide technical expertise and capacity, and since 2011, Feed the Future has leveraged nearly half a billion dollars globally in private sector investments in the agriculture sector. Partner countries have set tough development goals and are supporting the policies needed to meet them.

This collaborative approach is making our dollars go further than ever before. The simple truth is there is not enough official development assistance to tackle the tremendous challenges the world faces. But, when donor nations use their assistance to catalyze other sources of development finance, they can optimize resources to achieve an even greater impact.

To do this, the international community will need to greatly expand partnerships with the private sector, the stewards of a vast pool of resources that is too often left untouched by the international development community. It is through this focus on partnerships that Power Africa, President Obama’s initiative to double access to electricity in sub-Saharan Africa, has leveraged over $20 billion in commitments from more than 100 private sector partners and nearly $12 billion from bilateral and multilateral partners, including the government of Sweden, the World Bank, the European Union, and the African Development Bank, to name just a few.

This support has helped facilitate the financial close of private sector transactions that will help millions of people access electricity. Power Africa’s diverse partners have also enabled quick action in times of crisis. When the Ebola outbreak overwhelmed Liberia’s electricity sector, new generators were in place in a matter of weeks, powering life-saving treatment facilities across the country.

Donor nations will also need to help countries mobilize — and effectively use — their own domestic resources. That is the only way to achieve sustained long-term progress and lofty goals, such as ending preventable child and maternal deaths within a generation and ensuring healthy lives for people of all ages as called for in the Sustainable Development Goals. Fortunately, countries across the globe are already stepping up in response to President Obama’s call to action and the United Nations Every Woman, Every Child movement, making significant investments in health and taking pride in the resulting progress. New findings published by UNICEF this month show that child mortality has been reduced by more than half since 1990, and concerted global efforts are saving lives twice as fast as before the Millennium Development Goals were adopted.

The international community will also need to harness science and technology to spur breakthrough innovations that help countries leapfrog development challenges. Innovative technologies like the penguin sucker, a simple device that removes fluid from a newborn’s mouth and nostrils, are available at a low cost and can be a life-saver for babies born with asphyxia. By training birth attendants to use the penguin sucker and companion interventions, USAID is improving resuscitation rates in countries around the world.

Results like these have informed the thinking behind the policy paper we released this week — USAID’s Vision for Ending Extreme Poverty — and they also offer a blueprint for how the world can achieve our new global goals. With bold leadership and genuine collaboration with all partners — including country governments, other donor nations, NGOs, civil society, faith-based organizations, philanthropists, and the private sector — we can be the generation that ends extreme poverty and gives everyone the opportunity to share in the world’s progress.

Photo credit: LEON NEAL/AFP/Getty Images

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