A short 13 years ago the world settled on a set of goals that at first appeared to have no political support and no popular resonance. They appealed only to the UN’s funds and programmes and, even when they got international endorsement, were thought to address themselves only to poor developing countries. But over time the millennium development goals took on a life of their own and a centrality to multilateral development action that was unprecedented.
They became the benchmark for measuring progress on Overseas Development Assistance (ODA) and for accounting for development actions and investment in developing countries. What they lacked in initial acceptance and universality they more than made up for in relevance, applicability and utility.
The MDGs helped focus, direct and mobilise government and multilateral action in unprecedented ways.
More importantly and crucially they had impact, saving lives, improving health, promoting education and even reducing poverty.
Some say, probably partially correctly, that it was the commodity boom and a newly found ability of developing countries to mobilise domestic revenue, plus the billions of dollars from the surpluses of emerging economies that made the difference.
Be that as it may, no one can dispute the fact that without the MDGs the focus on health, basic education and poverty alleviation would not have been as determined, nor the development accountability framework brought to bear on governments and societies with the intensity with which the MDGs ensured it was.
Tens of millions of people were pulled out of the pathway of ill-health, ignorance and poverty as a result of the MDGs.
Since 2000 when the MDGs came into their own, the world has learned a few new lessons. Among them is that irrespective of country and no matter what the stage of development, universal access to energy, health and education is central to the broad development and upliftment of societies.
We have also learned that with universal access to health and education come other benefits and drivers for progress such as reduced inequality and the opening up of transformative opportunities for all.
In the same period of time the world has also come to realise more than ever that life on earth is a delicate, immutable balance.
A balance that requires that all of us, rich and poor, developing and developed alike, to work together as one on a collective global platform.
When it comes to climate and the air we breathe, water and the oceans we rely on, land and the food we eat, our environment and our collective biodiversity, we either swim together as one or sink individually. That is the lesson and the essence of sustainable development goals (SDGs).
The intergovernmental group that commenced its work in March of this year at the UN and that has just completed its fourth session in New York, is the singular most important follow-on action that came out of the post Rio+20 SD Conference.
The Open Working Group (OWG) on SDGs, as it is called, is the first collective attempt by all nations of the world to realise the full potential of bringing together the historic challenge of poverty eradication with the overbearing and equally urgent agenda on sustainability.
As co-chair of the OWG, I have come to fully appreciate the following: that it is singularly imperative that African governments and civil society do not stand aside in this global and historic effort to design and adopt the SDGs.
Yes, the unfinished business of the MDGs must be completed in the next couple of years; this ought to be a non-negotiable.
But after that the world must and will commence on the SDGs.
The implications for our economies, societies and environment are immense. No country can stand aside and let other countries have the upper hand in determining the collective future global development agenda.
The SDGs will constitute the heart of the global accountability framework that will come into its own after 2015.
African countries, like all countries of the world, will need to be responsive to this framework. Africa must therefore play its part and be fully engaged in the process of designing and adopting the SDGs.
It is now universally agreed that the world needs a common, universal platform to help co-ordinate and hold accountable all nations of the world to attain poverty eradication and sustainable development.
It is also now recognised that the time-frame for achieving the goals has to be short; one generation at most, or 25 years.
The counter-factual is simply untenable; what in the initial years would appear as intensification of social upheaval, violence and political instability, accompanied by ever more disruptive, unpredictable and ruinous major climatic events, would quickly morph into a future we do not want, devoid of true universal peace and poverty-free sustainable development. — New African.
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