Friday, 22 September 2023 13:23

Governments once imagined a future without extreme poverty. What happened?

United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres speaks at the opening session of the second Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) Summit on September 18, 2023, ahead of the 78th UN General Assembly.

It’s United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) week, when heads of state and representatives from at least 145 countries descend upon Manhattan for the global body’s annual high-level session. For New Yorkers who aren’t participating in or covering the sessions — like my Vox colleagues Jonathan Guyer and Jen Kirby are, dashing from meeting to meeting — UNGA week means one thing: gridlock alerts, when the combination of crowds and security closures turns the east side of Manhattan into a parking lot.

Cars aren’t the only thing stuck in traffic at the United Nations, however. One of the main topics of debate this week was the state of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) — 17 targets on human development, the environment, and more that world leaders set in 2015 to be met in the year 2030. The SDGs were a bold plan to envision a world without extreme poverty, where no one went hungry, and where everyone had a chance at a quality education and decent health care. In short, a more perfect future.

In some regards, we’re succeeding; the world is making strong progress on goals like electricity access and child mortality.

But months past the halfway point to 2030, a UN report indicates that for far too many of the SDGs, the world is making about as much progress as a taxi crawling along 42nd Street this week. To wit:

  • The UN says that on 80 percent of the SDGs, progress is “weak” or “stalled” or has “gone into reverse.”
  • Despite the SDG goal to eliminate extreme poverty — defined as living on less than $2.15 a day — current projections suggest that more than half a billion people will remain extremely poor in 2030.
  • The world has slid back to hunger levels not seen since 2005 — 735 million people are currently facing hunger, up from 613 million in 2019.
  • Unless things change, by 2030, 84 million children will be out of school, and 300 million people will leave school unable to do basic reading and writing — a far cry from the SDG goal to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education” for all.

If those numbers shock you, good. They should. Each hungry person, each desperately poor person, represents a policy failure in a world as rich as ours. And while there’s a lot that individuals in richer countries can do themselves — as my colleague Sigal Samuel wrote last week, the richest 1 percent globally could transform the world with just 10 percent of their income — the SDGs are a global campaign. And where else but the UN, during the week when the world’s eyes are on New York, should that effort be led and coordinated?

Yet during a week when there was plenty of popular energy to be found in the fight against climate change, the equally important battle against the interconnected scourges of poverty, sickness, and hunger seemed largely neglected. We’re not just losing this battle. We’ve lost interest in fighting it.

A new world order

It wasn’t always this way.

Let me take you back to the halcyon time that was the late 1990s, in between the Cold War and the “war on terror.” The economy was up, unemployment was down, borders were becoming more porous, popular music was ... well, nothing is perfect.

But in that time period, “there was an excitement about overcoming global poverty,” as Nicholas Kristof wrote in the New York Times earlier this week. Big organizations dedicated to fighting poverty and saving millions from preventable diseases, like the Global Fund and the Gates Foundation, were in the process of being formed. Celebrities would walk around in “Make Trade Fair” T-shirts. HBO even made a high-brow TV movie about whether a G8 meeting would end with more aid flowing to Africa.

Some of this, in retrospect, can look a bit silly. But it’s important to remember just how revolutionary the idea that the world could actually end poverty and hunger was at the time.

Extreme poverty, after all, was the default condition for the vast majority of humanity for the vast majority of its history. Even once developed countries had largely managed to escape that trap through economic growth and political reform, far too little changed for much of the rest of the world. In 2000, there were still some 1.8 billion people living in extreme poverty. The world could try to respond to acute crises, as it did with the terrible Ethiopian famines of the 1980s, but the idea of truly eradicating the worst levels of poverty seemed absurd.

And yet, in the years that followed, that’s precisely the path we were on. Between 2000 and 2019, the share of the global population living in extreme poverty fell by more than 70 percent, to 648 million. AIDS-related deaths dropped drastically, as did deaths from other preventable diseases like malaria and tuberculosis.

It was that success that set the stage for the SDGs in 2015, goals that, in the words of then-UK Prime Minister David Cameron, “inspire the world with what we want to achieve — to reduce preventable deaths to zero, to eliminate illiteracy and malnutrition and to eradicate extreme poverty in a generation.”

So what happened?

When dreams erode

Covid-19, for one thing. In many of the SDGs, progress hit a roadblock when a global pandemic descended upon us. The shock to the global economy and to global politics hit the poorest among us hardest, leading to temporary but meaningful spikes in poverty, hunger, and the number of children out of school. And even as Covid began to loosen its grip, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine led to new disruptions and new spikes in hunger. Without a renewed effort, these lost years risk putting many of the SDGs permanently off track.

But the causes go beyond a single virus or war. The hard but vital work of global development no longer inspires the energy it once did, whether in the chambers of the UN or on the streets.

Governments have dropped their promises to increase foreign aid, and flows of official development assistance from UN member states remain well below longstanding commitments to reach 0.7 percent of gross national income. Developing countries, extremely vulnerable to high prices caused by global inflation, are buried under mountains of debt. Yet a UN declaration on the SDGs this week, meant to reaffirm global commitment to the goals, only barely avoided being scuttled after Russia and a handful of other countries wanted to insert opposition to the use of unilateral sanctions into the document.

Meanwhile, the energy around public protests this week, and most weeks, has been focused on climate change. Development and climate action are hardly opposed — indeed, the SDGs contain a number of targets specifically addressing environmental progress — and the climate crisis has accelerated. But given the numbers involved — hundreds of millions going hungry, hundreds of millions in grinding poverty — it’s hard to avoid the idea that we’re undervaluing those in need today.

To be fair, the world today is very different from the one in the late 1990s and early 2000s that imagined we could end poverty and hunger forever. It is more divided and more chaotic. Trust me — when I’m not editing Future Perfect, I’m overseeing Vox’s world section, and from Ukraine to the US face-off with China to the erosion of democracy worldwide, we are not short on crises to report on.

And perhaps that is the problem. Climate change, the war in Ukraine, a future conflict with China — these are crises, in that they are changing the current state of the world for the worse. In effect, we’re playing defense on a global scale. But the SDGs largely take the world as it has been for so many people — impoverished, hungry, with far too little hope — and imagine that it could actually be better. To bring such a world into being takes imagination and optimism. And perhaps that, more than anything else, is what failed to appear at UN headquarters this week.

A version of this newsletter originally appeared in the Future Perfect newsletter. Sign up here!