EXCLUSIVE: The United Nations is planning to create a sweeping new set of “sustainable development goals” for the planet that will likely require trillions of dollars of spending on poverty and the environment, a drastic reorganization of economic production and consumption -- especially in rich countries -- and even greater effort in the expensive war on climate change.
It’s an agenda that its prominent boosters have declared will make the next 15 years “some of the most transformative in human history,” although the exact nature of the goals themselves, and how they are to be achieved, is unclear.
In typical U.N. fashion, panels of high-profile international figures have offered up their views, task forces have been commissioned to come up with suggestions, hundreds of non-governmental organizations have been polled, and a 30-nation working group is holding sessions that will extend early into next year before offering more concrete suggestions to the U.N. General Assembly, where they will be further chewed over.
The goals themselves are slated to become a program of the U.N. -- and all the nations that endorse them -- in 2015, as part of what U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has called “a universal sustainable development agenda” for the planet -- an equally undefined set of far-reaching aspirations for global environmental management and new and expanded roles in the future for the U.N.’s sprawling array of funds, programs and institutions.
They are supposed to be endorsed at an as-yet-unplanned global U.N. summit -- the successor to the Rio + 20 summit on sustainable development which boosted the current elaborate process -- in 2015.
According to skeptics such as William Easterly, an economics professor and co-director of New York University’s Development Research Institute, the program also has great potential to become a “huge unworkable mess.” So far, Easterly says, what he sees is a “confused mashup of every development fad of the last 20 years” married to the aim of giving the U.N. a more central role in economic development -- “not a good thing,” in his opinion.
Other experts, such as Charles Kenny, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development in Washington, are more forgiving. The still-unformed SDGs, he says, are “a way to frame conversations about where we want to be and how much progress we can make. I think right now we're in the negotiation stage. We'll get to the campaign in 2015.”
In effect, the U.N. is hoping to double down on the mixed success of its so-called Millennium Development Goals, or MDGs, an eight-point program of mostly anti-poverty measures that was endorsed in 2000 and is slated to expire in 2015 -- when the new sustainable development goals, or SDGs, are intended to take their place.
The MDGs aimed largely at improving life for the globe’s most desperate people. They included such targets as cutting in half the number of people around the world living in extreme poverty (less than $1.25 per day); reducing child mortality rates by two-thirds; reversing the spread of HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other killer diseases; and cut in half the number of people without access to safe drinking water and sanitation.
In a number of cases, the MDGs have already succeeded: The number of people living on $1.25 a day, for example, was cut in half by 2010, according to the U.N. -- though most of that change was due to the massive economic transformation of China, and to a lesser extent, India.
The number of children under age 5 dying each year has also declined, from 12.4 million to 6.6 million -- less than the Millennium Development Goal, but still substantial progress. The same applies to rates of HIV/AIDs and malaria, largely due to the efforts of the Global Fund to Combat AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, initially sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Given the diverse sources for the relative success of the MDG effort, there is no telling how much they have cost. But Ban is still exhorting everyone to ante up further. “We must do everything we can to achieve the MDGs by the end of 2015,” he told a special “high-level event” at the U.N. on September 25, while hailing some $2.5 billion in new contributions from governments, philanthropies and corporations.
The Sustainable Development Goals, however, are much more sweeping, and likely to be much harder to measure. Their overall aim -- at least so far -- is to marry the specific targeting of the most successful MDGs with the much more sweeping and imprecise language of “sustainability” -- a term that has never been very specifically defined.
Roughly speaking, “sustainability” is supposedly centered on the social, economic and environmental well-being of individuals, societies and the entire planet -- but without the precision of hard-edged economics to measure its inputs and outcomes.
Instead, the new development agenda is characterized as “one that seeks to achieve inclusive, people-centered, sustainable global development,” in the words of a U.N. task force composed of some 50 U.N. agencies and international organizations, which reported on the topic last year. It would also include unspecified “reforms of mechanisms of global governance.”
Among other things, the task force declared, “Immediate priorities in preserving environmental sustainability include ensuring a stable climate, stopping ocean acidification, preventing land degradation and unsustainable water use, sustainably managing natural resources and protecting the natural resources base, including biodiversity,” -- in short, a total, and global, environmental renovation that includes the draconian limits on carbon emissions agreed to in the Kyoto Protocol, which the U.S. has not ratified.
(According to U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Dean Pittman, speaking in New York last week, the U.S. is already “investing approximately $800 million per year” through President Obama’s newly announced Global Climate Change Initiative “to address the climate needs of developing countries.”)
Additional topics that the old MDGs did not address, that the task force mentioned, included “productive employment, violence against women, social protection, inequalities, social exclusion,” as well as “persistent malnutrition and increase in non-communicable diseases, reproductive health and complexities related to demographic dynamics, peace and security, governance, the rule of law and human rights.”
Atop that, the task force said, “Sustainability also implies ensuring inter-generational justice and a future world fit for children. This entails safeguarding a sustainable future in which children will be able to grow up healthy, well-nourished, resilient, well-educated, culturally sensitive and protected from violence and neglect.”
In short, pretty much everything.
The themes of occasional highly specific potential targets coupled with sweeping objectives are deeply embedded in the report this summer of a U.N.-sponsored, 27-member High-Level Panel on the post-2015 Development Agenda, appointed by Ban in July 2012, which included British Prime Minister David Cameron among its top-tier members.
The report declared that the world must “finish the job that the MDGs started,” and eradicate “extreme poverty from the face of the earth by 2030” -- meaning raise the standards of the estimated 1.2 billion people still living on less than $1.25 per day.
The panel left fill-in-the-blanks percentages -- assuming much further discussion ahead -- for suggested measurable goals, such as reductions in the mortality rate for child-bearing women, or in the number of children whose growth is stunted annually by malnutrition.
But the panel also added such things as “prevent and eliminate all forms of violence against girls and women;” “adopt sustainable agricultural, ocean and freshwater fishery practices and rebuild designated fish stocks to sustainable levels;” and “safeguard ecosystems, species and genetic diversity.”
Some of these goals, the panel admitted in a discreet footnote, “require further technical work to find appropriate indicators” of success.
What all of this might cost is also largely unexamined. Instead the panelists focus on benefits, often arrived at by elaborate methods. Thus, the report states, “Every $1 spent to reduce stunting [of growth in children] can yield up to $44.50 through increased future earnings.”
(The 2012 research paper cited by the panel, and examined by Fox News, sets the overall cost of a campaign to reduce the number of underweight children by 10 million annually -- along with 210 million adults -- at about $154 billion, in current terms. It assumes an averaged 15 percent increase in individual income due to higher agricultural productivity in Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Kenya and India as the main source of benefits.)
Nonetheless, observers development expert Kenny, a supporter of the goals, “given progress toward wiping out $1.25 a day poverty and the global decline in malnutrition, the eventual aim of close-to abolishing hunger so-defined doesn't sound implausible to me (even if it might be implausible by 2030).”
Of the rest, he says, “think of the proposal as a long list that will be chipped away at on the grounds of political and practical plausibility both in terms of measurement and achievement.”
Skeptic Easterly sees the new goals -- not to mention the long, elaborate ramp up, the incessant consulting, and frequent consultation with experts who essentially agree on the process -- differently.
As he puts it: “Compared to this, the Millennium Development Goals look like masterpieces of clarity. This process seems to get worse over time.”
George Russell is editor-at-large of Fox News and can be found on Twitter @GeorgeRussell