A new, ambitious vision requires new, ambitious ways of working

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Indian Railways is the single largest consumer of electricity in India, consuming 17.5 billion units a year. As track and passengers continue to grow, being more energy efficient, and exploring clean sources of energy is central to the Railways vision for the future. Photo: Dhiraj Singh/UNDP India

31 December 2015: During a visit to Kerala, India, I drive past gleaming malls and the skeleton of a new metro in a hometown virtually unrecognizable from my childhood. But I also see stubborn challenges, like the very poor left behind in this economy and the deteriorating quality of air and food.

1 January 2016: A new year begins, with a new era in the quest to combat poverty, inequality, and climate change. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) come into force, part of a “2030 Agenda” for the next 15 years, to achieve development where progress in one sector is not at the expense of another, where present gains do not threaten that of future generations.

As the incoming UNDP Lead Advisor on the 2030 Agenda, it’s hardly surprising that I take an interest in this. But, personally, I find the SDGs (all 17!) far more compelling than the predecessor Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Why?

At a time of seemingly intractable peace and development challenges, the fact that this Agenda was adopted unanimously by 193 governments is historic.

The SDGs are not MDGs 2.0. They are broad, spanning economic, social and environmental aspects of development. They are bold and unapologetically normative (“end poverty and hunger everywhere,” “protect human rights”).  They address today’s problems of peaceful societies, urban development, sustainable consumption and energy, and protected forests and oceans.

This is an agenda that hopes to address the complexities I saw in India.

The Agenda tackles head-on the persistent, growing inequalities between and within countries. And for the first time, it is not just a prescription for the “developing world” but for all countries. In short, they describe the world I want for myself and my children. Unsurprising perhaps, because they were crafted not just by technocrats but with inputs from millions of ordinary people worldwide on their most pressing problems.  

Is this hopeless romanticism? The MDG progress record says otherwise, unequivocally demonstrating the value of a unifying set of goals in making the world significantly better now. One billion fewer people live in extreme poverty.  Girls attend primary school at about the same rate as boys. The number of children dying before their fifth birthday has been halved. While one can argue that such stunning statistics owe much to rapid growth in some Asian economies, it is undeniable that the MDGs were hugely successful in focusing attention and financial resources on pressing problems.

The Agenda recognizes that this new, ambitious vision requires new, ambitious ways of working. Traditional development organizations must learn to work better with private companies, community organizations, and volunteers, melding vastly different interests to achieve a common agenda.  And yes, this requires a nimbler and ever more coordinated United Nations.

With a mandate to address poverty and inequality and an extensive record in supporting countries with their national development agendas, UNDP is uniquely placed to support an integrated approach.  So we are gearing up with other UN development partners to assist countries in specific areas: translating the Global Goals into a relevant and well-understood agenda at the country level; identifying priorities and linkages to accelerate progress; and enabling governments to access the UN’s expertise at all stages of implementation. A critical focus will also be to help with the data and systems needed to monitor progress towards the goals.

“We are resolved to free the human race from the tyranny of poverty...we pledge that no one will be left behind” (Preamble, 2030 Agenda).

 I know that we have our work cut out for us. But we could not have asked for a more inspiring agenda to rally behind.