The U.N. knows what it needs to do. But can it do it all?
That’s the question after a weekend in which the 17 Sustainable Development Goals were approved — fighting poverty, hunger, disease and climate change — at a time when Europe is struggling to cope with an influx of refugees from the Syrian civil war and when there are more refugees in the world at any time since World War II.
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon is clear about how critical it is to meet all these demands: “What counts now is translating promises on paper into change on the ground. We owe this and much more to the vulnerable, the oppressed, the displaced and the forgotten people in our world.”
But some critics think the new development goals may be too ambitious, especially at a time when aid groups are struggling to cope with global emergencies.
“Seventeen goals that cover everything from poverty elimination to peacebuilding is more than the world can handle,” says Ertharin Cousin, executive director of the World Food Program, a U.N. agency. “But the reality of it is, we as a global community do not have a choice.”
For her organization, it means trying to stay focused on the big picture — helping countries around the globe make sure they have enough food to feed their population. But in many parts of the world, the WFP has had to shift gears. Take Syria, for instance, where the U.N. agency wasn’t even needed before the war began.
“Syria was a net exporting country before this conflict,” says Cousin. “They had some of the most productive agricultural areas in the entire region. And now we are feeding 4.1 million people every month inside Syria.”
And in South Sudan, just a few years ago, she says that the WFP was working with the newly independent country to support agricultural development and build roads. But that country too is in conflict now, and Cousin says aid groups can’t even reach malnourished children and others in need.
But some activists say that the turmoil in the world today is all the more reason to devote energy and resources to the SDGs.
“We have got to be a force for peace,” says Paul O’Brien, vice president of policy and campaigns at Oxfam America. “The sustainable development goals are so important [because they could] create the conditions for lasting peace [and to] give people the chance they live dignified lives where they live” instead of having to flee to another country.
But that means finding a new way for the U.N. and aid groups to operate. “It’s not just about more aid and donors doing more,” he says. “This is going to be about sustained political will by northern governments but also by southern governments to use their own money to tax corporations more effectively, to make sure the money from their natural resources goes to poverty reduction.”
That means leaders need to speak out — and take action to address both short-term and long-term problems.
“The money’s there,” he says. “It can be done.”