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The clock is ticking for U.N. goals to end poverty — and it doesn't look promising

A women holds a child in the alley of a slum in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Bangladesh is one of the world's poorest countries; nearly 40% of the population survive on less than a dollar a day.
Spencer Platt
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Getty Images
A women holds a child in the alley of a slum in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Bangladesh is one of the world's poorest countries; nearly 40% of the population survive on less than a dollar a day.

It was an ambitious promise: Back in 2015 the world's leaders gathered at the United Nations to commit to a set of targets that – taken together – would lift the world's most destitute, along with many of the rest of us, into a better life by the year 2030.

But almost immediately it became clear that the world was not moving fast enough to accomplish most of these 17 "sustainable development goals," or SDGs. Now, at the half-way point, with leaders once again gathered at the United Nations for its annual General Assembly meetings, multiple assessments of the SDGS – including scorecard reports by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the United Nations – find that for many of the SDGs progress has all but halted.

What does this mean for the broader effort to end global poverty? NPR spoke with Masood Ahmed, president of the Center for Global Development, a Washington think tank. (This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.)

The world never really appeared on track to meet many of the SDG's. Then the pandemic hit. Where do things stand now?

The short answer is we are even less on track.

One side of it is all of these shocks the world has experienced: COVID, the war in Ukraine and its consequential impact on food and fuel prices, the increasingly visible consequences of climate change – most recently the floods in Pakistan and drought in the Horn of Africa.

But the other point here is the inadequate responses to these shocks. We've fallen even further behind than we had to because our responses have just not measured up to the need.

Among all these goals that are off-track, which is most striking to you?

The one that in some ways is most visible is the fact that until recently we were making year-upon-year progress dealing with extreme poverty. Now the consequence of the impact of COVID has been that some 100 million extra people have now fallen into poverty. So it will take a few more years to get back to where we were. And with that setback to the poverty indicator, of course, go other indicators.

Another thing I would say is that we haven't seen mass deaths from famine for a decade. The last time was in 2011 in Somalia. And this year I do think we could begin to see consequences of hunger and malnutrition and famines for the first time in ways that we really thought we had put behind us.

So it's not just that the progress is stalled. When it comes to the goal of eradicating hunger and malnutrition, the world is actually going backward?

Yes. If you look at the number of people who live at the margin of not having enough food to eat, that number has gone up over the last couple of years. And I think this year you could see the consequence of what is happening with this summer. The heat in Africa is having a huge impact on the production of food.

We are also falling behind in the race to adapt our agricultural production to deal with the future levels of heat that we're going to have to live with. One of the notable things they talk about in this year's Gates Foundation's assessment of progress on the goals, for instance, is maize, which is so important for Africa. It's almost a third of the calories that sub-Saharan Africa consumes. And if you have five days of heat over 86 degrees — which is the case often now — this is going to reduce harvests by a quarter.

I don't think we think enough about that. We are just not investing enough in R&D for agriculture. Since 2005, the United States has spent $57 billion on food aid and we've spent $9 billion on agricultural R&D. So we should be upping that.

You're saying foster a new version of what's often called the "Green Revolution" of 60 years ago?

Yes, the Green Revolution increased rice production yields all around. But it came as a result of a concerted effort of research. It didn't come about randomly. And I don't think we are investing enough globally in terms of recognizing that soon the world is going to be much hotter than it currently is. And consequently, we need to have crops that will adapt and grow better in those circumstances.

On its face, that focus on R&D makes sense. On the other hand people who specialize in famine and food insecurity always stress that there actually is enough food available in the world right now to feed everyone. They say the problem is one of distribution and pricing of food.

They're absolutely right to say that. In the immediate case, any given year when there's a famine, almost always that is because there is a distribution problem. It's actually an income problem. People don't have the money to buy the food that exists in the world now. So you're not going to solve this year's famine in the heart of Africa by growing more food. You're going to solve it by getting the food that is available over there.

The second point though, is that Africa as a continent is still importing a huge amount of food every year: 70% of the wheat they eat, they import. And why is that? It's not because they don't have the space. It's because they don't have access to fertilizers, and they don't have the right kind of investment in the varieties of crops that will grow well there and give them better yields. So they spend $23 billion a year importing food. There are 14 countries for whom there's been a very direct impact of the war in Ukraine because half their wheat comes from Ukraine or Russia.

So Africa as a continent is spending a lot of money every year on importing food and therefore is more vulnerable to shocks in the supply and the prices than it needs to be if it could invest in the fertilizers. And because of the increase in fertilizer prices this year, which have gone up three- or four-fold, a lot of farmers have cut back on fertilizer inputs. And the consequence of that is going to be sharp reductions in food production next year. What we are seeing as an immediate problem is going to spread over next year because we are not investing in fertilizers.

Another area where progress has slipped is on gender equity. For instance the Gates Foundation's report now estimates that the world will not reach gender equality until at least 2108 — three generations later than previously projected. What aspect of that most concerns you?

I think the biggest thing that leaps out to me is that if you think about how COVID has impacted women as opposed to men, what we find is that in many countries the impact can be disproportionately borne by women. That includes small businesses that are run by women and also on women's access to the safety net that is provided by some governments – because often they're not the first recipients of the safety net funding.

You also see the health consequences. I mean the effort to reduce maternal mortality was failing already, right? It wasn't on track before the pandemic. And over the last couple of years, we've seen a lot of the basic services that women need in the health sector for sexual reproduction rights being pushed aside because the health systems have been so strained in dealing with the pandemic.

Similarly, if you think about cash transfer schemes [which involve giving cash grants directly to low income people rather than in kind aid such as food or other goods and services], you find that governments put them in, but sometimes women don't have the necessary identification to be a recipient. There's also a big crisis in childcare. This caregiving is huge unpaid, undervalued work that actually prevents women from entering the workforce. And in low income countries unpaid caregiving occupies more than half of the working hours of women.

So I would say that the responses of governments have not been sufficiently cognizant of the pandemic's disproportionate impact on women and have not built in how to ensure that women have access to the support that is being provided.

You note that the shocks of the last couple years in particular could have been mitigated with a better overall international response. What would that have looked like?

If you lived in a poor country, those governments didn't have the financing – or the help from wealthy countries – to be able to provide cash to businesses and people to help tide them over. And so for them, they could only dedicate like 2% or 3% of GDP to relieving the economic consequences of the pandemic rather than the up to 20% that the rich countries have been able to spend.

And so the inequality in terms of the pace at which people were able to get vaccinated, the extent to which their inability to work and earn income was compensated through support by their governments, was all reflected in this international response that was not adequate.

It also laid the basis for an erosion of trust. And if I want to leave you with one thought, it's that the societal manifestation of long COVID is the breakdown and erosion of trust in the international system.

Tell us more about what is behind this loss of trust? And why does it matter?

If you talk to most people in developing countries, whether they're politicians who lead the countries or business people or academics or just people in households, what they say is, "People in wealthy countries didn't care about us when we were all going through the same problem."

That's important because a world in which there is no trust in community action is a harder world to live in. When it comes to many of the things on which we need to find solutions by working together — climate is the most obvious one — if most of the people living in developing countries don't trust the system, don't think that the people in better-off countries care about their future, then it's going to be much, much harder to sit around a table and find cooperative solutions.

Part of the problem was that instead of actual support, we [in wealthy countries] came through with lots of promises that we didn't fulfill. I think that makes it worse in terms of the erosion of trust. My advice is to stop making promises and start making plans.

Should those plans still include the SDGs? Or is it time to scrap this whole approach?

There's going to be a lot of debate about this in the next couple of years. We're getting to the point where people have to say, "What do you mean by these goals?"

On the one hand it's a way of reflecting that development is multidimensional, that it's about everybody having to do a bit. And that's why we have all of these 17 goals and all the number of indicators that go with them. So in that sense, it's helpful.

But one of the problems is achieving this for all countries by a certain date: Already in 2019, it was clear that you weren't going to do that for a whole bunch of goals for a whole number of countries. And it's even more clear now, right?

The second problem is that it's very hard in a framework that covers everything to say, "Well, this is a priority and this isn't" – because everybody who's attached to a particular priority, for whatever reason, can cite an SDG in support of that.

That said, in practice, people are prioritizing certain goals. You can see that there's a lot of energy and increased funding going toward supporting the fight against climate change, for instance.

Compared to these lofty goals for 2030, the current reality looks so bleak. What's the best case scenario of how all this plays out? And how realistic do you think that best case scenario is?

Well, look, I think the next few years will be tough for many countries. We haven't talked at all about debt. Probably a third of emerging markets and two-thirds of low income countries have debt levels that are causing them severe distress or are putting them at risk of falling into a debt crisis. So that's going to be another set of issues they have to grapple with.

But I would say there are a couple of things that give me optimism. One is that the pace of scientific and technological progress is really continuing in ways that are un-remarked upon. I mean, it is worth just stepping back and remembering the fact that, with COVID, we were able to develop a vaccine faster than ever before in the history of the world.

And the pace at which people got vaccinated against COVID in middle income countries was still faster than that of any other previous historical experience in those countries. Now, I think it was shameful it was so much slower than in the rest of the world. But the technology was very good on that front.

The other thing that gives optimism is if you go around and talk to people in low income countries, what strikes me is the innovation and energy in young people who are trying to find new ways to earn a living, take advantage of the internet and do business. You also see resilience everywhere.

If you go to Asia, many young people look to the future and see more bright spots than I think we do just by reading the data. They see their lives as having opportunities. Their vision of the future often is relatively bright in their own eyes.

You know, even go to Nigeria, a country that really has a lot of difficulties. And yet you talk to young entrepreneurs trying to set up businesses in Lagos or in Abuja, and you will find that they're full of energy and enthusiasm.

It's partly our role to point out the half empty glass, right? And actually right now it's three-quarters empty. But in that remaining quarter, they have a lot of energetic young people who are trying to carve out ways to do things and make them work better.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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