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UN Sets Goal of Fighting Poverty

Sep. 28, 2015

NEWSROOM TOKYO anchor Sho Beppu is broadcasting live from the United Nations’ New York headquarters this week as the 70th general assembly is underway. In a special four-day series, he will look at the role the UN plays in modern diplomacy, as well as the challenges it now faces.

Today, Beppu examines the fight against poverty, discussing development goals and how they can be met with a senior UN official.

World leaders are gathering here in New York to attend the General Debate of the 70th session of the General Assembly. Security is tight around UN Headquarters on 1st Avenue. The 70th General Assembly promises to be historic. One of the main topics delegates are discussing is development.

You may have heard about the Millennium Development Goals, or MDGs. Fifteen years ago, world leaders set out 8 targets to be met by this year. They include cutting extreme poverty by half, and achieving universal primary education. The results are mixed. The UN says that more than a billion people have been lifted out of extreme poverty. But the gap between rich and poor is widening at an alarming rate.

Three days ago, world leaders adopted a new set of targets. They call them the Sustainable Development Goals or SDGs. There are 17 of them. They focus not only on poverty and health, but also on issues such as employment and rule of law. But, are the world leaders ready to achieve these ambitious goals? I listened to them.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon opened the Sustainable Development Summit by calling on world leaders to adopt the new set of development goals. He said they embody the spirit of the organization. “Seventy years ago, the United Nations rose from the ashes of war. Governments agreed on a visionary Charter dedicated to ‘We the Peoples.’ The Agenda you are adopting today advances the goals of the Charter,” he said.

The leaders have adopted the new goals and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has pledged to do his best to put them into action. “Japan has emphasized that the new agenda will lead our effort to ultimately eradicate poverty on Earth, and transform the world into a sustainable planet by 2030. Japan, with the international community, will do its utmost to meet the new target. Japan will take a leading role in promoting quality infrastructure investment as a foundation for quality growth, not only in Asia, but also across the world, including Africa,” said Abe.

But some speakers said the new set of goals could end up being empty promises. They want a firm commitment from world leaders. "We can't blame people for being skeptical when they see another Summit Declaration,” said Amnesty International Secretary General Salil Shetty. “There is huge gap between the world we live in and the world we want. But these goals represent people's aspirations and rights and they must and can be realized. The key to success is for poor and marginalized people to be primary decision makers at every stage. The Sustainable Development Goals must be resourced and integrated in national and local plans and budgets.”

It's one thing to agree on the goals. The question is who's going to pay. China's announcement of a $2 billion aid package has gotten a lot of attention. “We have to improve global economic governance and increase the voices of developing countries,” Chinese President Xi Jinping told the conference.

But few details are available. China has been criticized for handing over huge amounts of money to developing countries, especially in Africa, with its strategic interests in mind, such as access to natural resources like oil.

The United States, possibly reflecting its rivalry with China, didn't miss the chance to point out that it's still the world's biggest aid donor. "I’m here to say that in this work, the United States will continue to be your partner. Five years ago, I pledged here that America would remain the global leader in development. The United States government, in fact, remains the single largest donor of development assistance,” said US President Barack Obama.

Sho Beppu is joined by Izumi Nakamitsu. She's the Assistant Secretary-General of the UN, and assistant administrator of the UNDP, the United Nations Development Program.

Beppu: The UN has been working hard to achieve the Millennium Development Goals, or MDGs, over the past 15 years. We've seen some progress. But many people are still going hungry. Many children can't go to school. Why haven't world leaders been able to make good on all the promises they made 15 years ago?

Nakamitsu: We did make a lot of progress. We did halve extreme poverty in the past 15 years. If you look at the countries that have made the least progress in these MDGs, those are the countries that were hampered by conflicts, social tensions, political instabilities or poor government. I think the biggest lesson we have learned is that you can’t just tackle sector-by-sector only - children going to school, health issues, et cetera - but we’ve got to address those issues in a very interconnected, integrated and comprehensive manner. Those are the issues that we have left to address and that’s why we needed SDGs to address some of those very difficult issues in a holistic manner so we can eradicate poverty 15 years from now.

Beppu: There were 8 MDGs. Now we've got 17 Sustainable Development Goals. Some critics say that's too many, and that those targets are ambiguous, and even unrealistic. How do you respond to such criticism?

Nakamitsu: It’s defintitely very ambitious, 17 goals and 169 targets is very challenging. But unless we tackle all these issues simultaneously in an integrated manner we will not be able to achieve the goal of eradicating poverty. Peace and justice issues, social exclusion issues, inequality issues, all these are very important linkages that we have to make in order to address poverty, to finish the course.

One key challenge the world faces is tackling inequality of opportunity. Some people in India are trying to change that.

Among the privileged, children from middle- and upper-class families attend private school in New Delhi, where tuition costs of about $2,000 a year exceed most Indians’ annual incomes. Many graduates go to top universities in India, or study abroad.

"My dad wants me to be a pilot and mom wants me to be a doctor. But I don't know,” says Janhvi Gupta, one of the lucky ones with access to a private education.

It is a different story for most Indian children, even though education is free and compulsory for those aged between six and 14. Rural areas face low enrollment and teacher shortages.

At one elementary school in Rajasthan there is just one teacher, who also serves as the principal. The village school often asks an NGO for help. Pupils learn the basics, with children from 1st to 5th grade taught to recite the Hindi alphabet together. But on any given day, fewer than half of the school's students show up.

Just a handful of the students are girls. An official from NGO Educate Girls says about 40 percent of females in one rural area quit school before they reach 5th grade. Instead, girls are put to work at home.

Women are expected to perform chores like fetching water. "My family doesn't send me to school,” says Amiya Kumari. “Because I have to graze the cattle, the sheep and goats."

An Educate Girls representative faces an uphill battle convincing families to allow their daughters an education. Farmer Goma Ram has five children, but while his eldest son attends elementary school, there are two older sisters who stay at home.

The Ram family also receives a visit from a local girl, Sharda Kumari, who has managed to attend school against her parents’ wishes while fulfilling her responsibilities at home. "She earns money by teaching. She also feeds and grazes the cattle,” says an Educate Girls field coordinator.

"Your daughter can be like me,” Kumari tells the Rams. “I do all the housework even though I go to school. I am being educated, so my children will also be educated,” she says.

But Goma Ram is adamant. “My daughter doesn't have to get a job. You listen to me!” he responds. While Kumari and the Educate Girls official couldn't change the minds of the girls' parents, they persist with their work. “I have to go to many homes every day to encourage parents to send their daughters to school,” says Kumari.

But there are signs of change in Rajasthan, with some girls attending school for the first time aged ten. They now hope to pursue their dreams. “I want to be a doctor to help poor people,” says Janata Vaishnav. “I want to become a police officer to help others,” adds fellow student Rasal Kumari.

It is an ongoing struggle to convince people that education can open doors to a brighter future.

Beppu: As one example of an emerging economy, India has been growing rapidly in recent years. Developed countries would love to see that kind of growth. But why is such economic expansion not accompanied by a decrease in inequality?

Nakamitsu: Inequality has different reasons in different countries. It’s a very complex and multidimensional combination of reasons, but they all usually relate to income distribution, political participation, social inclusion, all sorts of challenges that exist in those countries. This is why Sustainable Development Goals are trying to address those in a multifaceted manner so that we can make the linkages between economic growth and equality issues in a much more direct way, in a positive way.

Beppu: What risks does growing inequality pose to individual countries and to the global community?

Nakamitsu: It’s not so difficult to see the consequences of big disparity causing social tensions, political tensions sometimes, addressing negative social cohesion. There’s growing evidence that it is also bad for economic growth, so we need to definitely address the disparity issue. At the global level, we are looking at a phenomena of huge disparity, not just posing a big problem in terms of extreme poverty, but in some areas creating a lot of tensions, sometimes resulting in violent conflict. This is a key issue and if it is left unaddressed, then we will all in the end suffer together.

Beppu: Another important item on the SDG agenda is building partnerships between various groups to meet ambitious goals. Businesses are expected to play a crucial role and some companies are working to solve social problems in developing countries. Many governments say they have limited financial resources. And they say the situation could get worse if there's a global economic slowdown. That's one of the reasons people say that business needs to play a role in development. But that raises an important question: who will foot the bill for achieving the SDGs?

Nakamitsu: This is a very expensive agenda. We are not even talking about billions, we are talking about trillions of dollars. In official development assistance, ODA, public money will remain very important, but there will be private sector money. There will also be domestic resource mobilization efforts so I think now we are talking about multiple sources of funding to implement Sustainable Development Goals.

Beppu: The world has set out a series of new development goals. Its target year is in 2030. In order not to make these promises simply beautiful words but a reality, what do you think is mostly needed?

Nakamitsu: This is the largest gathering at the summit level that the UN has ever hosted, so let’s keep the momentum and start implementation. For the implementation phase, I think what will be most important is that these goals are integrated at the country level and start affecting the national-level policies and strategies and where necessary, perhaps change legislation. All countries, and all of us owning the agenda, that will be a very important force behind achieving SDGs.