Jon Lidén
(Former Chatham House Expert)

The UN’s recently published report to help the world set targets for 2030, succeeding the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that run up to 2015, presents an optimistic yet sober vision. Building on the MDGs and retaining a focus on the world's poorest and most vulnerable, it has expanded the scope of the proposed goals to include a comprehensive blueprint for how to create a sustainable, more peaceful and equitable world. It has based its agenda on what we can all agree on without skirting the difficult challenges the world is facing.

In 2000, the world – in a spirit of entering a new millennium, and driven by optimism from having been freed from a 50-year cold war that split the world into opposing blocs – tried to formulate a joint, global vision for what kind of future we want for humanity. The ambition was grand, but the goals were limited and practical: eight Millennium Development Goals with a set of concrete targets under each broad goal to be reached by 2015.

The MDGs focused on halving poverty, and with some exceptions, they were extraordinary successful. The 13 years since the millennium have seen the fastest reduction in poverty in human history. Deaths from malaria have fallen by one quarter and other diseases have also seen decline. As a result, the number of child deaths has fallen by more than 30%, with about three million children’s lives saved each year compared to 2000. Some of the results are simply a byproduct of economic growth, but better policies, and the global commitment to the MDGs, have also played an important role. The MDGs have shown that the world can work together and achieve great progress when it can unify around clear goals. 

Less than a year ago, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon asked a high-level panel of 27 top-level leaders, co-chaired by Indonesia’s President Dr H Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, Liberia's President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and British Prime Minster David Cameron, to outline a possible global development framework beyond 2015. 

Critics dismissed the task the High-Level Panel had been given – to create a unified vision for the world by 2030 – as a fool’s errand. The world, these skeptics said, is more fractured now than 15 years ago: bruised by wars that seem to have pitted global value systems against each other and peoples against their rulers; with the West in decline and fast-growing middle-income countries jostling for power and natural resources, and a failure to find any agreement to deal with the worsening results of climate change. 

But the Panel’s report has confounded the critics. It has built the agenda around what it calls the five transformative shifts: 'Leave no-one behind' (which includes ending extreme poverty altogether); 'Put sustainable development at the core' (including tackling climate change head on); 'Transform economies for jobs and inclusive growth' (this is the most novel and interesting concept for a set of global goals, including significant reform of business, taxation and education); 'Build peace and effective, open and accountable institutions for all' (a focus on good governance and peace as a fundamental demand of governments); and 'Forge a new global partnership' (a call for more ambitious and innovative ways of working together). 

This, in other words, is no longer an agenda for the developing countries, patronizingly overseen and financed by the industrialized ones. The new agenda places tough demands on everyone. But since the goals are non-binding, they may succeed where previous attempts at action against climate change, tax avoidance, water management, etc. have failed in the past. They are less threatening to emerging economies, yet, universal enough that no-one can be accused of carrying a heavier burden than others. 

The five 'shifts' are solidified by 12 goals broken down into concrete targets. The goals are ambitious; yet, they retain the practical, measurable nature of the Millennium Development Goals and are therefore possible to raise financing and set work plans against. 

Indeed, several of them simply take the MDGs forward, but some are dizzyingly ambitious and exciting. 'Secure Sustainable Energy' (goal 7) and 'Manage Natural Resource Assets Sustainably' (Goal 9) are demanding yet are broken down into reasonable, reachable targets. 'Ensure Stable and Peaceful Societies' (Goal 11) may sound a little 'la-di-da', but even the targets for this goal are concrete and not impossible to achieve. 

The Panel's report will form the basis for the recommendations the Secretary General will bring to the UN General Assembly in September. Then the hard work will begin – agreeing on the goals and targets that are concrete enough to drive action, and yet universal enough that world leaders can agree on them. The High-Level Panel has provided an excellent starting point for a joint, global vision of opportunity and optimism.