The Trans Pacific Partnership has been the focus of much scrutiny and debate yet an even more significant agreement was finalised last weekend in New York, capped off by what is being called 'the biggest launch in history'.

The UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) summit in New York set the global development agenda and funding priorities for the next 15 years. They replace the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) of the 2000-15 period, which despite some failings, have been the most successful global anti-poverty push in history.

With eight goals and a number of sub-targets covering a range of poverty, hunger, health, gender, equality, education and environmental indicators, the MDGs were embraced by all UN member states. The good news is that the number of people living in extreme poverty has been reduced by 700 million in the intervening 15 years.

Substantial gains have been made towards reaching gender parity in school enrolment and in women's political participation. The target of halving the proportion of people without access to improved drinking water was achieved five years ahead of schedule.


While these gains are cause for celebration, there is still a long way to go. Worldwide, almost 300,000 women die from mostly preventable causes related to pregnancy and childbirth and it is unacceptable that over 150 million young children are still suffering from chronic under-nutrition. Millions of hectares of forest are lost every year, many species are being driven closer to extinction and renewable water resources are becoming scarcer. The better we get at development, the worse we get at sustainability.

Three types of weaknesses have emerged which the new global goals must address. First, a ruinous lack of attention to integrating the environment into development practice and into the aspects of the global economy that jeopardise the welfare of future generations. Second, the categorisation of countries into 'developed' and 'developing' leading us to identify the source of the problems solely in the latter. Third, relegating the fairness of wealth distribution to an afterthought, leading to a destabilising surge in inequality.

We cannot make those mistakes again. The new goals seek to address these weaknesses by:

• Taking seriously our planets resource constraints. Recognise that richer nations must also 'develop' by taking greater responsibility for their on-going contribution to global threats, including threats to the planetary boundaries the earth is approaching. The effects of deforestation, desertification, species collapse and climate change may be felt first in the developing world, but the cause is largely not of their own making. The problem of poverty is no longer located in poor countries but increasingly in all countries through unsustainable consumption.

• Understanding that our global ambitions are now universal. The MDGs applied only to poor countries and such 'aid thinking' stopped us adequately addressing the fact that the cause of some of these problems resided in richer countries. When the SDGs are passed, all nations will have development goals.

• Beginning to meet the call for equality. One of the main messages from research on the MDGs is that while poverty is down, inequality is up. This is true in the developing world but also in New Zealand, where the OECD estimates that inequality costs us 3% GDP growth per year. Yet such social equality is bad for us. We need to unlearn our belief in growth at all costs and focus on fairness and who is being left behind, allocating more resources for essential services and ensuring access for all.

This shift is exciting. Understanding our interconnectedness has the potential to expand Western understanding of how global problems are created and solved and to bring attention and action to the places most needed for long term rather than short term gain.

It is essential that the Sustainable Development Goals reconfirm the commitments of the Millennium Development Goals focused on human wellbeing by alleviating poverty, enhancing food and water security, and improving health. But the SDGs must also address the environmental limits of the planet and the challenge of redirecting unsustainable practices.


When the morning of the 1st Jan 2016 arrives, what happens? Only strong commitment to resourcing these goals by richer nations can ensure that the new global goals become a powerful expression of our common humanity.

Dr Murray Sheard is education and advocacy manager at international aid and development organisation, TEAR Fund NZ.