For its 70th anniversary this September, the United Nations once again did what it does best. It set new and even higher aspirations for humanity’s future. The General Assembly adopted 17 goals for “sustainable development” by 2030, such as “productive employment ... for all.”
This latest leap of hope builds on the successes of the anti-poverty targets set in 2000, known as the Millennium Development Goals, or MDGs. That 15-year wish list was largely met. Cutting extreme poverty by half, for example, was achieved five years early.
The new goals aim to sustain this momentum despite new setbacks, such as a slowing global economy. But the key lesson of the MDGs lies in their collective ambition to set an agenda rooted in the expectation of good results for human development. By being realistic as well as relying on a consensus of all nations, the goals galvanized people to cooperate and bring resources to tackling problems long seen as intractable.
Oddly, the region of the world least successful in meeting the 2015 targets, sub-Saharan Africa, is also the most optimistic about its future, according to the Pew Research Center. The reasons may be cultural or it may be because Africa has enjoyed economic growth above the global average since 2001. But a new report by the African Union, the African Development Bank, and two UN agencies tries to assess what Africa can do differently to achieve the new goals.
The successes of sub-Saharan Africa are few but significant. Its economic growth rate per person has been higher than it has been in Asia. It reduced poverty levels from 56.5 percent in 1990 to 48.4 percent in 2010. It showed great progress in providing access to primary education, which boosted youth literacy, especially for girls.
Its two greatest successes may lay the groundwork for further progress. It has the highest growth rate in cellphone subscriptions. And it raised women’s representation in national parliaments far above other parts of the world, from 14 percent in 2000 to 22 percent in 2014.
Yet on other measures, such as child mortality, electricity usage, or access to safe water, Africa still has far to go. The report recommends addressing the root causes of poverty, not the symptom of poverty itself, and focusing on the quality of progress more than the pace of meeting new targets.
For a continent as optimistic as Africa, the UN goals helped boost the level of communication and the follow-up by governments to fulfill many of their agreements. The global body’s high expectations found a home in the region most in need of sustainable progress.