IN HIS speech to the United Nations on Friday, Pope Francis warned against easy pledges, however solemnly delivered. It was timely: the same weekend, governments agreed the new Sustainable Development Goals, a set of 17 challenging targets to improve living conditions by 2030, while helping to sustain the planet. The SDGs will require investment and equity — the first and second pledges are to end poverty and hunger — as well as a new morality: pledge 16 includes a commitment to “substantially reduce corruption and bribery in all their forms” (note the touch of realism). Pope Francis welcomed the setting of goals, but warned: “It must never be forgotten that political and economic activity is only effective when it is understood . . . that, above and beyond our plans and programmes, we are dealing with real men and women who live, struggle, and suffer, and are often forced to live in great poverty, deprived of all rights.”
Pope Francis might have been thinking of the plight of the Syrian refugees in camps in neighbouring countries. All the European nations recognise the value of discouraging them from making perilous treks into Europe to find food and security. Yet the World Food Programme reported one month ago that it was still 63 per cent short of the funds it needed to feed the people in and around the camps in Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey, and had therefore been forced to cut rations — in effect, driving refugees to seek help elsewhere. Or perhaps the Pope had the Millennium Development Goals in mind. Significant progress has been made over the past 15 years, particularly regarding the pledge to halve the proportion of the world’s population in extreme poverty. The arguments go on about how much of this has been achieved by economic progress in China rather than the generosity of Western donors, but there have been remarkable advances on various fronts, including the battle against malaria, HIV, and tuberculosis; schooling for both boys and girls; reducing infant mortality; and access to clean water. All these are a work in progress, but thousands of lives have been saved and improved. One persistent issue of concern is one of the clauses in Goal 8, the pledge to “develop further an open, rule-based, predictable, non-discriminatory trading and financial system”. The creation of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) has shown how liberal trading regulations can be framed to strong-arm weaker parties, including governments (Comment).
The new targets have an image problem. Besides suffering from the UN’s tendency to use too many syllables, they lack the immediacy brought by the reference to the Millennium. That aside, it is right to be encouraged by the fact that governments around the world are prepared to aspire to a set of long-term goals of this kind. It is a step away from the short-term self-interest that they commonly display, and a move towards the definition of justice quoted by Pope Francis: an act of “constant and perpetual will”.