NEW YORK CITY: “The goal should not simply be giving more food aid. It should be to ensure no aid is needed in the first place,” Bill Gates, the philanthropist and founder of Microsoft, wrote in an essay as his foundation launched a new report on the UN Sustainable Development Goals, published on the sidelines of the 77th session of the UN General Assembly.
The Goalkeepers Initiative was launched by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in 2017 to bring together world leaders to speed up progress toward achieving the SDGs.
The 17 global objectives, set by the UN in 2015, are designed to help eradicate poverty and improve the lives of people worldwide by 2030.
With under eight years left to achieve the goals — which include education, gender equality, clean energy, and eradicating hunger — the Goalkeepers’ report says every indicator of the SDGs is off track.
At the beginning of September, UN Women published a report stating that it would take 286 years to achieve full gender equality in the legal system worldwide. It also stated that 10 percent of women and girls aged 15-49 were subjected to intimate partner violence in the last year.
“The truth is, we were never on track to reach SDG 5 — global gender equality — by 2030,” Melinda Gates wrote in an essay published by the Goalkeepers Initiative.
“Development experts knew this before they even finalized the goals. But today, halfway to our deadline, progress remains slow, even stalling,” she wrote, adding that economic inequality is a major root cause of the lack of progress.
“If you dig beneath the ‘years to gender equality’ metric, you’ll see that economic inequality is one of those root causes. The World Bank reported that the difference in expected lifetime earnings between women and men amounted to $172.3 trillion globally even before the pandemic — twice the size of the world’s annual gross domestic product,” Gates wrote.
While it lays out the challenges facing the achievements of these goals — from the COVID-19 pandemic to the war in Ukraine — the SDG report shines a spotlight on opportunities to accelerate progress by advocating for long-term investment in innovative approaches to entrenched issues such as poverty, inequality, and climate change.
Mark Suzman, CEO of the Gates Foundation, said the setbacks to the goals can “absolutely be reversed,” using different technologies and tools, particularly in those goals related to gender, climate and food security.
“We don’t have to settle for those trajectories,” Suzman told Arab News during a conversation on the sidelines of UNGA.
He said the report is not only “a message of realism about the state of the world,” given the unprecedented shocks from the pandemic and the war in Ukraine, but is also “a message of optimism.
“The sustainable development goals are commitments made by every government in the world to their own citizens: This is not some kind of vague civil society campaign,” he said.
“This is a formal statement of global shared solidarity, and we have all learned together the hard way of the last few years that we are adding resources, we can dramatically accelerate progress in coming years.”
The report reveals that the current setbacks follow nearly two decades of unprecedented global progress, during which there were annual reductions in extreme poverty, child mortality, and improvements in access to education.
“But now, with the food-security crisis and the inflationary shocks that have been exacerbated by the conflict in Ukraine, we've had the first two years of genuine setbacks where some of these trends have gone in reverse,” said Suzman.
“After halving HIV/AIDS incidence and mortality over the last 20 years, we’ve suddenly seen an uptick again. After halving malaria incidence and mortality, we’ve seen an uptick again. We’ve seen many hundreds, or tens of millions, thrown back into extreme poverty. And now we see this massive shock of food insecurity (with) well over 100 million people in food insecurity from Yemen to Afghanistan, to the Horn of Africa.
“And so those are all really not just a call to action, but a demand to action to reverse it,” he said, lamenting the lack of commitment of many countries towards reversing these trends and accelerating the path towards achieving the SDGs.
Action should be taken right now, Suzman said, using “extraordinary tools” — from providing women with digital financial access to the formal system, to the rapid scaling of more productive crops and resistant seeds which are more sustainable amid droughts which cause massive food insecurity.
Such tools could be life-changing for smallholder farmers across South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, two areas that have been most affected by climate change, despite contributing the least to the emission of greenhouse gases.
“If governments and other partners, private sector, and philanthropy were able to respond at the scale that's demanded, we could see those trends shift very quickly,” Suzman said.
The Gates Foundation is bringing “a very major set of commitments” related to climate adaptation — which Suzman calls the “orphan child of the climate discussions” — to the 2022 UN Climate Change Conference, which will be held in Egypt later this year.
The Foundation will urge the world to prioritize long term investments in agriculture and climate adaptation to help meet the needs of the poorest communities, such as soil health, irrigation tools, and extension services for farmers, “because we can and we have the assets available to help generate self-sufficiency in these regions. It’s eminently possible even in the context of climate change.
“That has to happen now. It can’t just be another vacuous promise for resources that come in the abstract one, two, three or five years from now.”
Suzman’s words echo those of Somalia’s Special Envoy for Drought Response Abdirahman Abdishakur, who told Arab News earlier this week that he does not want “to be knocking on doors again in five years’ time or ever.”
Though he is calling for immediate humanitarian assistance to help save lives and prevent drought-driven famine in his country, he is also strongly advocating for long term climate-adaptive solutions for Somali farmers to allow for greater self-sufficiency.
“If we’re only investing $1 billion a year in agricultural research, but $10 billion a year in humanitarian aid, that's the wrong way around,” said Suzman.
The tools, he added, the technology, and the ability to use “more thoughtful” irrigation and fertilizers are available now.
The Lives and Livelihoods Fund, a partnership between the Gates Foundation and the Islamic Development Bank which has Saudi Arabia as a key partner, has invested over $1.4 billion in such tools over the last few years.
It helped develop more resilient domestic rice production in Guinea, which is intended to serve as a model for several countries in West Africa — the world’s largest rice importing region — which Suzman says should be able to grow its own rice.
Elaborating on the Gates Foundation’s work in the Middle East, Suzman said: “We’ve been working, for example, on polio eradication, where Afghanistan and Pakistan are the last few countries that have wide poliovirus endemic, and the current floods in Pakistan are deeply challenging in that regard.”
At the Global Fund to Fight HIV, TB and Malaria’s Seventh Replenishment Conference, hosted by US President Joe Biden in New York on Sept. 21, donors pledged $14.25 billion to end the spread of the three diseases, with “generous contributions” from several of the Gulf states.
“Our primary partnership with the Middle East is helping draw on some of the Middle East’s … technical logical resources and financial resources to help with our work in the Islamic world, and more broadly for some of these global efforts,” Suzman said.