Paul Polman on Sustainability in Post-2015 Agenda

Discussions continue as to what will follow the Millennium Development Goals when they end in 2015. Unilever CEO Paul Polman says sustainability has to be high on the agenda. At the core, the goals should aim to tackle the basic problems of poverty such as health, lack of work and hunger. However, Polman adds a few more ideas to the mix in a column for the Guardian.

Here are his four main points:

Empower people economically

First, it should recognise the best way of bringing people out of poverty is through economic development. So the new agenda must place a strong incentive on governments to create the right conditions for business to flourish. It must engage the private sector not just in setting but in delivering the agenda. Increased pressure on public sector finances makes it unwise to rely too much on overseas development assistance funding to tackle all the issues that matter within the time available.

Adapting to climate disruption

Second, the post-2015 agenda must ensure that the gains made on poverty eradication are irreversible. This will require us to tackle some of the big environmental challenges confronting the world. If we don’t, we risk many of the past and future gains on poverty being reversed. It is the poor who suffer first and worst from environmental disasters like droughts, floods and harvest failures. Tropical storm Sandy is a case in point. New York City coped reasonably well but the people of Haiti were devastated, and just as they were recovering from the 2010 earthquake. Unless environmental issues are tackled in parallel with the social and economic ones then the progress we make risks being short-lived.

Good governance

Third, the post-2015 development agenda should recognise that eradicating poverty is difficult to achieve in the absence of functioning institutions. Ultimately, it is well-governed and accountable institutions which ensure peace and security, enforce the rule of law, deliver effective public administration and tax collection, guard against corruption and provide transparent markets. Without these, governments cannot serve their citizens, business will not have the confidence to invest, and conflict-affected and fragile states will have no chance of escaping the poverty trap.

Tackle inequality

Last, the post-2015 agenda should consciously tackle the question of inequality. It should do so not as a goal but instead weave it as a thread that runs throughout all goal areas, such as education, nutrition and health care. It should also be present in the metrics that are subsequently used to monitor progress. Alongside it being a powerful moral agenda, studies show that rising inequality is harmful even to those who are at the richer end of the scale, as declining social cohesion creates additional cost burdens and reduced wellbeing for people at all income levels.

The underlying principle of all these points is that a post-2015 development agenda needs to reflect all three dimensions of sustainability: the social, the economic and the environmental. Any suggestion that the socio-economic and the environmental are in some way separable is deeply misplaced. Both questions are urgent. Both have to be tackled now.

It is almost inevitable that much of the discussion is focusing on the nature of the targets within any future framework. In business we are used to setting targets, but the issues are often simpler and the measurement more straightforward. In development, there are literally hundreds of important things which could be measured. However, I firmly believe that the power of the MDGs came from having a small number of (mostly) measurable goals, and the post-2015 agenda should in my view build on this model.

Just as important is that each goal is accompanied by a clear recommendation as to who is responsible for delivering it and how. Any new framework should go beyond a mere set of priorities, to become a clear plan of action for the world.

Through participating in the HLP I have had the opportunity to consult with a wide range of private sector organisations about their views on the future of the development framework. I have been overwhelmed by the response. All around the world, business leaders are coming forward with a real understanding of how this agenda is so important to the future of their business, their industry and their growth aspirations. Their growth is, of course, the same economic development that we know will continue to lift even more people out of extreme poverty as markets develop and emerging markets grow into fully developed economies.

Never has there been so much energy for tackling these challenges from members of all sectors or so much clarity about what needs to be done. All this gives me hope that in spite of the challenges and complexities ahead, if we work together in a new global partnership for development, we really will succeed in our mission to end poverty in our time.