Ending poverty is the goal of all goals

Europe's World

Asia, Africa & Emerging Economies

Picture of Erik Solheim
Erik Solheim

UN Under Secretary-General & Executive Director of UN Environment

All great success stories have happened because someone with a goal pulled people together to get it done. Europe should now pull together towards the goal of all goals: to end all extreme poverty. More world leaders than at any other time in history have met over the weekend to agree on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in New York. Russian president Vladimir Putin has not been at the UN General Assembly for 10 years. China’s president XI Jinping, Iranian president Hassan Rouhani and of course U.S. President Barack Obama were there. All the European leaders I could think of participated, even the Pope.

It was agreed by all that by 2030, and preferably tomorrow, there will not be a single woman, man, girl or boy on the planet who experiences extreme poverty or hunger. There are few extremely poor people in Europe, but European leaders also need to focus on achieving this goal we’ve signed on to. We should deliver on our promise. We don’t want to force a situation in which poor people from all over the world are trying to enter Europe.

Europe is still less unjust than all other continents

To end extreme poverty is not as impossible as someone might think. We have several success stories that may inspire European countries to stand up, be leaders and form important partnerships to make sure that in 15 years the world is a far better place to live in.

In Europe and the United States, people have been lifted out of poverty through modernisation, industrial development and growth. More than 600 million people have been lifted out of poverty in China since Deng Xiaoping set the country on a new path in 1978. We can also be inspired by South Korea, where people have seen incomes raise 390 times compared to that of their grandparents in the 1950s, and the emergence there of world-leading companies like Hyundai and Samsung. All the while Korea also established a full democracy and became a leader in green growth.

In all these countries, strong and good leadership has been combined with private investment and the market-based economy. Clearly, it is essential for all development that someone take charge and lead the way.

It is a big secret to many people, but the European Union countries, and the EU as an institution, contribute more than half of global development assistance, making Europe by far the largest development aid provider in the world. Even so, most developing countries’ presidents and ministers I meet believe that the United States or China provides the most development aid. Europe needs to speak more loudly about its contribution! But any amount of money only provides for development if the policies are right. European aid can be used to form global partnerships on policies that will help girls and boys to avoid poverty and hunger in many different ways.

The key is education for all. Across the world today, there is hardly a person who knows how to read and write and is extremely poor. We should share knowledge on what works and provide resources to get the job done everywhere. Education is at the core of achieving the goal of all goals, to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger everywhere. In East Asia, many countries have focused on education with great success. 15-year-olds in Vietnam do better in school now than all their European counterparts. European countries have broad experience in making education available to all. But the right to high-quality education and lifelong learning is also a separate global goal from now.

Education is at the core of achieving the goal of all goals, to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger everywhere

In Brazil, Mexico and Ecuador, in fact in nearly all of Latin America, governments have decided to hand out cash to the poorest. European countries already have years of experience with “social floors”, and our experiences are useful to share. Social protection schemes are crucial methods for alleviating absolute poverty. Why can Europe not work closely with Latin America to advocate similar programmes on other continents?

The world is so unequal, it’s beyond belief. When half of the world’s population have less together than the richest 85 people, it’s a no brainer that we need to fight inequality. Europe is still less unjust than all other continents. But it’s impossible to abolish extreme poverty if we leave the richest people looking down on the poor from the top of the ladder. Fortunately there is a three-letter answer: tax. Europe should assist tax systems in developing countries so that local governments have more money to spend on education, health services and other basic rights entitled to all people. We should make certain that the newly-established right to automatic tax information becomes a reality for all. And through the OECD-led programme on Base Erosion and Profit Shifting, we must make certain that multinational companies are taxed where their profits are made.

European voters are rarely aware of the great successes born of European development co-operation. There are many good stories to tell, both in the present and from the past. I believe the European Union should do more to share and scale up its success stories. At the same time, we should set our stakes higher. By 2030, no one is left behind.

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