The Most Important To-Do List for 2015

The saying goes that if you have too many priorities, you actually have none at all. I wholeheartedly agree, even if I’m not always able to practice this with my own daily to-do list.

The same principle holds true when taking on complex issues at an international scale. At the Gates Foundation — where I lead our work in policy and advocacy — we are big supporters of targeted efforts to tackle the problems at the root of human suffering.

In the coming months, all eyes will be on global leaders as they finalize a new global development agenda — the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) — that aims to do just that. This effort builds on the remarkable progress the world has made since the predecessor Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) put forward a shared vision in 2000 of where we wanted the world to be in 2015.

We support the bold vision of the SDGs, which is consistent with the “big bet” that Bill and Melinda Gates laid out in their annual letter last January. By focusing on the most urgent global health and development challenges, Bill and Melinda predicted that “the lives of people in poor countries will improve faster in the next 15 years than at any other time in history.”

As progress on the current MDGs has demonstrated, the world community is capable of taking on big challenges. The MDGs included just eight goals, which helped focus the world’s attention on the most urgent problems — extreme poverty, deaths from preventable causes, gender inequality, and lack of access to education for children everywhere.

These ambitious but achievable goals — with measurable, time-bound results — were the glue that bound together national and donor governments, donors and international development agencies, civil society, and the private sector. By establishing universal alignment around a shared set of clear and resonant objectives, the MDGs galvanized financial support and ensured that everyone was pulling from the same end of the rope

In significant part because of these unified efforts, extreme poverty, hunger, and child mortality have all been cut in half since 1990, with much deeper progress in many individual countries across Africa, Asia and Latin America.

But it’s critical that the global community stay focused on these urgent and largely preventable problems. Nearly 7 million children under age 5 are still dying every year, many from preventable causes. Hundreds of millions of children are still chronically undernourished. And millions more people are dying needlessly every year from preventable infectious diseases.

There is unanimous agreement that we must finish the job on the world’s big challenges. The recently-published “zero draft” of the SDG framework underscored this, stating that “poverty eradication is our greatest global challenge.” To be sure, there are many perspectives on how we accomplish this.

The MDGs consisted of eight goals, supported by 21 quantifiable and time-bound targets. As the SDGs have taken shape, there are 17 goals and 169 targets. At one level, this expansion represents a welcome and overdue democratization of the goal setting process — reflecting a comprehensive set of aspirations in areas from fisheries and forest management to job creation to violence against women. At another level, however, the range of targets pose an inevitable challenge in terms of prioritization and focus: no country is going to be able to treat all of them with equal urgency.

We believe it is important to embrace and celebrate the broad framework and spirit of the global goals — in a way that ordinary citizens can understand and and use to hold their governments accountable for implementation. To that end, we actively support a number of efforts — such as action/2015, Global Citizen, and Project Everyone — to elevate awareness about the importance of the new global development agenda. And we support coalitions promoting the SDGs in more than 60 developing countries.

At the same time, given our own priorities and experience as a foundation and the mandate from our founders to focus on the needs of the poorest, our focus and resource investments after September will in large part continue to focus on the “unfinished agenda” of the current MDGs. Nearly all governments have affirmed that this is an important and shared priority. To sustain and build on the huge momentum of the past 15 years, there are a series of actions that we believe need to be addressed in coming months:

· Focus on the most impactful targets. It’s important that the global community agree on what targets we need to focus on to cut maternal, child, and newborn deaths by two-thirds by 2030.

· Agree on a basic “social compact.” Recognizing the long-term benefits of investing in development, rich and poor countries must come to a consensus that investing in development — maternal and child health, family planning, nutrition, infectious diseases, agricultural development, education and sanitation — is a shared responsibility between donors, developing countries and the private sector.

· Bring more ambition to financing development: At the upcoming Third International Conference on Financing for Development in Addis Ababa, finance ministers from rich and poor countries must identify the necessary financing sources and policies — including the right mix of increased and appropriately targeted donor aid, increased domestic resources from developing countries, and a greater role for the private sector that enable us to lay the conditions for inclusive growth and eradicate extreme poverty.

· Protecting the poorest in middle-income countries. As more countries like Pakistan, Ghana and Nigeria transition to middle income status as measured by per capita GDP, but still retain very large pockets of deep poverty, we must ensure that we don’t leave large gaps in financing for basic services that are at the heart of our health and development efforts.

· Optimizing natural resources. As African countries reduce their dependence on aid from wealthy countries, we must support their efforts to maximize income from natural resources for human development priorities.

If the world comes together — as it did 15 years ago — around a shared set of global goals for sustainable development , I’m optimistic that we will see the lives of millions of people improve faster in the next 15 years than at any other time in history. This is why we are enthusiastic about the SDGs. Well-intentioned people may disagree about how best to prioritize the goals and targets, but we all can agree that the SDGs are the foundation upon which wealthy and poor countries alike can work together to achieve a more just world for everyone.

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