Global Goals prove we’re all ‘aspirational now’

Our new PM is right to say there's never been a better time to be Australian but this also means that there's never been a better time for Australia to get on with the job of building a better shared future with our neighbours.

It would be too easy for the cynics among us to dismiss last weekend's adoption of the UN's reinvigorated Global Goals for Sustainable Development as another festival of high but essentially empty hopes for human progress that New York does so well.

But they are not.

The fact that Julie Bishop was in New York to sign Australia on as a founding member of this global optimists' club is cause for celebration. Australians are a people of such positive values and huge resources -- both material and human. This can be a turning point in renewing our commitment to sharing our optimistic character, our practical can-do spirit and our countless blessings.

For in committing to the newly configured Global Goals, what Australia and the rest of the world are doing is renewing our vows to combat poverty everywhere including our own backyards. The Global Goals apply to all nations -- even wealthy and middle-income ones which are home to huge disparities in life opportunity -- and recognise that environmental degradation and inequality affect us all.

Australia too faces some special challenges in our own region made up of the small Pacific island states as well as the larger more prosperous Asian nations. We are well-placed to extend our commitment to building a neighbourhood where everyone enjoys health, prosperity and security.

There is no doubt that over the past 15 years global action on poverty and development has been given impetus and coherence by the Millennium Development Goals, a set of eight targeted areas of action agreed on by all UN members.

The new Goals are not simply as a pact among governments. They represent a universal commitment to which citizens as well as civil society organisations and the private sector can and must make a contribution.

The MDGs, like a lot of high-level blueprints, have been criticised for being too general, or for having the wrong measures applied to them, and it is true that not all of the targets have been met, especially if you drill down to individual regions and countries.

Yet it is undeniable that they have acted as an incentive and a catalyst for action, that they have enabled policy conversations to be more concentrated and more purposeful, and they have promoted accountability by setting benchmarks for achievement and highlighting areas where progress has fallen short.

In a world wracked by conflict and war, humanitarian catastrophes like Syria and South Sudan, and ongoing economic and financial instability, it is easy to lose sight of the progress that has been made.

Fifteen years on, the impact of that global commitment can't be over-estimated. Extreme poverty (living on less than $US1.25 a day) has been cut by more than half since 1990, to 836 million, as has the mortality rate of children under five. In 1990, 12.7 million children died from preventable causes -- it's six million today.

Enrolment in primary education across developing regions has reached 91 percent and is heading towards equality between boys and girls. Maternal mortality rates have fallen by 45 percent, new HIV infections have fallen by 40 percent and 37 million tuberculosis deaths have been avoided.

Statistics don't always tell the human story, but these are astounding numbers -- they tell an overwhelming success story, and should fuel our confidence and optimism that we can continue the progress in the years ahead.

A number of factors have contributed to the success, including economic growth, freer trade, debt reduction, technology and well-targeted development assistance. And each country faces a distinctive set of circumstances -- there is no single formula that will drive improvement in each case. A land-locked African country with unstable neighbours, or a small Pacific island state, is obviously entirely different from rising global economic powers like China or Brazil.

This diversity of challenges means aid remains critically important as it can be targeted to places and purposes that other forces are unable to reach. Globally, official aid grew by about 66 percent during the period of the MDGs, though it has stagnated in the last few years.

Just five countries -- Norway, Sweden, Luxembourg, Denmark and the United Kingdom -- have actually met the globally agreed target of 0.7 percent of gross national income. Traditional leaders like Australia, Canada and the Netherlands have actually reduced their commitment.

The global goals are a great aspiration. However, to become reality they need to be properly funded. This starts with serious commitment from all nations to their fair share of the cost. If we are going to sign up to a commitment to make life better for the world's billions of people, we need to make sure those of us who have the means will foot the bill.

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