Societies around the globe are confronting a daily sense of fragility as economic, environmental, and social forces combine to produce surprise after surprise after surprise.  There is a common fear that, even in cases of rapid advance, the gains might prove illusory or unsustainable.

But the upside of uncertainty is that good news often comes where it’s least expected.  Many feel this way when they read the most recent World Bank estimates showing dramatic global declines in extreme poverty, measured by those living under $1.25/day.  East Asia has led the way with the fastest progress by far, but every region has seen its figures drop since 2005.  It’s conceivable that the numbers could approach zero everywhere by 2030.

These issues will be at the policy forefront next month when the UN’s “Rio+20” summit convenes to discuss global sustainability.  To be sure, Asian voices will be ever more pivotal in steering the world’s course.  At the top of the agenda stands a proposal for new “Sustainable Development Goals,” or SDGs.  These would build on the success of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which have become the central reference point for global anti-poverty efforts since they were established in 2000.  No less a light than Bill Gates has called the MDGs “the best idea for focusing the world on fighting global poverty that [he has] ever seen.”

Setting strong new goals requires an understanding of both how the world has done on the MDGs and how the MDGs have done as goals.  Some colleagues and I have recently written a paper on the latter topic, called “Getting to Zero: Finishing the Job the MDGs Started.”  We were convened through the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Benchmarking Progress, which I’ve had the privilege to chair.   Our paper outlines some key MDG successes and shortcomings and recommends a broad vision for goals to end extreme poverty in its many forms by 2030. We stress the need to ensure that efforts to improve on the MDGs don’t overlook the simplicity and quantification that has underpinned their momentum.

We also flag the need to keep pushing ambitions higher across constituencies without overstepping boundaries for global consensus.  Leaders from business, science, non-profits and government can all set goals together.  It will be a tricky balancing act.  But if a global conversation among key voices starts today, we can surely map out a shared path for sustainably “getting to zero” on extreme poverty within a generation.

Author: John McArthur is Senior Fellow with the UN Foundation and Nonresident Senior Fellow with the Brookings Institution & Chair Global Agenda Council on Benchmarking Progress, World Economic Forum

 Image: An empty plate is shown in Iwaya, one of the poorest areas of Lagos REUTERS/Friday Zannu/Handout