What Could a Universal Set of Development Goals Mean for the UK?

04/10/2013 15:58 BST | Updated 03/12/2013 10:12 GMT

"A single framework and set of goals - universal in nature and applicable to all countries"

These words were agreed by governments at the UN General Assembly last week. They might not leap off the page at you - but let yourself digest them and their radical potential should become apparent.

They were agreed during talks about a new set of goals to replace the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) when they expire at the end of 2015. The word 'universal' is especially important, because it means we're talking about new goals for tackling poverty and protecting the environment in every country around the world, including the UK.

Isn't that something which should both excite and unite campaigners across the spectrum: from those working on UK poverty, inequality and environmental protection to those tackling the same issues in other countries, including at an international level?

I strongly believe that it should. With two years of international negotiations left to go, I believe that civil society should now embrace the idea of one development agenda for all countries - and work together to help governments define detailed goals and targets to help tackle poverty wherever it's found and which will put us on a more sustainable course.

The creation of the new goals is a chance to improve greatly on the MDGs. It is widely accepted that the existing goals focus mainly on what developing countries themselves can do to hasten the pace of poverty reduction, helped by aid and some debt relief from richer nations. Some of the MDGs will be achieved. But major problems remain in many Least-Developed Countries (LDCs), especially those ravaged by conflict.

Furthermore, growing inequality in many Middle-Income Countries (MICs) such as India and South Africa, and even wealthy nations like the US, means that many millions of people have been left behind. Their countries' economies are growing, but they remain as poor as ever.

Moreover, if we take the UN Secretary-General's latest report on the new goals seriously, and if we genuinely care about 'a life of dignity for all', then we cannot ignore poverty at home. In the UK, where recent estimates suggest that 7 million working-age adults are in extreme financial stress, and where according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, 13.8% of the population in 2010-11 were living below the absolute poverty line, 'post-2015' is an extremely relevant agenda.

For Christian Aid, which defines poverty as a lack of power, post-2015 goals which apply to all countries would also require the UK to set out its plan for tackling social exclusion and realising rights across a range of areas including food, education, shelter and gender equality.

Interestingly, as part of the global 'post-2015' consultations over the last few months, Ireland ran a national consultation to explore these very issues and came up with domestic priorities. This could be an example for other richer countries to follow.

The idea of 'universal' post-2015 goals has long been a 'must-have' of the global Beyond 2015 campaign, which believes the new goals must not only deal with the changing location and nature of poverty, but also the need for global cooperation on some of the areas that were so inadequately dealt with by MDGs 7 and 8. Goal 7 covers environmental issues including climate change, while goal 8 includes aid, debt, trade, intellectual property and the global financial system.

We urgently need more effective action to protect our environment - and on this, the new goals need a lot more work. We know that current consumption patterns are unsustainable. For instance by 2020, it is estimated that 75-250 million people in Africa will not have enough water. Climate change, which is already harming people living in poverty around the world, could push up to 3 billion people into poverty.

But for all the United Nations' talk of 'sustainable consumption and production' targets, which could be part of the new set of global goals, there are currently very few concrete ideas on the table. Proposals for 'Millennium Consumption Goals' that would require countries like the UK to be less reliant on fossil fuels, to reduce waste and decrease the environmental cost of food production, need careful definition - not just a passing reference.

On the finance side of things, we are now all too aware of how tax dodging is harming British public services. For developing countries, the consequences are even more severe - Christian Aid estimates that every year, they lose $160bn to tax-dodging by multinational companies alone. This is far more than they get in aid from rich countries.

The post-2015 goals will be severely incomplete unless they include targets requiring developed countries to act on this haemorrhaging of vital funds. The whole world needs companies to make their finances more transparent, which would help to make them pay their fair share of tax in the countries where they operate. We also need governments to tackle tax haven secrecy and to clamp down on the companies and individuals who help criminals with illicit financial flows, such as laundered money and bribes.

The world's new development goals have massive potential for good, especially given the recent agreement that they should be universal. However there is still considerable work to do over the next two years to define what this means and realise its radical potential. Campaigners should take note and embrace this opportunity.