A blueprint for ending world poverty can indeed change the world

What did you see when you first saw poverty?

I saw isolation.

It was the summer of 1975, and I was in between jobs, exploring Mexico with my girlfriend. One morning, we left the Mayan ruins in Palenque for the old colonial town of San Cristobal de las Casas, on the other side of Chiapas. The distance, I see from Google maps, is 140 miles, but the going is tough down there, and the bus today takes five and a half hours.

Forty years ago, it took us two days. We chugged along barely paved roads, fording rivers, plunging through deep forests. In the afternoon we pulled into a small town where we were to stay the night. It was a Sunday, and a few women were coming out of Mass; in the sunlit quiet, chickens pecked at the bare earth. And I thought: I have never before been in a place whose life is so far removed from mine.

Which, of course, was not really the case. The town wasn’t truly isolated. After all, I’d gotten there from Palenque, and before that from Mexico City, Los Angeles and Chicago. But in a deeper sense, the fact I’d made the journey just reinforced my first instinct. I could peer in to the lives of those Indians in Chiapas without too much trouble–and then retreat to the comforts I’d grown up with. But for them to live my life, with all its ease and convenience, would require something like a miracle, a struggle to reach across a vast chasm dividing our two realities. We lived in different worlds.

I had much the same sense on one of my first trips to Africa, when I realized that many of the women I saw walking along a dirt road in Malawi were simply collecting water – and that the trip to and from a well could take hours. (It’s been said that the average distance an African woman has to walk to water is 3.7 miles, and they may then carry some 40 pounds of it on their heads.) Again, it was the sheer distance between the two worlds–mine in a car, the women on foot–that stayed with me. That, and a sense that many people notice when they first encounter extreme poverty: poor people look tired.

Poor people are also (and this is the second thing you notice) inspiringly resilient. They have to be, because without it they would not be able to face the sort of challenges that would surely defeat most of us. So one of the keys to ending extreme poverty is to tap into that resilience and transform it into something that doesn’t just enable people to survive–to get through the day–but to thrive–to build a better life for themselves and their families.

The key to unlocking poor peoples’ resilience is hope: that ineffable sense, left in Pandora’s box, that even when all the evils of the world are afoot, there are better days ahead. And that–if I am allowed to move from Greek mythology to the East River–is where the Sustainable Development Goals, to be adopted by the UN on Sep. 25–come in.

The global goals–17 of them, with more than 160 associated targets–should be seen as a plan for hope. They are a blueprint for a 15 year project to eliminate extreme poverty, tackle gender inequity, provide clean water for all, tackle hunger and malnutrition–and much more.

Because they are hugely ambitious, but also because they are written in the deadly prose of UN committee rooms, it is easy to dismiss them as meaningless mush. (I’m British-born and was a journalist for some 30 years. Trust me, I can do cynical.) The idea that mere words–an international agreement, for God’s sake!–can change on-the-ground realities and rescue people from the isolation of poverty seems crazy.

And indeed, words alone won’t. It’s what people do with them that matters; it is how those words, set down by governments in all their pomp, are used to hold those same governments to account.

Can that be done? It can, and it has. The best example of the combined power of words and people using them is the story of the Helsinki Accords of 1975.

Thirty years after the end of World War II, the Accords finally set out the principles under which Europe was to be governed. The Accords confirmed post-1945 borders, so at the time were–understandably–dismissed by cynics as bestowing legitimacy on Soviet domination of east and central Europe.

In fact, they embedded the seeds of Soviet collapse 14 years later. Because the Accords included words–just “words”–on human rights, they empowered civil society groups across the Soviet bloc to quote them back at their rulers. From the Helsinki committees and their supporters in the west–in the U.S. “Helsinki Watch” would eventually morph into Human Rights Watch–came the scrutiny, measurement and documentation of governmental behavior that would fuel and empower dissidents from the late 1970s into the 1980s.

The same can happen–is already happening–with the Sustainable Development Goals. We will be celebrating those global goals this month at the UN and with a great concert in Central Park. But in a profound sense, what we do in New York is a second order matter. The really important thing is what civil society groups far from New York–in Yaounde and Yangon, in Timbuktu and Tegucigalpa–do to use the language of the goals to hold their own governments to account.

The great news–cynics will have to trust me on this–is that the process of putting together the 17 global goals has led to an outpouring of activism all over the world. Connected as never before, able to use technological marvels like mobile phones to watch what governments are up to and spread the word about it, millions of citizens are already preparing to use the goals to keep their leaders’ feet to the fire. They recognize that the goals describe a better tomorrow: they embody a global sense of hope.

It is those citizens that we will be celebrating on Sep. 25, and it is their work that will end the spirit-numbing isolation of extreme poverty.

We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com.

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