Last month, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation released a status report, tracking progress on the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
The data, highlighting efforts to eradicate extreme poverty and reduce premature deaths, was also intended to cajole.
Countries can, and must, do more to address global development challenges, the report concluded.
No country was singled out in the Gates report for its potential to restore the “world’s commitment to development”. Rather, “leaders everywhere” bear responsibility for ensuring that the SDGs are met by 2030.
But there is one country that can do more than others to build the world envisaged by the SDGs: China.
Two years into the SDG programme, international development is at a crossroads. The United States, long the torchbearer of foreign aid, is retreating; so is Europe (albeit to a lesser extent).
But China, with its newly articulated global ambitions, can reinvigorate humanitarian assistance.
Adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2015, the SDGs outline a vision for global development that targets poverty, education, public health, inequality, sustainability, and climate action over the next 15 years.
It presents a broad vision for development, whereby issues once viewed as country-specific are treated as challenges for the entire world to tackle collectively. By contrast, the Millennium Development Goals, which ended in 2015, were narrower, and primarily targeted at issues affecting poor countries.
But the Gates’ study suggests that some of the SDG targets are in jeopardy.
For example, the health goal (SDG 3), which includes a target for eliminating preventable deaths among newborns and children, is unlikely to be achieved in the allotted timeframe. At the current pace, mortality reduction in South Asia and Africa will not be realized until mid-century.
Clearly, more investment is needed globally in the types of interventions that have proven effective locally. Ethiopia’s health extension worker programme and Malawi’s Health surveillance assistant programme have reduced child mortality. Aid dollars should be earmarked for programmes like these to expand to other regions.
Instead, the opposite is happening. The growing isolationism associated with the populist backlash around the world is having severe consequences for foreign assistance.
According to the OECD, bilateral aid to the world’s least-developed countries fell by 4% in 2016. This is an alarming drop, given that official development assistance (ODA) accounts for more than two thirds of the aid these countries receive.
The US, the world’s largest donor for nutrition programmes and for maternal and child health initiatives, is leading the funding retreat.
Donald Trump’s 2017 budget proposal includes a staggering 45% cut to the US Agency for International Development’s funding for water and sanitation projects, a 26% cut to global health funding, and the elimination of funds for family planning.
While it is not clear whether the US Congress will support Trump’s budget request, which would amount to billions of dollars in lost aid, even a minor reduction in US aid spending would hurt many of the world’s poorest.
The US is not alone in its foreign aid retrenchment. The EU’s 2018 draft budget proposes a €90m ($106m) cut to development spending, while Austria, Germany, and Italy have all diverted development assistance budgets towards migration crises viewed as imminent national security threats.
These are troubling trends, because private philanthropy cannot replace aid withdrawn by governments.
The world needs a new champion for international development, and China should assume the role. With weakening ODA commitments from traditional donors, China has a chance to lead in human development, poverty alleviation, and public health spending.
China’s aid model differs from the West’s. Europe and the US have historically focused on funding health care and education, while encouraging civil-society growth and participation.
China grants aid bilaterally, and has typically targeted its funding toward infrastructure projects. But Chinese leaders have also recently shown interest in aid to strengthen civil society and improve livelihoods.
Although Chinese ODA is still a fraction of what OECD countries spend, China has signalled its interest in becoming a development leader, especially in the health sector.
At the 2015 UN Sustainable Development Summit in New York, China pledged €2bn to help implement the SDG agenda, and China’s flagship ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ includes health cooperation as part of its proposed strategy.
In 2014, China also committed €47m to help contain the ebola outbreak in West Africa.
While that was significantly lower than the US pledge of $1.8bn, China was among the fastest to deliver on its commitment.
China’s geopolitical and economic influence is growing, and so, too, must its role in promoting international peace and development.
There will be scepticism about China’s development intentions, given China’s political and ideological differences with the West. But the scepticism could yield positive results, if it prompts Western powers to reevaluate their foreign aid retreat.
Even if it does not, China has the tools to become a leader in international development. And, having lifted some 470m of its own citizens out of extreme poverty between 1990 and 2005, it also has the experience.
But, more than anything, China now has the political opportunity. As the US and Europe turn inward, ensuring the SDGs’ success will increasingly depend on encouraging Chinese leadership.
Asit K Biswas is a visiting professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore. Kris Hartley is a lecturer in public policy at the University of Melbourne. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2017.