As a difficult year winds down, I see reason for optimism. This past September, 193 member states of the United Nations, including the United States, adopted The Sustainable Development Agenda or Agenda 2030, a road map for ending poverty in our lifetime.
The Agenda is a fifteen-year plan designed to address chronic unmet needs through 17 targeted goals. For children, the plan's focus is on hunger and malnutrition, infant mortality, HIV and childhood diseases, child labor, trafficking and human slavery, access to education and gender equality. Pope Francis has called it "a sign of hope." I consider it a lifeline for humankind and future generations.
Agenda 30 comes at a critical moment. The vast disparities created by growing financial inequality have contributed to an expanding wave of terrorism, violence and political instability. The UN reports that there are 60 million refugees today - 30 million are women and children - all seeking basic security and a chance to live a better life.
Today, we see images of refugee children's bodies washed ashore as their families flee sectarian violence in places like Syria, Yemen, Ethiopia, Central Africa and the Ukraine. We've witnessed global terrorist attacks in Paris, Beirut, Madrid, London, Nairobi and San Bernardino. Fear and anger is on the rise and our politics reflect a deepening confusion over what course of action to take.
Just last week, a stage filled with Presidential hopefuls spoke entirely of bombing the bad guys back to the Stone Age and placing us on a war footing with half the world. But after a dozen years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, the limitations of using only force are self-evident. We need more options; our war should be against the underlying poverty and desperation that fuels global terrorism.
Agenda 30 offers a new paradigm for dealing with poverty and growing inequality. Our global financial system, rigged for the wealthy and those fortunate enough to be born in safe havens, needs to do more for others, and quickly. For those living in poverty today, and for those whose children are growing up in refugee camps, our indifference is inescapable. Archbishop Tutu, in our newest documentary, The Same Heart, says:
"If most of the world was prosperous, if most of the world were free of disease, if most of the world women were treated as human beings and if all children could go to school, we wouldn't be spending all this time and money on security... but people are in a pit of despair, of poverty and deprivation and they look and they see others who run the show and who have more than they need. It's very difficult not to feel humiliated when you are not speaking on equal terms. Those who are powerful determine the rules, the way the game is played. You don't have to be rocket scientist to say that that is unjust."
Think of the Sustainable Development Goals as a toolkit for change, waging a war for hearts and minds by addressing the chronic unmet needs of people. By helping children and families prosper, we'll help communities help themselves. By sharing prosperity, we'll implement the most effective immigration policy available to us, creating hope and according to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, "leaving no one behind."
Today, 400 million children live in extreme poverty, 168 million children labor for scraps of food, sacrificing their educations and becoming the next generation of poor, uneducated citizens...a vicious cycle of ever- recurring poverty. In the United States, one child in five is food insecure, 2 million are homeless and 14 million live below the poverty line. This year, worldwide, over six million children will die of preventable causes, hunger and diseases we have cures for.
So how do we move from the world we have to the world we want for children?
The Sustainable Development Agenda is the place to start. But implementing these changes in a planned and orderly way will require money, and that means changing our current aid system, an elaborate patchwork that depends on passing the hat.
The United Nations just released a Global Humanitarian Appeal for 2016 of over 20.1 billion dollars and it did so as the 2015 appeal had the largest funding gap in history. Only 49% of the funds needed in 2015 materialized, a 9 billion dollar shortfall. Obviously, we need new and reliable sources of revenue for these purposes.
There are multiple ways to fund humanitarian and development work. The most reasonable is the imposition of a broad-based financial transaction tax that would raise hundreds of billions of dollars a year. While the tax is tiny in scale (.01%), due to the size of the global economy, it would produce more than enough funds for the basic protections and care we owe all children, each year.
In 2016, The European Union is planning on implementing a financial transaction tax. The United States and Great Britain, the two largest financial markets, have balked at following suit so far, but these countries need to come on board and join this effort. The costs of such a tax will be spread over the entire global economy and the benefits will be visible everywhere.
Last summer, at a showing of The Same Heart, our film on children and inequality, I was approached by an elderly man who introduced himself as a banker and the former head of a stock exchange on the East Coast. He said, "Young man, keep promoting this idea, it's a good idea. No CEO will ever be able to look at their stock-holders and say, 'Well we would have made a profit last year, except for the one tenth of one per cent we had to spend on all those kids".
The 2016 UN Humanitarian appeal of 20.1 billion dollars, if fully funded, will help 87.6 million people in 37 countries. Imagine what we could do with an estimated 350 billion dollars a year, every year... Now that's a transformative vision worth our time and a tenth of a percent!
For a more comprehensive explanation on how a financial transactions tax would work, see these helpful FAQs at thesameheart.com.
Len Morris won the Iqbal Masih Award in 2012 from the United States Department of Labor for his work to end the worst forms of child labor. He is an independent documentary filmmaker and advocate for children.