09/20/2013 03:41 pm ET Updated Nov 20, 2013

Inequality Undermining Progress on Poverty Goals

The world's governments meet at a special session of the UN this week to take stock of progress toward the Millennium Development Goals, and plan for a new global development agenda beyond 2015. My message to them is that only by confronting inequality head-on will poverty be overcome.

The MDGs have been an important force for development progress over the last 13 years. They have rallied governments, donors, and civil society behind a common purpose and ambition, and inspired many successes.

The first goal, to halve extreme poverty, has been met. The fact of so many people lifted out of extreme poverty in such a short time is an achievement to celebrate. It is far from the only achievement. In Sub-Saharan Africa, 41 percent fewer mothers die in childbirth now than they did two decades ago. Deaths of children under five have been much reduced in Rwanda, Liberia, Madagascar, Malawi, Niger and Ethiopia. Efforts to combat diseases are paying off. Globally, there has been a 25 percent decrease of malaria deaths; in Africa, this figure is 33 percent. This success has been the result of rapid progress in many countries where there has been stability and equitable growth.

Yet globally more than a billion people still live on less than $1.25 a day. Progress has been slow or non-existent where there has been protracted conflict, or where growth has been highly inequitable.

Global poverty is declining but in country after country, inequality is on the increase. Billions of people are being left behind by economic growth. There is an emerging consensus that high levels of inequality are not just morally objectionable, but they are damaging for social stability and to growth itself.

These challenges must be met head-on. Without targeted efforts to reduce gaps between rich and poor, the next set of global development goals is almost certain to be unachievable.

A focus on reducing inequality was a major omission in the original MDGs. Without it, the next set of global development goals is almost certain to fail. Global growth and development that is strong, sustainable, and inclusive requires the challenges of inequality to be met head-on. For that reason, a stand-alone goal to tackle inequality must be included in a future framework for global development.

In the meantime, UN member states need to get back to work on the MDGs. Far too many governments are cutting back on their investment in human development. Many are now focusing on post-2015 plans instead of accelerating action to attain the existing goals. It is not acceptable that aid to the poorest countries is falling -- last year global ODA dropped by $5.36 billion.

The international community needs to take bold steps to ensure sufficient resources are invested to make the MDGs a success. As a start, rich countries must stick to their commitments on aid for development. They should also raise additional revenue by tackling the corporate tax evasion that is bleeding billions out of poor countries each year, and by introducing innovative financing mechanisms like a financial transactions tax.

Ending extreme poverty is possible. Now is the time to craft a new, fair deal for poor people across the world.