Nilmini Rubin, executive vice president for international development at Tetra Tech, recently attended the United Nations General Assembly, including meetings focusing on international energy and investment in the power sector. All opinions expressed in this post are the author’s own.

We have more money, more ideas, and more projects than ever before, but we need to unlock them to lift up the lives of the poorest people on Earth. That’s what I heard at the events around the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) last week. 

Officials, businesspeople, and activists were no longer arguing about what should be listed in the 17—yes 17—Sustainable Development Goals (Global Goals).* 

They were figuring out how the Global Goals should be implemented in areas from livelihoods and the environment to education and health.

The discussion around how to implement the Global Goals was built on some striking news—the number of people living in extreme poverty has been cut in half over the last 20 years. That’s progress.  

The Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund, Christine Lagarde, made a strong case for donors to focus on domestic resource mobilization (DRM), improving the ability of governments to collect their own taxes and spend them carefully on implementing good policies. DRM is at the heart of what governments should be doing. 

U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator Gayle Smith agreed and highlighted the success of Power Africa to solve problems that can’t be fixed with money. She suggested that donors move beyond working with countries one at a time and start to work with groups of adjacent countries or regional economic communities “to build the forces that move things along.”  

Administrator Smith said if she could make one edit to the Global Goals, “It would be to add investment in political capital.” We need to bolster the political capital of leaders making hard and important reforms in their countries. This could mean helping build support for leaders who take on powerful interests to free up markets and empower people.  

Echoing this idea, Donald Kaberuka, former President of the African Development Bank, stated that “development doesn’t come about because of money.  Development comes through money, policies, and ability to deliver.”       

Looking toward the policy front here in the United States, Vice President Biden’s comment that “no foreign policy can be sustained without the informed consent of the American people” highlights the need to bolster the connection of the American people to those living in developing countries. Without that informed consent, we run the risk of losing support for the very foreign assistance that has promoted U.S. economic, security, and humanitarian interests around the world. 

Meanwhile, support from the business community for implementation of the Global Goals appears to be growing. Many businesses are now aligning their operations with the Global Goals. For example, Coca-Cola is determining how they can help achieve the Global Goals, particularly the goal of providing access to clean water. Asset managers and investment advisors also are discussing financing to address climate change.   

“We need to be prisoners of hope,” said Paul Polman, CEO of Unilever.  He asserted that we are capable of unraveling knots that are tying up development in the next 15 years.


*My friend John McArthur, with the Brookings Institution, reports that his mom’s comment on the long list of Global Goals was “It sounds like they didn’t fake it. The world is complicated.” She later added, “If they had come back with some Letterman-style top 10, then I probably wouldn’t have believed them.” The world is complex, and it may take 17 goals to sum up what needs to be done globally to improve our lives and our environment.

About the Author

Nilmini Rubin

Nilmini Rubin, executive vice president for international development at Tetra Tech, works to facilitate power and infrastructure transactions, promote clean energy solutions, expand electricity connectivity, boost energy service delivery, and improve utility operations. Prior to joining Tetra Tech, Nilmini served as a senior advisor to the U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs and as a senior aide to the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, the White House's National Security Council, the U.S. Department of Treasury, and the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. She is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and a Young Global Leader with the World Economic Forum. She holds a Master of Business Administration and a bachelor's degree in economics and development studies from the University of California, Berkeley.