Pope Francis enters the General Assembly of the United Nations on Sept. 25, 2015 in New York City.
Photo by Bryan Thomas/Getty

Ending AIDS, changing the world — and how you can help

Every year in September, world leaders congregate at the United Nations to debate issues of local, national, and global importance. This year, those leaders have agreed on a set of global goals to address in an ambitious and universal way the major challenges facing us all. For people living with, affected by, or at risk of HIV, the goals contain a critical pledge to end the AIDS epidemic by 2030.

Beyond this, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) represent the promise of a world where gender inequality no longer exists and all forms of violence against women and girls have been eliminated; where all people, including the poorest and most vulnerable, have access to health, education, and employment; and young people have the knowledge and skills to live healthy and productive lives. While all this might sound grandiose, it matters. 

Adopting the SDGs marks the end of a long journey and is to be celebrated, but it is only the beginning. Now the real work must start, and it will take the determination, commitment, and creativity of us all to succeed. 

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The fight against AIDS has shown what can be achieved with commitment, investment, and when the people most affected drive the response. In 2000, when fewer than 700,000 people had access to life-saving AIDS drugs, the world set goals to halt and reverse the spread of HIV. We upped our ambition in 2011, committing to providing treatment to 15 million people by 2015 and — though many said it could not be done — achieved this goal ahead of time.

The SDGs have already earned strong and widespread political commitment. But alone, they are not enough. While the UN is uniquely positioned to bring together governments, civil society, and the private sector to discuss challenges of the day and seek solutions, if kept within the confines of our walls, this agenda will never succeed. Like the response to AIDS, the SDGs can only be achieved if there is a powerful social movement to force action and to hold governments accountable. 

Pope Francis has brought many of these global issues into the public eye but, when such topics are featured in the world’s media, their coverage is often fleeting. Having captured the world’s attention and imagination, we must sustain it in a way that holds all of us accountable for the promise of a better world. 

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Are you frustrated by income inequality that continues to widen? Do you despair at the anguish on the faces of refugees fleeing conflict? Or are you dismayed by gender inequality in the workplace and across the world? Then this agenda is for you.  

Some will say this is hollow political rhetoric and that it is simply unrealistic. Yes, there is a risk that lofty and ambitious goals go unmet, but ultimately this is in your hands, in the hands of all of us. Without ambition, the AIDS response would not have made the progress it has. Success or failure will be decided by the engagement of citizens all over the world. We have the resources, the technical capacity and ingenuity to end poverty, hunger, gender inequality, and to achieve sustainable development and human rights for all. We must insist that a better world is achievable, and we must choose to make it happen. 

In a globalized world, it is in our self-interest to act. We have seen with Ebola — and more recently with the migration crisis in Europe — how problems in far parts of the world can so quickly become our own. Doing our part to build a healthier, more equal, more humane, more educated, sustainable, and peaceful world is in our self-interest.

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So I invite you to be part of changing the status quo. Yes, it’s easy to be cynical, and to say this is all a pipe dream. Close your eyes for a moment. Imagine life 15 years from now. Are we celebrating, or are we kicking ourselves because, despite the best intentions, the world wasn’t able to deliver? Because, despite all the talk, when it came to action, we prioritized our national and self-interests ahead of the interests of all and of the chance to make this a better world? 

Together we can ensure that, come 2030, we are celebrating. As the global community sets out on this momentous journey to implement the SDGs, let us remember the burning passion that has fuelled the AIDS movement. In a world that is more connected than ever before, the possibilities for social movements are endless. Alone, we cannot deliver the kind of change so many of us, the world over, are yearning for — together we can change the course of history.

Simon Bland, CBE, is the director of the UNAIDS New York Office. He is the former chairman of the board of directors of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB, and Malaria. In 2013, Bland was made a commander of the British Empire in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list for his service to global health.

Get informed & involved:

  • The Global Goals are explained here and there are resources for how you can get involved.
  • The 2030 United Nations Agenda can be found here.
  • Read statements given by the U.S. representative in the discussions to adopt the Sustainable Development Goals here.
  • See a podcast with the U.S. chief negotiator on what America will do differently after it signs on to the SDGs here.

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Ending AIDS, changing the world — and how you can help