I’ve just turned 60. It’s the age my dad was when he retired. The run up to it was an exciting but also grueling few weeks: I promised my family that I’d take a month—and 15 pounds—off. The first promise was made to relish what a life we’ve got and the second was made to ensure that I enjoy a little more of it and don’t die too soon.
And, of course, it set me thinking about how I’ve spent the years so far—and how I hope to be useful in the years to come.
Just to introduce myself quickly: I’ve made a living by writing for television in the United Kingdom—and then writing a lot of slightly romantic and slightly comedic films that have succeeded in making Hugh Grant very rich and very unhappy. Films like Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill, Bridget Jones’ Diary, Love Actually, and, my most recent and favorite, About Time—it didn’t do very well (except in South Korea), but I think you might like it, particularly the scene on the beach at the end. To make up for giving the world all this sugary stuff, I’ve also spent half my life trying to raise money to save lives and have campaigned to end extreme poverty. It’s this bit of my life I’d like to reflect on; I’ll tell you my gossip about Dustin Hoffman and Judi Dench another day.
I didn’t even think about doing anything for what you might loosely call “charity” until I was 30; it was in reaction to a terrible famine in Ethiopia and the Sudan for which a group of pop stars, led by Bob Geldof, did the Live Aid concerts in London and Philadelphia. This set me thinking, and not long afterward I found myself on a fact-finding mission to Ethiopia. And the first fact I found was very simple: people just like me and you—like my parents, like my friends, like my brothers and sisters—were dying, unnecessarily, through no fault of their own. Fact number two was that the money that people across the world had given was actually in the business of saving those lives, so I came home to do a little more of it.
I came home and—with a lot of friends and support, especially from the BBC—started an event called Red Nose Day, which has been going on in the United Kingdom for 25 years and now in the United States, with NBC and Walgreens as partners, for 2 years. So far, we’ve raised more than $1.5 billion, which has been spent on brilliant projects across the world, including places in the United Kingdom and the United States.
By the way, this initiative included some very interesting projects to do with older people. In the United Kingdom we started to hear horrible stories of elder abuse—the mistreatment and exploitation of vulnerable older people. I remember going to see a government minister about it and asking what they were doing. He said that it was tricky, because they actually had very few facts and figures. They said the most useful thing we could pay for was finding out how prevalent it was, as they had no idea if it was 30,000 cases a year or 300,000. We paid for that bit of work—turns out, it was 300,000—and we’ve been fighting it together ever since.
So, I’m a huge believer in individual charity: I believe in our ability, as individuals, to help change the lives of strangers. But this is actually an article about politics. I remember Bob Geldof saying to me that he made more money in 20 minutes having a cup of tea with President Mitterrand of France than he did in the whole of the huge fundraising efforts of Live Aid—because the French aid budget went up by 0.01 percent as a result.
I slowly started to learn about the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), the United Nations’ (UN’s) masterplan to tackle the many aspects of extreme poverty, and realized that all the fundraising work I’d been doing was in the context of something much larger and more historic. And these were achievements that I, as a member of my generation, didn’t really realize.
To put it bluntly—as Bill Gates has told me—in some ways, this has been the most successful generation in the history of mankind. Between 1990 and 2015, the number of children dying before their fifth birthday was cut by more than half, an unprecedented achievement in saving lives. In the same period, the number of people living in extreme poverty—on less than $1.25 a day—was also more than halved. And look at malaria: In 2000, the disease was killing a million kids a year. Now that’s down to something like 290,000, and in Sub-Saharan Africa the malaria death rate has dropped by 57 percent since 2000—astonishing progress by anyone’s standards.
Because we hear so much about the terrible things that happen in the world, we sometimes don’t get far enough back from things to see the slow but extraordinary progress in the fight against unnecessary deaths and inequalities. The MDGs—although they obviously weren’t the sole driver of change—were one of the big, formal, official, very useful prompts that got things done. I think of it a bit like that old story about the tortoise and the hare. The hare is all the flashy, often terrible newsworthy stuff that gets all our attention, but meanwhile the wonderful tortoise of slow and amazing progress moves powerfully on to victory.
So now, in the evening of my life, I’ve decided to dedicate as much of my time as possible to trying to make the sequel to the MDGs famous and thereby help ensure they are financed and effective. These new Goals—which I like to call the Global Goals but are officially the splendidly and accurately entitled Sustainable Development Goals—were launched by the UN in September 2015.
Setting the new Goals involved the largest consultation process in history to get the public’s views on what they should contain. The final Goals have three extraordinary aims: to make us the first generation to end extreme poverty, the most determined generation in the fight against inequality and injustice, and the last generation to be threatened by climate change.
I, along with many of my colleagues from all walks of life, devoted a year or so to figuring out how to communicate these new Global Goals in ways that will make people see their relevance to all the things we feel passionate about. After the Goals were announced at the UN in 2015, our ambition was to get 7 billion people in seven days to at least become aware that these goals existed and mattered.
Of course we failed, but by hook and crook— through TV, radio, text message, churches, pop music, lessons in school, social media, and good old newspapers—we didn’t do badly, reaching 40 percent of the world’s population, around 3 billion people, in just a week.
But now, of course, the real work begins: to try to help people really understand these goals, care passionately about them, and hold their leaders accountable. You can’t fight for your rights unless you know what they are, and the new goals are a sort of Declaration of Planetary Rights, the one masterplan on the table to make sure the lives of our children—and their children—happen in a better world than ours. We need to make sure that everyone knows these goals apply to every single country and that when world leaders signed up to them, they promised to ensure that no one is left behind—no matter who they are or where they live.
And, of course, all this matters for older people too—not only because my generation still holds so many of the reins of power, but because people are living longer than ever before, and that brings both opportunities and challenges. Delivering on the goals will improve life for people of all ages now and for generations to come, because inequality and poverty in later life directly relate to what we went through when we are young.
With these goals we have an epic opportunity, but achieving them will take everyone. Goal 17, the last one, is about partnership, calling on everyone to get involved. Whatever you do, wherever you are, I hope that you’ll find a moment to be curious about this genuinely positive plan and see if there is a way of applying it to the business you work in, the life you lead, and the families and communities you live with.
President Kennedy didn’t say, “Let’s get halfway to the moon and then turn back.” Usain Bolt doesn’t run a fast 50 meters and then stop short. The Millennium Development Goals saved millions of lives; the new Global Goals can go even further and change the lives of everyone. Do check them out.
about the author
Richard Curtis is a screen writer and director, responsible for films such as Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill, Bridget Jones's Diary, Mr. Bean, Love Actually, The Boat That Rocked, About Time and most recently Trash and Esio Trot. In 2014 Richard founded Project Everyone. Working alongside the United Nations, Project Everyone helped to launch and promote the Global Goals for Sustainable Development, a series of ambitious targets to end extreme poverty, fight inequality and injustice and combat climate change by 2030. As part of this endeavour Richard produced the Global Citizen Festival, live from Central Park, which was broadcast in 150 territories worldwide. In January 2016 Richard was formally appointed as a UN Sustainable Development Goals Advocacte alongside 16 others including Forest Whitaker, Paul Polman and Shakira.