Last week I gave a keynote address to United for 2030 country ambassadors. In it I spoke about the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and my optimism about our collective ability to achieve them. Read my speech here.
In 2013 I travelled to the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). On my way I met a woman who worked in Virunga national park as a conservationist. Her primary role was to protect the gorilla population in the forest. She admitted, however, that her job had increasingly become focused on human development rather than simply conservation. That was because human activity had become the greatest danger to the natural environment in the park.
The eastern DRC suffers extreme levels of poverty, despite the abundance of natural mineral wealth in the region. The way that communities in the forest were living and working, for example in producing charcoal, were destroying the forest habitat.
Conflict and armed militia activity in the forest also threatened the natural environment. Direct destruction was being wreaked by armed confrontations and the use of the forest for shelter. At the same time, trade in bush meat and other commodities found in the forest was being used to fund the militias’ activities. When the conservationist talked of her stakeholders, they included these armed groups. She would have been one of the few Europeans to actively engage with the militia groups.
Her work demonstrated the close and growing connection between social and economic development, environmental protection and peace.
This connection is reflected in the UN’s 2030 Agenda the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
It’s hard to imagine now just how radical the SDGs were as an expression of ambition and international cooperation. Only three years ago.
Building from MDGs, they are a transformative agenda encompassing human development, issues like poverty, inequality, health, education and women’s rights. Ambition on the economy, seeking more sustainable consumption and production, and decent work. Protecting the environment, both on land and sea, plus an ambition to tackle climate change. And Peace. All wrapped up in a goal on building global partnerships, which stipulates a role for academic institutions, private sector, civil society and others.
These were agreed with great fanfare by all countries in the world. People flocked to New York to be part of momentous event – heralding in a new era of global cooperation. I hosted an event for UNICEF at which our speakers included the President of Chile, First Lady of Colombia, Health Minister of Rwanda, Jeffrey Sachs, a brain development specialist from Harvard and representatives from H&M – a diverse group all interested in the potential of the Global Goals.
Apart from expanding on the MDGs, the SDGs have two distinctive features that we shouldn’t forget.
The first is to leave no one behind. This is a major step up from the MDGs which set proportional targets, meaning that it was all too easy to leave the hardest to reach, the people who needed it most, behind, while still meeting the target.
The second is ‘universality.’ Now this was truly radical. It was a recognition that in the eyes of the SDGs all countries have a responsibility to act and no one had reached them. It was a break down of the old division of developing and developed.
My particular area of interest in the past couple of years has been the UK…and unfortunately it has taken the UK government a little bit of time to get their head around the responsibility they have for delivering on the goals.
The government’s attitude is summed up neatly when former Cabinet Office minister Oliver Letwin MP’s told the environmental audit committee: “We don’t have very much difficulty in meeting the goals…our compliance with these goals is the easy bit. The difficult bit is to get the rest of the world to be in a position to comply.”
But the reality begs to differ. The UK recently had a visit from the UN’s special rapporteur for extreme poverty, whose report laid bare the shocking reality of poverty in the UK today. Cuts to legal aid, rising inequality, use of food bank, these are all relevant. And as a development economy also our commitments on renewable energy, sustainable consumption and production and climate change have far reaching repercussions.
Despite the challenges, I’m an optimist
But lets look at where we are today…
The ambition and levels of cooperation needed to agree the SDGs might seem remarkable now given that we can’t even get G20 leaders to all agree on the wording on a communiqué.
And the world it seems is facing a set of growing and intractable problems: Increasing global instability. Continuing flows of refugees, 68.5 million people displaced, and a growing problem of protracted crises.
We are witnessing a rise of chauvinistic ultra-nationalism around the world. The drivers behind Trump, Brexit, and the expected rise in far-right parties in May’s EU election are deep seated divisions. Around the world strong man politicians – Putin, Duterte, Erdogan – are resurgent. Freedoms and democracy appear to be backsliding. Trust in our global governance institutions and our politicians is eroding.
We are on the verge of economic downturn. Rising inequality, between and within countries has been rising. Since 2000, 50% of global wealth has accrued to only the top 1% of the population.
We are also warns of the impacts of catastrophic climate change following the IPCC’s latest report.
The global imperative for action is clear and greater than ever.
But despite all this I’m an optimist. And it has in part to do with the SDGs and that original ambition they contain.
- Firstly, we are on an upward trajectory – progress is rarely linear but goes in fits and starts. But since 2010 1 billion people lifted out of poverty. I have also witnessed some great examples of political leadership – countries like Colombia, Finland, Germany, Sweden making real strides to integrate the SDGs into their national development.
- Secondly, yes the SDGs are complex, they may be little known – but I believe international frameworks make a difference. We made tremendous progress under the MDGs. The Convention on the Rights of Children (CRC) has been a crucial advocacy tool. The UN Declaration of Human Rights (UNDHR) shifted the way governments and civil society talk about human rights and citizen rights. We can also learn lessons from the success of campaigns, like those of climate change activists, that have been successful in demystifying issues, localising issues and making them relevant, and presenting a subject as an opportunity not an obligation. International frameworks provide common language, entry-points and frame of reference
- Thirdly, the spread of communication technologies provide us with unprecedented opportunities. When the MDGs were adopted the reach we had was not possible. Communication technologies and social media support the diffusion of information, opportunities to connect and work on highly interdependent. Recently I spoke to someone from Vietnam who was inspired by a YouTube video he saw of an inventor from Spain. They now run a business together which was set up in Geneva. This is was not possible before. This hackathon weekend is another testament to this new found ability to collaborate!
- And finally, young people. A lot is often made of how young people are our future, but in reality they are our current leaders, consumers and community members. The effects of the SDGs felt most sharply by us and the next generation. And multiple studies have shown how we look at the world with a slightly different lens than the generation before us. We have different values, a different approach to work, which we expect to be meaningful. We care about issues like inequality and climate change. We are more global in outlook. In the UK, the vast majority of young people vote to Remain in the EU – we see the benefits of this global connectivity. Young people are also much more interested in ethical consumption choices. The SDGs are more naturally a common set of norms and values that can be shared across national boundaries from New Delhi, Nairobi to New York. The key to delivering the goals is through our choices and our actions – and we are not going to accept continued levels of inequality, pollution, and lack of freedoms that impinge on their lives.
In 2017 I called for a global movement of young people to mobilise around the SDGs – since then I am heartened to see initiatives like this one connecting young people from around the world to take action on the SDGs.
We are at a time of incredible potential.
We may not reach the goals – but they have set us an aspiration and a direction
The 2030 Agenda is a wide ranging development plan – a framework around which to organise, adapt business strategies, engage local governments, adapt budgets, support local communities and essentially to democratise change…they are everyone’s responsibility.
This is a compelling call to action.
By showing your willingness to work on challenges that affect your home country and globally – you have risen to the challenge of converting that potential to action.