Time to Step Up Action on the Sustainable Development Goals to meet the 2030 Targets


Keynote speech at the Raffles Dialogue on Human Security and Well-being

Singapore, 27 November 2018


My thanks go to the organisers of the Raffles Dialogue for inviting me to be part of this year’s event with its overarching theme of working towards resilient and empowered societies.

In that respect I’ve been asked to reflect on the global efforts to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals(SDGs), drawing on my experience as a former New Zealand Prime Minister and former Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). The SDGs, if realised, would contribute to building resilient, empowered, inclusive, and sustainable societies.

But how likely is that to happen?The short answer is that it isn’t on current settings and trends. The longer answer is that it could with a radical transformation in policies and actions at the national, sub-national, and global levels. Let me canvass briefly where we are and what needs to change.

The story of the SDGs is, like the parson’s egg, good in parts.

The direction set by the Goals is the right one – for people and planet.

It was a heavily consulted agenda with more outreach beyond governments to civil society than for the development of any previous United Nations’ agenda,and with Member States heavily engaged in the detailed negotiations in New York.

Thus, the agenda had more ownership from the outset by Member States and civil society than the Millennium Development Goals had – they in effect fell out of the Millennium Declaration and took time to gain traction.

But from there, the going gets hard.

The Goals were negotiated in a window of time in 2015 when it was possible to get consensus on a universal sustainable development agenda, the Paris Agreement on climate change, the Sendai Framework on Disaster Risk Reduction, and the Addis Ababa Action Agenda on Financing for Development. Yet so much has changed geopolitically in the past three years that it would be impossible to strike such agreements now. That also means that the political climate for advancing any of these agendas is not what it was or could have been.

The SDGs were bold and ambitious, and sought to be transformational. That’s no bad thing. But the agenda is very broad and complex, with rather too many goals, targets, and indicators. That makes it a hard sell.

As well, the data for measuring progress are in many cases non-existent or inadequate and also dated. One looks at the most recent UN progress reports to find that the latest information reported is often five or more years old.

There is an SDG Index and Dashboard report published annually by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network and the Bertelsmann Stiftung foundation. Its main message in this year’s report was that no country is on track to achieve all SDGs by 2030. That’s sobering.

So, what explains this? The conventional wisdom is to point to ongoing significant levels of inequality, poverty, hunger, environmental degradation, and conflict as barriers – and they are. But surely so is the widespread lack of political will and support in countries rich and poor to take the steps required to address them?

There is, for example, a large disconnect between the reality of looming challenges to sustained human development and acceptance of the need to address them. Some of these challenges have been like slow motion train wrecks, but the trains are now speeding up. To take just two examples:

Yesterday here in Singapore there was a ministerial conference on diabetes. It drew attention to the huge impact on lives and budgets of the increasing prevalence of diabetes, with a prediction that it could cost 2.2 per cent of global GDP by 2030. Addressing the social and commercial determinants of this and of our obesogenic environments overall is urgent across countries rich and poor. But powerful industries continue to be obstructive, and many developing countries lack the regulatory tools and capacity to take them on. Non-communicable diseases can be beaten back, but it will take tremendous political will and capacity to do so. Here is where more international solidarity, sharing lessons learned, and building capacity are badly needed.

Climate change has often been perceived as something which will happen one day if nothing is done to mitigate it. But already many communities are feeling the impacts and the poorest and most vulnerable have the least means to adapt. The world collectively is nowhere near meeting the ambition of the Paris Agreement to limit global temperature rise to under two degrees Celsius, and preferably no more than 1.5 degrees. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) tells us that it is geophysically, economically, and technologically possible to meet the Paris targets: the problem is that it is politically difficult – look no further than the violent reaction to President Macron’s proposed diesel tax rises.

A core principle of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development of which the SDGs are part is to leave no one behind. Yet many are being left behind, to the extent that there is on current trends little hope of eradicating either extreme poverty or hunger by 2030 as the SDGs aspired to do.

The reduction of extreme poverty is slowing down – on the current trends, those living on under USD1.90 a day will still number some six per cent of the world population in 2030 – some 400-475 million people.

World hunger has been rising for the past three years, and now stands at 821 million people, or one in nine of all people of earth.

The greatest concentration of challenges lies with those living in the world’s fragile contexts. According to the OECD definition, they now number almost a quarter of the world’s population – 1.8 billion people, and that number is projected to rise to 2.3 billion people by 2030, with spill over impacts far beyond the states concerned. One need only consider the desperate and dangerous attempted crossings of the Mediterranean each day to comprehend that – or the outflows of people from war torn Syria and Afghanistan to Europe in 2015, or the march of Central Americans towards the United States’ border.

So – how to turn this somewhat dismal outlook around?

There is an opportunity for a wake-up call to be issued from the Heads of State and Government-level meeting of the High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development to be held next September in New York.

The official report produced for that should not varnish the truth. It needs to spell out the deficit in progress to date, and aim to motivate and mobilise much more action and solidarity across the SDG agenda. We surely cannot just drift on knowing that in twelve years’time – unless we change course – hundreds of millions of people will still be deeply impoverished, hungry, without access to basic services, and exposed to a world heading for a three degree plus temperature rise. This is unconscionable.

There could be considerable merit now in focusing sustainable development action much more on the greatest needs– on addressing poverty, hunger, and inequality, the lack of access to basic health care, the out of school children and the low level of achievement of many who are in class, on basic and decent housing and work, and on the existential threat of climate change which threatens to roll back the clock on the human development progress we have made. Such focus will be essential to the quest to leave no one behind.

This is the thrust of the message of the very important report issued by the Overseas Development Institute of the United Kingdom and the International Rescue Committee in September, titled “Fragility, crisis and leaving no one behind”.They advocate for next September’s High-Level Meeting of the HLPF to call for prioritisation of policies, actions, and financing for the left behind groups, and for filling data gaps – too often those who are in caught up in crises, including refugees and the internally displaced, or those who are otherwise marginalised are excluded from data collection.

ODI and IRC are blunt in saying that “Failure to take action now means that the Sustainable Development Goals will not be met, undermining the credibility of the international community and leaving millions to die unnecessarily”.

In the major effort required to move the SDGs forward, everyone has a role to play.

Development co-operation from North and South will continue to be important, particularly for the poorest countries. Indeed, it will be essential in moving those last 400 to 475 million people out of extreme poverty as projected global growth alone will not do that. Support needs to be channeled directly into health, education, and social protection in an estimated 48 countries characterised as low income,developing, and fragile.

On climate change adaptation, the most vulnerable countries need urgent support. The Green Climate Fund is grossly under-capitalised – yet it and the Global Environment Facility are trusted partners for developing countries and can do a power of good with adequate resourcing.

On mitigation, two major areas of action need to be prioritised:

The world must get over its addiction to coal and other fossil fuels. Global coal production and consumption increased last year after two years of decline, and new coal-fired energy plants continue to be built and financed by development partners. This flies in the face of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warnings that we have just twelve years to act to avoid climate catastrophe and that coal should be phased out entirely by 2050. That transition needs to start now.

Stopping tropical deforestation – which currently contributes fifteen per cent of all global greenhouse gas emissions. That is equivalent to the emissions of all cars, trucks and trains. Worrying reporting in the New York Times this week shows the extent to which the switch to bio fuels in the USA has driven forest clearance for palm oil production in Indonesia. And the Amazon has just had its worst year for forest loss in a decade. Co-operation across governments, the private sector, communities, and consumers will be needed to turn this around.

The private sector has a very important role to play. The gap in financing for the SDGs in key sectors in developing countries has been estimated to be as much as USD2.5 trillion per annum. That gap cannot conceivably be filled by international public finance – Official Development Assistance (ODA) from OECD countries in 2017 was only USD146.6 billion, and eighteen out of 29 member countries of the OECD’s Development Assistance Committee actually reduced their ODA last year.

So, how business does business, whether its way of operating is inclusive and sustainable, and whether it is prepared to invest in countries short on infrastructure and formal employment opportunities will have a huge impact. If, for example, all companies committed to zero deforestation in their supply chains for commodities like palm oil, that would make a huge difference to climate change mitigation and to endangered species and habitat protection.

In concluding: let me say that there are positive developments to build on. For example,

Momentum is growing for universal health coverage as a basic right for all. It must, however, incorporate strong action on the social and commercial determinants of health, or we will never conquer today’s huge health challenges in the non-communicable diseases.

The rise of women as a positive force for humankind. Our world badly needs more women at the decision-making table –in elected positions, public administration, and the multilateral organisations. I am supporting the Global Health 50/50 initiative which advocates for gender parity in the global health organisations – so often a photo of the leaders of those organisations is lucky to have one woman in it…. It goes without saying that if women are left behind, the SDGs can’t be achieved either.

The power of the world’s largest ever youth population to be a force for good – if countries invest in youth potential.

The potential for an energy transformation which relegates fossil fuels to the proverbial dustbin of history. If countries commit to that quickly, we would be well on the way to reaching the Paris Agreement targets.

But I continue to be very concerned by the state of fragility affecting such a significant proportion of the world’s peoples. This is cause for reflection by all responsible – for example, those who are parties to conflicts and those who arm them. Think of the horrific images of starving children in Yemen which we see almost daily on our media screen – children being left behind to the point of death in one of the world’s poorest countries.

We won’t have achieved the SDGs if they are achieved only in zones of peace and prosperity. A failure to extend inclusive and sustainable development to all will continue to have spillover impacts on the peace, well-being and security of all of us. For all these reasons, it’s time to act.

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