Global Leaders Sound Alarm on Sustainable Development Goals at UN SDG Summit

NEW YORK CITY – World leaders issued a political declaration Monday warning that the world is nowhere close to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) it set in 2015. The declaration, adopted at the first UN high-level political forum on the SDGs since 2019, comes at a time when progress on the goals has been slowed by the COVID-19 pandemic, the war in Ukraine, and other crises.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres billed the Sustainable Development Goals summit as a chance to agree on a “global rescue plan” to save the SDGs. Failure to achieve the SDG targets will leave millions of people around the world without access to education, quality healthcare, food, and routes out of poverty, Guterres told world leaders gathered at UN headquarters in New York City. 

“You made a solemn promise, a promise to build a world of health, progress and opportunity for all, a promise to leave no one behind, and the promise to pay for it,” Guterres told world leaders at the summit’s opening ceremony. “This was not a promise made to one another, as diplomats, from the comfort of these chambers. It was always a promise to people.

“Instead of leaving no one behind, we risk leaving the SDGs behind,” said Guterres. “The SDGs need a global rescue plan.”

Politics over people

Since the start of his invasion of Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin has leveraged the importance of the Black Sea corridor to global food security to obtain concessions from the international community.

The political declaration was approved by world leaders without objection on Monday morning. However, a coalition of 11 authoritarian countries, led by North Korea, Russia, Iran, Venezuela, Syria and Belarus, also published a 17 September letter to UN General Assembly President Dennis Francis in which they stated that they did not consider today’s decision binding. 

The countries said that their objections to language in the declaration had been ignored and they “reserve the right to take appropriate action upon the formal consideration” of the documents in the UN General Assembly later in this autumn’s session.

The countries are reportedly upset over the deletion of a clause in the declarations calling on countries to refrain from “unilateral” trade and economic sanctions. But the rift also goes to the heart of the world’s major geopolitical battles, and the political and social conservatism of the countries involved (see related story). 

The first in-person appearance of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky at the UN General Assembly has heightened political tensions. At a critical juncture for the SDGs that are supposed to help the world’s poorest people, experts worry the week could be derailed by politics. 

“Rising authoritarianism, democratic backsliding, but also geostrategic competition and economic distress: those are likely to overshadow other fundamental issues related to climate change and global development,” Noam Unger, a development expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies told AFP.

At half-time, the world is not close to SDGs

The world is set to miss its 2030 hunger eradication target by 600 million people.

The SDG targets were set in 2015, and the deadline was fixed for 2030. At halftime, the score is depressing: just 15% of the 17 targets to transform the world are on track to be achieved by 2030, and eight are going backwards.

Half a billion people are on course to remain in poverty in 2030, while nearly 100 million children will be out of school. Last year, 735 million people faced acute hunger.  

“Can we accept these numbers? Or because they make us uncomfortable, should we pretend they do not exist and carry on with business as usual?” said UN General Assembly President Dennis Francis.  

Poverty eradication, gender equality, education and hunger have all faced setbacks amid several crises, including the COVID-19 pandemic, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a food and energy crisis and climate shocks.

Finance is “fuel”

The success of Guterres’ rescue plan hinges on several key financial provisions that all have one thing in common: more money.

The provisions in the draft declaration include a call to recapitalise the multilateral development banks – the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank – and rework the “international financial architecture” that forces developing countries to pay more to borrow money and blocks foreign investment.

“Instead of leaving no one behind, we risk leaving the SDGs behind,” said Guterres. “This can be a game changer … [we] need to reform the international financial architecture that I consider outdated, dysfunctional and unfair.”

Financing is the lifeblood of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), but developing countries are falling short on the trillions of dollars they need to achieve them, Guterres warned. 

“I accept that there may not be enough public money, and to that extent, how do we mobilise money?” said Barbados Prime Minister Mia Mottley, a leading figure in the fight for global financial reform. “The major multinational corporations have balance sheets that dwarf and miniaturise the majority of countries in this room.

 “We have to find a way of them contributing to the financing of global public goods,” said Mottley.

 In some regions of the world, the deadly interplay between conflict, climate and poverty means money is just one part of the solution. Conflict hits women, children and other vulnerable groups the hardest. 

“[We] need to recognise the intertwined nature of the challenges that we are facing with climate, with pandemics, with fragility, with war, and with food insecurity,” said World Bank President Ajay Banga. “We cannot solve one without having a holistic view of the total.

Hunger: missing SDGs leaves people behind

Global hunger took centre stage as a stirring example of the lives changed by missing the SDGs.

The world is currently set to fall 600 million people short of its goal of ensuring not a single person goes hungry. Some 2.4 billion people, 30% of the global population, did not have constant access to food in 2022.

“In our world of plenty, hunger is a shocking stain on humanity and an epic human rights violation,” said Guterres. “It is an indictment that millions of people are starving in this day and age.

“The SDGs aren’t just a list of goals. They carry the hopes, dreams, rights and expectations of people everywhere,” said Guterres.

Image Credits: Mohammed Omer Mukhier/Twitter , UNCTAD.

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