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1000 Days of SDGs: Is International Geneva walking the talk?

4 December 2017
1000 Days of SDGs: Is International Geneva walking the talk?

Remarks by Mr. Michael Møller
United Nations Under-Secretary-General
Director-General of the United Nations Office at Geneva

“1000 Days of SDGs: Is International Geneva walking the talk?”

The Graduate Institute of Geneva Global Health Centre
Monday, 04 December 2017, at 09:00
Maison de la paix, Auditorium Ivan Pictet

Ladies and Gentlemen:

Time is a curious thing.

On the one hand, it feels like time flies. Because it really feels like yesterday that the 193 Member States of our United Nations adopted the Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development – the most ambitious development agenda in human history. Our collective roadmap for the world we want to live in.

On the other hand, the Sustainable Development Goals have so fundamentally changed the way we work; the way we interact; the way we think – that it is equally hard to imagine that we have only had them for less than 1000 days.

Here is my explanation for this warped perception of time:
Idleness makes hours pass slowly and years swiftly.
Activity makes the hours short and the years long.

And we certainly have not been idle since we moved from developing the Agenda 2030 towards implementing it – since we started walking the talk.

Amidst this flurry of activity, it is good to take a step back and assess – assess where we are; how we are doing; what we are doing well; and what we need to do differently.

This is why I am grateful to the Global Health Centre at the Graduate Institute for organizing this timely and relevant event as part of the 2nd Global Meeting of health policy think tanks and academic institutions. Your efforts to strategically analyse implementation approaches by leveraging on-the-ground experiences from across the world, creative thinking, and academic research are cutting edge. Thank you for the opportunity to share some reflections.

Thinking about how the SDGs have changed International Geneva, I am struck by the scale and depth of their impact. Today, there is not a single action we take that is not connected to one of the 17 goals.

Like never before, the SDGs have galvanized International Geneva to join up. This city has always been more than the sum of its parts. But to truly leverage the diversity of its actors, it needed something: an organizing principle, a Leitmotif, a lodestar – something which aligns perspectives, which focuses minds, which sharpens our focus. The SDGs have done precisely that.

Recall the Millennium Development Goals. For their many successes, they also created vertical silos across our financing streams, our governance structures and our programs. And that was just within the UN system. The business community might have been supportive of them; but I doubt whether many companies believed that success depended on their engagement as well.

Fast-forward to today and the Sustainable Development Goals: The imperative to “leave no one behind” has also come to mean that no one wants to be left out.

This has really been extraordinary to witness. Every part of our ecosystem wants to be involved – Member States, the various agencies, civil society, the private sector, and of course everyone here, the think tanks and research institutions.

Approaching the 1000-day mark, we are at an inflection point. The trick now is to take this shared sense of purpose one step further.
̶ Because true integration requires everyone to feel responsible for the success of every SDG, not just the one, two, or three goals that directly fall under their expertise.
̶ Because the notions of “an integrated, horizontal approach” and “mutually reinforcing, indivisible character of the SDGs” are not abstractions – they are operational precepts for action.

There is a great initiative by the SDG Lab that nicely illustrates this: the “So What?” series. What the series does is take two seemingly unrelated goals – say healthy lives (Goal 3) and peaceful, inclusive societies (Goal 16) – and interrogate how they might relate to each other. How success in the former drives progress in the latter, just as failure in the latter can doom the former.

One thing becomes clear very quickly: the integrated, indivisible nature of the SDGs means that we cannot cherry-pick individual goals. Championing the SDGs must mean championing all SDGs.

We are at the Global Health Centre, so let me just illustrate the point by showing how Goal 3 – “Good health and Well-Being” – is about so much more than healthcare:
̶ It is about nutrition. One in four of the world’s children suffer from stunted growth due to malnutrition, with lifelong health repercussions.
̶ It is about education. Under-five mortality would fall by 49 percent if all women in low and lower middle income countries completed secondary education.
̶ It is about the environment. Pollution accounts for more than 12.6 million deaths per year, as 9 out of 10 city dwellers breathe polluted air.

We could go on and connect the health goal to every one of the other 16 goals, but I think the point is clear. We need ‘SDG Champions’ at every level who conceive of the Agenda 2030 holistically; who recognize that to progress the goals within their remit, they need to engage just as much with those that may superficially feel like they are outside their remit.

The imperative of integration therefore applies to the actors as much as it applies to the goals themselves. Let’s consider each in turn:

The imperative of integration applies to International Geneva, where it is about integrating its different elements – private and public, national and international, academics and practitioners. Two related initiatives merit mention in this context:
̶ First, the Perception Change Project’s mapping of the expertise in International Geneva, which has given us a birds-eye view to identify new partnerships;
̶ And second, the “Geneva 2030 Ecosystem”, which brings these actors together to actually forge these partnerships around concrete, practical implementation.

The imperative of integration also applies at the national level, at the level of each and every Member State.

Governments will only be successful in their implementation if they bridge the silos between their different ministries; if they connect with their parliament; if they tie local authorities into a two-way exchange that links the urban and the rural, the capital and the regions. This is what’s at the core of the “Whole of Government” approach.

Exciting progress is happening as we speak – above all in the Global South. We saw this recently at the United Nations, when 43 countries – twice the number of 2016 – presented their voluntary national reviews at the High Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development. The list of countries for next year’s voluntary review process has already reached its maximum of 44. They are walking the talk in terms of national coordination, resource mobilization and budget allocation, and engaging parliaments and local authorities. We have a long way to go, but this is encouraging.

Finally, the imperative of integration also applies to the United Nations itself.

This is why our Secretary-General António Guterres has outlined a set of ambitious, mutually reinforcing reforms. Reforms to make the UN fit for the 21st century – focused more on people and less on process, more on delivery and less on bureaucracy.

We are reforming our approach to peace and security – to ensure we are stronger in prevention, more agile in mediation, and more effective and cost-effective in peacekeeping operations.

We are reforming our development system to become much more field-focused, coordinated and accountable to better assist Member States as they implement the 2030 Agenda.

Here, too, we have seen encouraging progress – just consider that 114 governments have already requested support from UN Country Teams on SDG implementation. That is good news.

We are also reforming our management structure – to bring decision-making closer to the people we serve; trust and empower managers; reform burdensome and costly budgetary and administrative procedures; reduce fragmentation; and eliminate duplicative structures.

A few days ago, our Deputy Secretary General Amina Mohammed was in town to consult not only Member States but also the Geneva-based International Organizations and Heads of their Governing Boards. This showcases how the integrative and cooperative approach is also being applied the highest levels of our organization.

My favourite example to illustrate this is the following: senior staff across Geneva are meeting outside of their working hours, and without instructions from the top, to sit down together and think about how they can reinforce, assist, and complement each other in implementing the SDGs. Throughout my 39 years in the UN, I don’t recall ever seeing anything like this.

In closing, let me look ahead to the next 1000 days of SDG implementation, and highlight what I see as two of the main challenges we face:

First, the pace of progress. We see, in the unfinished business of the Millennium Development Goals as well as in assessing the early days of the SDGs, that progress is uneven across regions, between the sexes, and among people of different ages and constituencies. To put it in our metaphor of the SDGs as a journey, we may be walking, but we need to pick up the pace and start running.

Second, financing. Recent estimates show that to achieve the SDGs by 2030, we will need an additional USD 2.4 trillion in investments per year. Investments in low-carbon infrastructure, in energy, in agriculture, in health, and in education.

Public funding cannot close this gap. Not even close.

We need to work in partnership with the private sector to ensure that all financing becomes sustainable and contributes to the SDGs.

You may hear “trillions” and despair, but I for one am convinced it can be done: consider that right now, there’s more than USD 9 trillion invested in negative interest rate bonds; USD 24 trillion in low-yield government securities; and USD 5 trillion sitting in cash, waiting for better investment with higher returns.

The SDGs offer that better investment with higher returns. What we need are genuine, meaningful partnerships. And here again, we need to go to scale.

So looking back and looking ahead, my simple appeal to you is this: stay engaged, help us keep the ambition high, and work with us in this collective endeavour for a better future for all.

I cannot overemphasise the role of think tanks and academic institutions in all of this. Whether it’s in marrying theory and practice, challenging received wisdoms and shifting paradigms, advising decision-makers and instructing on-the-ground practitioners – your role is essential.

Thank you.