Inclusion, empowerment and equality, must be ‘at the heart of our efforts’ to ensure sustainable development, says UN chief

© UNICEF The women of Bokiat Village, Timbuktu, present fresh onions from their vegetable garden where UNICEF, with the support of Sweden, rehabilitated a manual water pump. (13 March 2019)

This article is brought to you in association with the United Nations.


The world’s people are demanding “transformative change that is fair and sustainable,” Secretary-General António Guterres said on Tuesday, calling on government leaders to use the upcoming slate of key United Nations meetings in September to “kickstart a decade of delivery and action for people and planet.”

His call for concrete action was the cornerstone of his address to ministers attending the High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF) – the main UN platform monitoring follow-up on States’ actions towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Mr. Guterres observed that the HLPF was “zeroing-in” on the power of SDG action “to support empowerment, equality and inclusion”, and urged the participants to “ratchet up the ambition and highlight the imperative of inclusion”.

“The evidence is clear:  Development is not sustainable if it is not fair and inclusive – and rising inequality hinders long-term growth,” he said.

Alongside the impacts of globalization and rapid technological change, “inequality raises economic anxiety, erodes public trust, and undermines social cohesion, human rights, peace and prosperity”, according to the UN chief.

Meanwhile, “mounting evidence” illustrates the “transformative results of equality and inclusion”, particularly of women, in higher gross domestic product, greater stability, and enhanced private sector performance and institutional effectiveness, he pointed out.

“For all these reasons, the 2030 Agenda places the goals of inclusion, empowerment and equality, leaving no one behind at the heart of our efforts”, Mr. Guterres stated.

Yet, four years after its adoption, “we are not yet on track and must step it up”, he said, citing extreme poverty, inequality, global unemployment, gender inequality and climate change, among others.

Agenda 2030 and the ‘Inclusion Imperative’

And in all these areas, he acknowledged, “the poorest and most vulnerable people and countries will suffer the most”.

The UN chief drew attention to “four key conclusions” to advance the “Inclusion Imperative”, beginning with “dramatically” scaling up SDG investments as “our best tool of prevention”.

Five high-level critical meetings in September:

Secondly, he emphasized that “global climate action must be advanced in a manner that reduces inequality”, including by shifting to a greener economy that could create 24 million jobs globally by 2030 while safeguarding the 1.2 billion jobs that depend on a stable and healthy environment.

Next, he said that “We must step up implementation of the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration”, as people whose contribution to sustainable development, in countries of origin and destination, “is absolutely critical”.

And fourth, leaving no one behind and achieving the SDGs “is inherently linked to human rights, diplomacy and prevention”, according to the UN chief, who reinforced the need for “a strengthened global commitment to end conflicts and displacement and tackle root causes”.

He stressed that the conclusions emerging from the Forum “are rooted in the pressing need to address the Inclusion Imperative and provide us with important insights as we look ahead to September”.

‘We can do better’

In her opening remarks, Inga Rhonda King, President of the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) summarized the first five days of the Forum, saying that countries had been mobilized around the 17 SDGs, voluntary national reviews had been shared by 142 countries, SDG progress had been tracked and children had spoken about the future they want.

While acknowledging the hard work of many countries, she contended that “we need to do more, to do it faster and to be more transformative”.

She urged the participants to “understand how we can do better, advise each other and forge new partnerships”, noting that “our conclusions will reverberate in the September SDG Summit.”

Ms. King assured the group that their ideas would be included “on how to make this Forum even more vibrant and action-oriented” during the upcoming General Assembly.

“I hope that our discussions will encourage our Heads of State and Government to come back in September ready to announce ambitious acceleration actions”, she said in closing.

‘Make it count’

We have eleven years to deliver” on the 2030 Agenda, General Assembly President María Fernanda Espinosa, opening the Ministerial Segment.

“Let’s use the coming days to lay the groundwork not only for the SDG Summit, but indeed for the whole of high-level week”, she said, referring to the Assembly’s annual general debate, and adding that we have “five days to make it count”.

Ms. Espinosa underscored the import of addressing urgent challenges “as they pave the way for longer-term risks and opportunities”, including the need to be “fully inclusive” and to empower girls and women.

She detailed that she has been working with Member States to ensure their contributions to the 2030 Agenda, including the preparations for this HLPF and September’s SDG Summit.

“That has been the overarching vision and the driving force” behind the “priorities set out for this session”, she explained.

Ms. Espinosa also encouraged participants to use the September high-level week, at which time five summit-level meetings will be convened, “to be more ambitious and to announce accelerated measures and specific steps that respond to the urgency of the challenges we face”.

Those meetings “represent a key opportunity to demonstrate that multilateralism works – that it can deliver tangible benefits to people’s lives”, Ms. Espinosa spelled out.

The goals under review at the Forum focus on education, economic growth, inequality, climate change and peaceful, just and inclusive societies.

Diplomatic achievements of the century

Together with the Paris Agreement on climate change, the 2030 Agenda is one of the “most important diplomatic achievements of this century”, Ireland’s former president Mary Robinson told the Forum.

Pointing out that both concluded in 2015, she called them “tangible proof of the benefits of multilateralism and a rebuke to the narrow agendas of nationalism, isolationism and self-interest”.

If implemented in full, the Chair of the Elders – a group of independent global leaders founded by Nelson Mandela who work for human rights and a sustainable future – maintained they are “a pathway to a world where poverty, inequality and conflict will not blight the life chances for millions of people currently denied the opportunity to enjoy their fundamental rights and freedoms”.

Noting the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, she reminded the meeting that staying at or below 1.5°C warming above pre-industrial standards was “the only safe level for the whole world” because warming to 2°C would “cause considerable risk to the planet”.

“We can no longer afford to regard the 2030 Agenda and the Paris Climate Agreement as voluntary”, flagged Ms. Robinson, citing a UN report in May detailing the loss of biodiversity and potential extinction of one million species.

She stressed that the full implementation of both reports has become imperative “to secure a liveable world for our children and grandchildren”.

“We have a global crisis and we must treat it as such”, she stated, saying that the HLPF “provides an opportunity to take an honest look at what all States have achieved and what more we need to do on the SDGs, so that when world leaders convene in New York in September for the SDG Summit, they can come with more than just words”.

A former UN High Commissioner of Human Rights, Ms. Robinson underscored the importance of working together, saying: “We will not overcome the key existential challenges facing our world today, from nuclear weapons to climate change, if we spurn cooperation”.

“This High-Level Political Forum is a moment to be bold and to demand real ambition from leaders”, she asserted, adding that “playing safe or doing business as usual will not deliver the results the world needs”.

Limit global warming

Delivering the final keynote speech, IPCC Chair Hoesung Lee stated that “climate action and sustainable development are inseparable” and presented three points of linkages between the two.

First, he flagged that “the current warming is already producing negative impacts on natural and human systems, seriously impeding progress toward some SDGs”.

Second, he noted the “ambitious” climate goal of limiting global warming to below 2 degrees Celsius “creates a trade-off for some SDGs and balancing the goals will be a challenge”.

And finally, he detailed that while climate actions produce “new opportunities for the economy, environment and society”, they are contingent upon “international cooperation, with social justice and equity being core aspects of climate-resilient development pathways”.

Mr. Lee informed the HLPF that currently, the global average temperature is one degree Celsius higher than the preindustrial level, noting, however, that “the warming is not uniform”.

“Most land regions are experiencing warming greater than this one-degree average”, he said, spotlighting that “the Arctic temperature is two to three times higher”.

Moreover, he conveyed that “up to 40 per cent of the world’s population lives in areas where the warming already exceeds 1.5 degrees Celsius above the preindustrial level for at least one season”, which has caused notable disruptions in human livelihoods.

In summary, Mr. Lee advocated for collective efforts “at all levels”, to limit global warming to 1.5C, which should take into account equity and effectiveness, “to strengthen the global response to climate change and achieve sustainable development and poverty eradication”.

“The result will be a cleaner, sustainable, more productive, and stronger global economy”, he concluded.

According to IPCC, by limiting warming to 1.5 degrees rather than 2 degrees C, we will have:

  • 50 per cent fewer people exposed to water shortage.
  • 50 per cent less impact on insects, plants and vertebrates in their climatically determined geographic range.
  • 10 million fewer people exposed to the risk of sea level rise.
  • Ten-fold decrease in the risk of the sea ice free Arctic in the summer.
  • One-third reduction in the risk of decline in crop yields

The number of possible partners on the Global Goals journey are “legion”, according to the SDG Advocate, including bankers and investments bankers, insurance companies and pension providers “who are starting to see that sustainable investment can be profitable and will be the key to financing the future of the Goals”.

Singling out rising global hunger, greenhouse gas emissions and lack of essential health services, his next key word “urgency” pressed for a harder focus on all SDG targets, “to exploit their deadlines”.

“They make urgency real and tactile and measurable”, Mr. Curtis stressed. “That’s what they’re for”.

His third word was “opportunity”.

“This is what the Goals give us”, he said, “a unique opportunity”.

The SDG roadmap can guide us, “negotiated with the passion and determination and imagination” to end inequality and injustice, he argued.

In closing he said “now” was the moment “to go for broke with deep urgency, with radical partnerships and with a sense of this unique human opportunity.”

“And you are the generation of people with power in the United Nations and power in every country in the world, who could and must make it happen”, concluded the SDG envoy.

Three little words

Screenwriter for Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill and Bridget Jones’s Diary, among others, SDG Advocate and renowned filmmaker Richard Curtis delivered a keynote speech underscoring that the UN “carries their hopes and dreams for a better world”.

He selected “three key words” surrounding the SDGs, beginning with partnership.

“There are so many possible partners for the Goals”, Mr. Curtis said. “No-one denies we’re all in a boat on a wild sea” with everyone’s skills available: “Some to build the boat, some to guide it, some to row the boat, some when the boat sinks, like [Syrian swimmer] Yusra Mardini, to grab the ropes and swim the boat to safety”.          

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