The race for sustainable development: we can only win if we run together

By Barbara Pesce-Monteiro, UN Director in Brussels

The 2030 Agenda and its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are far stretching and require action from many actors at multiple levels and in all countries. This may contribute to the fact that their implementation is not moving fast enough. To make sure it is ready to deliver, the UN has undergone unprecedented reforms. However, ownership of the 2030 Agenda belongs to its 193 Member States, civil society and citizens. For this reason, the UN has undertaken several initiatives to reach these actors and get them fully on board. Barbara Pesce-Monteiro is the UN Secretary-General’s Representative to the EU and Director of the UN and UNDP in Brussels. Below, she presents some key activities of the UN to communicate the 2030 Agenda to all relevant stakeholders, including at the local level.

SDGs are everyone’s responsibility

In 2015, the international community came together to adopt the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). At a historic Summit in New York, all 193 UN Member States committed at the highest political level to collectively work towards achieving these goals in the next fifteen years. This was complemented by the signing of the Paris Agreement by 174 states, including the European Union, in an unprecedented joint commitment to combat climate change and adapt to its effects.
While negotiated in the framework of the United Nations, these goals do not belong to a single institution. The SDGs are universal goals and apply to developing and developed countries alike, thus also indicating a desirable future for Europe. The commitment of so many sovereign states and the unprecedented involvement of civil society in their definition make clear that the 2030 Agenda and its SDGs belong to our society as a whole and call on everyone’s responsibility to implement them: citizens, companies, civil society organizations and political and administrative powers at all levels.

In order to lead by example and be ready to implement the 2030 Agenda, the UN started an unprecedented reform of its development system in 2017, along with parallel processes in the field of peace and security and its management structure. However, while enthusiastically leading these efforts, the UN Secretary-General made it clear that ‘the world is not moving fast enough.’ The UN recently launched the new SDG Report in New York, which concludes that although progress has been made, ‘monumental challenges remain.’ Progress is evident tackling extreme poverty reduction, widespread immunization and increased access to electricity, but global responses have not been sufficiently ambitious, leaving the most vulnerable people and countries to suffer most. Overall, it revealed that climate change and increasing inequality are not only undermining progress toward achieving the 2030 Agenda but also threatening to reverse many gains made over the last decades.

This means that stronger partnerships are needed to make the Agenda 2030 a reality. Some alliances, like the one between the UN and the EU, have already changed the lives of millions. However, we need to go much beyond our institution and bring all actors onboard, creating global partnerships for sustainable development (SDG 17) and making all citizens active participants in this common effort, especially young generation who will suffer the most from the consequences of our lack of action.

Fortunately, as testified by the theme of this ECA Journal, many actors have started to act to inform citizens, spreading the word and mainstreaming the Agenda 2030 among the different sectors of society that play the key role in their implementation. The UN itself is on a quest to reach as many people as possible with the universal message of supporting and getting engaged to fulfil the SDGs. These include initiatives to localize the 2030 Agenda, working closely with regional and local authorities, the use of a global network of UN Information Centres and the establishment of a dedicated UN SDG Action Campaign.

Bringing the 2030 Agenda on the ground: democratizing and localizing the SDGs to involve all sectors of society

Implementing the 2030 Agenda means making it closer to the need and daily activities of all parts of society. This has to do with putting it at the heart of existing mechanisms of democratic representation and accountability, like parliaments, which play an essential role in advancing the SDGs by supporting, accelerating and monitoring their implementation.

Localizing the SDGs means the aspirations of the SDGs become real to communities, households and individuals, especially those who are at risk of falling behind. Local governments are critical in turning Agenda 2030 from a global vision into a local reality. Indeed 65% of the 169 targets underlying the 17 SDGs will not be reached without proper engagement of and coordination with local and regional governments. Localizing the SDGs is an opportunity to promote collaborative and participatory processes and thereby facilitate the mobilization of resources, pooling of competencies and creation of synergies at the local level.

Dialogues on localizing the Post-2015 Development Agenda started in 2014, with a key role taken by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), UN-Habitat and the Global Taskforce of Local and Regional Governments. Initiatives include integrated territorial platforms led by UNDP to facilitate innovative partnerships connecting cities and territorial actors to share their practices, innovation and knowledge on how to locally implement the SDGs. Also, new tools were developed to guide local policymakers and are continuously supporting the strengthening of local capacities with targeted trainings on all the phases of the SDGs localization process.

The importance of capacity building and training is also testified by the role of the global training arm of the United Nations (UNITAR), which in 2018 built capacities of 84 901 beneficiaries including NGOs, academia, businesses, governments at all level, international organizations and others to respond to global challenges.

UN Information Centres: spreading the UN message

The work of the UN has also demonstrated the potential of promoting ownership of the 2030 Agenda by using a language that makes it relevant to everyone’s life and experience. A network of 51 United Nations Information Centres around the world work constantly to spread the UN message, raise public awareness and support the work of the United Nations through strategic communications campaigns, media and relationships with civil society groups. The Brussels-based United Nations Regional Information Centre (UNRIC) for Western Europe works with all stakeholders in Europe: the EU institutions, governments, civil society, universities, schools, youth, private sector, and the media, and aims to inform and engage Europeans on the 2030 Agenda and other strategic global issues.

Among its many initiatives with a strong focus on youth, a board game was created to raise children’s awareness of sustainable development issues from age 7 onwards and is available in 17 languages, online, for free. As of June 2019, the game has been downloaded more than 31 000 times and adopted by many institutions including the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Development and Cooperation.

Other examples include a partnership established with Sony Pictures to use ‘The Smurfs’ as champions to raise public awareness – especially among children – on the 2030 Agenda. This culminated in 2018 and 2019 in a travelling exhibit focused on the SDGs and how the Smurfs contribute to a better planet, which has attracted nearly 300 000 visitors between Brussels and Paris.

A dedicated Global Campaign

In 2015, the UN Secretary-General mandated a special initiative, the UN SDG Action Campaign, to work across agencies with the goal to scale up, broaden and sustain the global movement of action for the SDGs. The Campaign, based in Bonn, Germany, works with a wide range of partners in calls to action and strategic outreach to individuals and organisations.

Each year, a global mobilization is held around 25 September, which marks the anniversary of the adoption of the SDGs, to call people and organisations everywhere to take action for the Goals. The European chapter, organised together with the German Federal Chancellery and other key partners, resulting in over 4 000 events across Europe. In 2018, over a million people in 1 242 cities and 142 countries participated ineffective actions across the world.

Also, to incentivize and motivate the community – mobilizing and inspiring action for the SDGs across the world – the annual SDG Global Festival of Action brings to Germany the most innovative activists, inspiring story-tellers, gifted young advocates and leaders from governments, international organizations, civil society and the private sector, for a 3-day unconventional gathering to share ideas, learn from each other, forge new partnerships, inspire action and scale up actions for the SDGs.

The global campaign also aims to reach new audiences, partnering with some of the top international music festivals in Europe and developing digital content creation and storytelling programs for students, asking them how SDGs are relevant in their communities and what positive action is being taken to make them happen.

Using existing partnerships to enlarge the coalition

Issues like climate change, inequalities of all kind or migration call for multilateral solutions defined and implemented with our societies at large. No country or organisation is large or strong enough to deal with today’s global challenges alone. For this reason, closer work between institutions and stronger engagement with all actors outside of traditional decision-making cannot be taken lightly if we aim to accelerate the delivery of the SDGs.

The strategic partnership between the EU and the UN, which are both products and supporters of multilateralism and global partnerships, needs to lead by example in opening up the 2030 Agenda to citizens and civil society actors around the world, supporting people in taking control over their own future. ‘Leaving no one behind’ is more than a commitment to deliver policies upon passive recipients, and instead expresses the need to create a coalition of people that collectively deliver sustainable development with their daily work; everyone with her or his locally, socially and culturally diverse contribution.