The scene before it all filled up

The scene before it all filled up

Bwogger, prospective SusDev major, and proud Wien resident Nadra Rahman ventured into IAB on Tuesday night to attend a panel titled “Challenges and Opportunities of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.” The panel, consisting of three top-level UN employees, was part of the series of events celebrating SIPA’s 70th anniversary.

Since September 2015, the UN has been coordinating a massive, concerted effort to publicize and implement the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)—a set of targets and indicators for global development that address physical well-being, resource use, economic security, gender equality, climate action, and conflict resolution, among other aspects of development. Every member country is meant to play a part in achieving these goals by 2030, but the UN faces a dilemma: it doesn’t have the power to enforce compliance. And so, “accountability” became the word of the night as Cristina Gallach (Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information), Tegegnework Gettu (Associate Administrator, UN Development Programme), and Navid Hanif (Director of the Office of ECOSOC Support and Coordination, UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs) discussed the challenges and opportunities of the SDGs.

(All, by the way, are SIPA alumni.)

Though he spoke last, Hanif’s comments on the SDGs provide good background for their formation. He asked, “What is different this time?”—what differentiates the SDGs from previous (and successful) UN global agendas? He pinpointed 2007 as a particularly crucial year, since it was then that climate change was finally acknowledged as a stark, unavoidable reality by many governments. Then, in 2009, the recession made it clear that globalization was not working for everyone; the world erupted into protests. Since then, the number of countries involved in conflict, along with the number of displaced persons, has increased unfathomably. The “triangle of change” (peace/conflict, humanitarianism, and development) was expanding in weird and intense ways. This confluence made it necessary to develop a “framework to govern globalization and peaceful societies,” eventually adapted into the SDGs.

It's the c00l "wheel of prosperity" pin from Cristina Gallach (there was a stampede for these at the end of the event)

It’s the k00l “wheel of prosperity” pin from Cristina Gallach (there was a stampede for these at the end of the event)

Given this background and scale of transformation, the importance of making the SDGs a global, universal framework is paramount. This translates to integrating multiple dimensions of development (including peace, which wasn’t part of previous agendas), different institutions and governments, and civil society actors. These civil society actors, from students to activists, are the ones who put pressure on their governments to implement the SDGs; without them, the UN can only exert “moral suasion.” Gallach, who works in communications, stressed the role of civil society. Her work has largely been promoting and publicizing the SDGs—distilling their essence into colorful, recognizable icons—so that citizens and the media are motivated and mobilized and demand change. Some of the publicization efforts include the launch of an app and a rap rendition of the SDGs (to reach the Youths). She added that “everybody has some homework to do,” from individual governments to students to media.

Gettu addressed the more technical challenges, such as accountability (again!), intergovernmental interaction, and UN support for lagging countries. Interestingly, he expounded on the link between accountability and transparency: the ability to access data through national databases would greatly support accountability initiatives. He also mentioned the need for countries to share and learn from one another, the support of global financial systems, monitoring and reporting, and support packages that help countries affected by social fragility.

Though the panel struck a cautiously hopeful tone, it was difficult to ignore the uncertainties surrounding American involvement in not just the SDGs or Paris Climate Agreement, but the UN as a whole. What do the SDGs and other global efforts look like in the face of American turmoil? And where are all the Sustainable Development majors going to work? Judging by the packed room, people are pretty invested in preserving our future, but only time can tell if we can still meet the 2030 deadline.

Good words to part on, from Hanif: “If we don’t work together, we can all sink together.” And from Gettu: “There is no peace without sustainable development, and there is no sustainable development without peace.”