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Updated On: Thursday, 21 February 2019

ECOSOC High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development

Content by: UN General Assembly

Note: A complete summary of today's meetings will be available after their conclusion.

Opening Remarks

MARIE CHATARDOVA (Czechia), Chair of the Economic and Social Council, opened the High‑level Political Forum, calling it an opportunity to look back on the “tremendous achievements” of the Sustainable Development Goals.

  More than 80 ministers and vice‑ministers will be attending the Forum, as well as 2,500 no‑State actors.  Emphasizing that Goals must inspire everyone to aim high, she said that during her term as Chair, the Council explored how to give people a say in decisions that impacted their lives.  “The worst thing is not that the world is unfree, but that people have unlearned their liberty,” she quoted the Czech author Milan Kundera as saying, adding that too many people have unlearned their right to engage in policy and decision‑making.

Reviewing the Forum’s many preparatory meetings, she said the Secretary‑General’s report on progress towards the Goals clearly indicates the need to step up efforts and to better target the Goals at the areas and people still lagging behind.  On the Forum’s programme of work, she said, a full session will be dedicated to each of the six Goals up for review this year [Goal 6:  Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all; Goal 7:  Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all; Goal 11:  Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable; Goal 12:  Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns; Goal 15:  Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss; Goal 17:  Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development].  The Forum will also discuss its theme for this year — “Transformation towards sustainable and resilient societies” — and, next week, consider a record 47 voluntary national reviews submitted by Member States.

LIU ZHENMIN, Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs, emphasizing that “this is no time to be complacent”, introduced the report of the Secretary‑General on progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals (document E/2018/64).  In the three years since world leaders committed to end poverty and hunger, countries have been working hard to translate this transformative vision into concrete results, with many reporting on progress this week.  While people are living better lives than a decade ago, with those below the extreme poverty line decreasing to 9 per cent in 2017 from 27 per cent in 2000, drought and disaster linked to climate change and surging conflicts are hindering faster progress.

Outlining other achievements and challenges, he said pockets of poverty persist in rural areas, social protection had yet to reach 4 billion people in 2016 and hunger is on the rise, from 777 million in 2015 to 815 million in 2016.  However, since 2000, in sub‑Saharan Africa, the maternal mortality ratio declined by 35 per cent and the under‑five mortality rate dropped by 50 per cent, and in Southern Asia, a girl’s risk of marrying in childhood declined by over 40 per cent.  In addition, 4.5 billion people are unable to access safely managed sanitation services and 2.1 billion lack access to safe drinking water.  Competing pressures on land to urbanize, expand agriculture and provide for increasing populations are threatening natural sites, with land degradation threatening security and development.  Global warming and climate‑related events are also on the rise.

Transitioning towards sustainable and resilient societies hinges on responsible management of finite resources, he said, noting that currently 108 countries have national policies on sustainable consumption and production.  Prosperous individuals and societies keep the world engine humming; however, it is the Goals’ aim to leave no one behind.  Citing further gains, he said people living without electricity dropped in 2016 to under 1 billion.  Yet, the number of conflicts over the past decade has increased, leading to millions being displaced and driving food insecurity in 18 countries, where 74 million urgently need assistance.

“To understand accomplishments and setbacks and chart our way forward, we need reliable, timely, open and disaggregated data to inform all our actions,” he said.  However, very few developing countries have fully funded statistical plans and the share of official development assistance (ODA) to statistics has hovered around 0.3 per cent since 2010, he said, adding that fulfilling the ambition of leaving no one behind without timely and disaggregated data is impossible.  “We have only 12 more years to fully realize this transformative agenda, but these Goals are absolutely within our reach,” he said.  “It will require policymakers’ unwavering attention, a laser‑sharp focus on implementation of these Goals and a true sense of urgency.”

Keynote Addresses

JEFFREY D. SACHS, Professor and Director of the Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia University, said the Goals are this generation’s only hope for creating peaceful, safe, fair and sustainable societies.  “We have to make them work,” he said, but the biggest obstacle is greed.  There is enough in the world for everyone to live free of poverty and it won’t require a big effort on the part of big countries to help poor ones.  But vested interests, including oil companies and the food industries, have been resisting.  Presenting league tables produced by his team and the Sustainable Development Solutions Network, he said Sweden, at the top of the list, is closest to achieving the Goals, and that Europe is “by far” the region closest to doing so.  Moreover, the list of the top 10 countries closest to achieving the Goals mirrors a complementary ranking of the world’s happiest countries.  It is literally the truth that sustainable development is the path to happiness, he said.  In contrast, the United States is thirty‑fifth on the list of countries closest to achieving the Goals and only 18 in the happiness rankings.  “Just trying to be rich does not make you happy,” he said.  Sustainable development that is balanced, fair, inclusive and environmentally sustainable is what produces happiness, he added.

The happiest countries are the ones that tax themselves the most, he added, noting that Swedes think it is a good thing to pay half their national income to quality education and health care.  The United States, on the other hand, is all about tax cuts for rich people.  “To achieve sustainable development, you have to pay for it,” he said, adding that tax cuts for the rich don’t pay for sustainable development.  Appealing to everyone to mobilize resources to achieve sustainable development, he said there must be major transformation in how countries work.  Most important is quality education, followed by universal access to health care, clean energy (“without which the planet will be wrecked”), sustainable land and food, smarter cities with decent infrastructure, and proper use of digital technologies.  “We have to take care of ourselves.  Otherwise we will destroy ourselves,” he said.  Emphasizing that rich countries could easily finance global sustainable development from their own resources, he said the world’s 2,208 billionaires — “you can look them up on Forbes magazine online” — could, by paying 1 per cent of their net worth each year, put every child in the world in school or guarantee access to health care for everyone.

The rich world has many sources of revenue and the United Nations should go after that revenue, he said, proposing a levy on high net worth individuals and taxing the $20 trillion held in offshore accounts in a “tax haven archipelago” designed by the United States, the United Kingdom and others.  Taxes should also be levied on the world’s five biggest technology companies, worth a combined $3.5 trillion and enjoying a natural monopoly, as well as on global financial transactions.  He went on to call for wider implementation of carbon taxes and a crackdown on rampant tax evasions.  The aim is to ensure that every child has a future.  Otherwise, he said, “we don’t have a future”.

MARÍA SOLEDAD CISTERNAS REYES, Special Envoy on Disability and Accessibility of the United Nations Secretary‑General, noting that the Forum is a unique opportunity to bring together stakeholders, referred to several challenges.  Funding must be increased to achieve certain Sustainable Development Goals and to address issues related to disability.  Under the umbrella of international cooperation, tax funds must be responsibly managed to avoid corruption and ensure responsible spending on relevant programmes.  Education for sustainable development is among many areas that need attention.  Meanwhile, promoting leadership of private companies is also critical, and cooperation with traditionally sidelined groups should aim at efforts towards sustainable consumption.  Such efforts must be focused on reaching the world’s persons with disabilities, many of them being older people.  In addition, guidelines for companies sharing benefits and risks of sustainable development must be made available.

Statistical data is equally important, she said.  A substantive approach is needed, including efforts to improve social, cultural and economic life, that also must target political life.  This could be accomplished by broadening participation and access to information with a view to reaching all parts of societies.  At the same time, “intelligent” cities must ensure technology reaches all.  All barriers to technology must be removed.  Efforts must support States and Governments in the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development with a view to leaving no one behind.


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