I am honoured and humbled to be part of this prelude to the 2023 SDG Summit.
The last few years of my life have given me a new perspective. I have not spoken in a long time, and I sincerely hope that I can be of some service to you all today.
For a quarter of a century, the United Nations Foundation has played an extraordinary role in the advancement of the United Nations. Together, they demonstrate the power of unity in resolving disputes and achieving progress in the darkest of times.
The seventeen Sustainable Development Goals which all 191 United Nations member states signed up to in 2015 have seen some progress. Per the Report of the United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, the incidence of extreme poverty and child mortality rates has continued to decline. Advancements have been made against HIV and Hepatitis. Some countries are meeting Gender Equality Targets and electricity access in the developing world has risen, with – the – share of renewables in the Energy Mix growing. Globally, Unemployment has dropped back to levels before the 2008 financial crisis. And, the proportion of protected marine waters under national jurisdiction has more than doubled in five years. I want to acknowledge the UN Foundation, in particular, for its role, in all that has been achieved.
But the Secretary-General also notes that progress has been slow and fragile. His recent report sounds an alarm, noting that of the roughly 140 targets for which data is available, only about 12% are on track; more than half, although showing some progress, are moderately or severely off track; and some 30% have either seen no movement or regressed below the 2015 baseline. The Secretary-General notes that under current trends, 575 million people will still be living in extreme poverty in 2030, and only about one third of countries will meet the target to halve national poverty levels. Furthermore, in 2015, 589 million people were experiencing hunger, and by 2021, that number had risen to 768 million. Projections show that, by 2030, approximately 670 million people will still be facing hunger – 8% of the world’s population, the same as in 2015. Food prices remain higher in more countries than in the period between 2015 and 2019. Secretary-General Guterres has pointed out that at current rates of progress, it will take 286 years to close gender gaps in legal protection and remove discriminatory laws. And in the area of education, the impacts of years of under-investment and learning losses during the Covid Pandemic are such that, by 2030, some 84 million children will be out of school. 300 million children or young people who attend school will leave unable to read and write.
The most severe warnings come on climate change. Forecasts say we will not stop deforestation for another 25 years and we can expect mass extinction of species. Renewable energy sources will continue to supply only a fraction of global needs (although the most recent trends here are surprisingly good as renewable costs become far more competitive), the window is closing on keeping the global rise in temperatures under 1.5 centigrade.
It’s easy to get lost in a sea of numbers but behind each and every statistic is a human life or livelihood worth fighting for. Today, we’re fighting for the mother in Libya frantically searching for her child after the floods; the father in Marrakesh desperately trying to make ends meet after the earthquake destroyed his business. A family in Sudan trying to stretch meals to an extra day; children in Palestine risking their lives to play outside. The teenage girl in Afghanistan who can no longer access an education; the elderly couple in Ukraine facing another freezing winter as the bombardments continue to decimate the life they once knew. And we’re fighting for the unsung heroes who toil each and every day around the world, risking their own lives on behalf of the United Nations and so many other organisations to keep hope alive.
The United Nations Secretary General has recently called on the G20 to show leadership to Save the SDGs. He has also taken a lead in putting forward concrete measures intended to yield immediate benefits. Together, these actions are intended to catalyse SDG progress and help developing economies invest in key transitions across energy, food systems, digital, education, health, decent jobs and social protection.
The Secretary-General’s measures include: An SDG Stimulus of at least 500 billion dollars per year. An effective debt workout mechanism to support payment suspensions, longer lending terms and lower rates on fairer terms to developing countries in distress. A meaningful capitalization and change in the business model of Multilateral Development Banks to be able to massively leverage private finance at reasonable cost to developing countries. A more substantive rechannelling of unused Special Drawing Rights to increase liquidity where it is most needed. And – a shift in subsidies – away from fossil fuel to more sustainable and productive uses.
But it is clear that the responsibility for progress does not lie solely with the UN itself, or with Governments or Big Business. The onus to lean in and make a difference is on each and every one of us – which is – I believe, why we are all here today. And I am immensely grateful for the privilege of being among so many brilliant, vibrant, and innovative people.
I know that you are all acutely aware – as I am – that we meet at a time of great tension. Our world is faced with straining economic, political and commercial faultlines; faultlines which overlay deep historical forces and which feature alongside a trend towards unprecedented interpersonal and intergenerational ruptures. Even our planet herself seems exhausted by our lack of respect for her. And while heightened connectivity has dissolved borders and brought attention to once far-off causes, allowing examples of coexistence and cooperation to be easily shared and celebrated, it has also underpinned a polarisation in thinking, an evaporating middle ground, and a reduced tolerance for differences. Social media is also misused to facilitate harmful bullying and abuse with lasting ramifications for the world’s young population.
We live in a time of escalating unease and conflict; helpless and blameless as we may each sometimes feel, the world is now looking to us for solutions. I am reminded of the Billy Joel song, recently updated by Fall Out Boy, about how each generation feels that things are getting worse as the troubles of the past are ignored.
While the lyrics list scientific, cultural and political events, the chorus goes like this:
We didn’t start the fire, it was always burning, since the worlds been turning,
We didn’t start the fire, no, we didn’t light it, but we tried to fight it.
And the main message continues:
But when we are gone, it will still burn on and on and on and on and on….
Like all of you, I carry with me today the hopes and dreams of my children and of future generations. And like you, I know that the fires we face right now simply cannot be allowed to keep burning. Even if we didn’t start them, being on the right side of history means becoming the generation that finds a way to break the cycle, setting humanity and the planet on a new course.
The roadmap exists; the SDGs make it clear what needs to be done. The harder part is how, but everybody joining us today is already at the forefront of the change that is required, and I am confident that you have the ideas, the energy and the tenacity to see it through.
Before I hand the floor to the many brilliant speakers you will hear from throughout this event, may I leave you with a few final words of wisdom and encouragement from a great man, a man with unwavering belief in the potential of young people, enormous confidence in the United Nations, and true conviction in Secretary General Antonio Gutteres, whom he personally appointed to lead UNHCR. A man with enduring faith in humanity… the late, Kofi Annan:
‘You are never too young to lead and you should never doubt YOUR capacity to triumph where others have not.’
HRH Princess Haya Bint Al Hussein 2022