Published in SDG Knowledge Hub on 21 September 2020


The high-level week of UNGA 75 began with the first-ever SDG Moment, aiming to set the stage for the UN75 commemoration, other high-level events during the week, and the Decade of Action for the SDGs.

Many speakers took the opportunity to highlight the critical importance of multilateralism and intergenerational solidarity to achieve any of our shared goals.

In the view of the Earth Negotiations Bulletin, the speeches of the 21 Heads of State and Government who spoke at the SDG Moment betrayed a deep concern for the current, weakened state of multilateralism.

The high-level week of the UN’s 75th General Assembly session began with the first-ever SDG Moment, which aimed to set the stage for the commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the creation of the UN, other high-level events during the week, and the Decade of Action for the SDGs. Many speakers took the opportunity to highlight the critical importance of multilateralism to achieve any of our shared goals.

The Political Declaration of the SDG Summit in September 2019 requested the UN Secretary-General to organize an annual moment in the context of the general debate of the General Assembly to highlight inspiring SDG Action. The first SDG Moment convened virtually on 18 September 2020, with a focus on identifying changes needed to recover better from COVID-19 and deliver the SDGs over the next decade.

Erna Solberg, Prime Minister of Norway and Co-Chair of the Secretary-General’s SDG Advocates, linked COVID-19 recovery with a return to progress on the SDGs, saying the pandemic must be addressed as a global challenge with a renewed commitment to multilateralism, and a vaccine must be developed collaboratively, in order to resume progress on the SDGs. Also speaking during the opening session, Noa Biran, Hackensack University Medical Center, called for political leaders to show the same empathy and collaborative spirit her colleagues and patients have demonstrated during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a segment to conduct an ‘SDG reality check,’ speakers reported that – as synthesized by the Earth Negotiations Bulletin – “for the first time in 30 years, human development progress is expected to reverse due to COVID-19. The pandemic has brought the first increase in extreme poverty and hunger rates in decades, with 12,000 deaths per day estimated by the end of 2020 due to hunger linked to COVID-19—potentially more than will die from the disease itself. Children are suffering from a lack of schooling, with the education of 1.6 billion children and youth threatened. Debt is skyrocketing while fiscal resources are plunging. Inequalities are growing. Progress on targets related to biodiversity and slum dwellers has regressed. Progress on inclusive economic growth, women’s representation in parliaments, and ending over-fishing is too slow.” Some of the slow progress on SDG targets is due to a failure to understand the interconnectedness of SDG targets, and the lack of data, said Ola Rosling, Gapminder Foundation.

The heads of the UN regional commissions provided additional perspectives: gender-based violence is rising in the Arab region; in the Asia-Pacific region, 60% of the population in the region lacks social protection, and 40% lack access to health care; Europe is on track to achieve only 40% of the SDG targets; Africa is facing its first economic recession in 25 years due to COVID-19; and gross domestic product (GDP) for Latin America and the Caribbean has contracted by 9%.

A segment on SDG gaps and plans featured 21 Heads of State and Government that had been selected to speak by the UN Secretariat. One criterion for selection was having presented at least one voluntary national review (VNR) of SDG progress to the High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF). Several of them touched on the theme of multilateralism and solidarity. Michel Aoun, President of Lebanon, underlined the need for cooperation between UN bodies and national governments to strengthen the humanitarian-development response. Boyko Borissov, Prime Minister of Bulgaria, said the COVID-19 crisis shows that international cooperation and the 2030 Agenda are “more relevant than ever.” Mia Amor Mottley, Prime Minister of Barbados, highlighted the importance of addressing financing for development, and revisiting the criteria for countries, particularly middle-income countries, to access international funding. Danny Faure, President of Seychelles, said vulnerability should be included in the criteria for measuring development, and that climate change should receive the same attention and sense of urgency as the pandemic. Alexander van der Bellen, Federal President of Austria, said the EU is ramping up ambition on climate action through the European Green Deal, with a goal to make the continent climate neutral by 2050.

Solidarity between present and future generations was urged as well. In a segment on ‘SDG opportunity,’ Christiana Figueres, Climate Action Champion and Convener of Mission 2020, underscored the need to carefully deploy the resources made available for pandemic recovery for the benefit, not detriment, of future generations. Natasha Mwansa, a journalist and health advocate from Zambia, said leadership for sustainability needs to be nurtured in the young generation, and that while intergenerational dialogues are important, we need to move further towards intergenerational mentorship. 

In closing, the President of the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), Munir Akram, described plans to push for greater financing commitments through the 2021 session of the ECOSOC Forum on Financing for Development Follow-up (FfD Forum).

The Earth Negotiations Bulletin’s analysis of the SDG Moment said it showed “humankind’s unwavering belief in our own ability to overcome crisis and adversity.” Rosling told his virtual audience, “we humans have the exceptional ability to imagine a better world, even during crisis, and we are capable of collaborating globally to turn that imagination into reality.” He said the UN’s existence is the strongest evidence of this ability. Moreover, speakers indicated, we have already done the work on imagining a better world, through the SDGs and the 2030 Agenda.

UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed said one shift required to resume progress on the SDG is inclusive decision-making to harness “big ideas and move forward in solidarity.” Guterres also emphasized that public appetite for transformative change is growing, and stakeholders speaking during the event called for big ideas indeed, including a basic social floor for all citizens, with richer countries contributing to a global fund for social protection to support those who lack adequate resources, and overhauling shareholder capitalism and sharing economic benefits more widely.

But the missing ingredient is political will, Guterres said. In the view of the ENB, the speeches of the 21 Heads of State and Government who spoke at the SDG Moment betrayed a deep concern for the current, weakened state of multilateralism. The question leading into the UN’s 75th anniversary commemoration on 21 September is, “will the spirit of human solidarity that led to the creation of the United Nations 75 years ago triumph once again?” [Earth Negotiations Bulletin coverage of SDG Moment]

IISD’s Earth Negotiations Bulletin is providing reporting and analysis of the UN’s 75th anniversary commemoration event on 21 September 2020.