The 2023 SDG Summit: An opportunity to build a different future

September 13, 2023
Javier Surasky
Director of Research

A summit made by all

In an often adverse context, millions of people continue to work towards sustainable development daily without losing hope in the face of a disappointing reality that drives them to continue making demands. Some are working towards sustainable development through diplomacy, others through fieldwork, and some by developing new ideas and real solutions to concrete problems.

Great historical changes have come from grassroots movements, which have convinced or forced their leaders to go in new directions. We are experiencing a moment calling for “times of change,” and the complexities of our world only accentuate the voices calling for greater ambition and courage.

So, which voices will speak up in the 2023 SDG Summit’s final declaration? Will it be those insisting on continuing down a path that has already failed? Or will it be those who are calling for informed optimism? There is a phrase that is not used anymore but should be revived: “There are other possible worlds, and they are in this one.” Letting them grow is the primary expectation of a sustainable future.

Today, we call for everyone to pay close attention to what happens in New York on September 18 and 19 during the summit. Not everyone must be a key player in what happens during the summit, but we should all pay close attention to what ensues since our opportunity to build a different future is at stake. 

Past promises

In just a few days, on September 18 and 19, world leaders will gather at the United Nations headquarters in New York for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) Summit

This meeting will close the second tracking and review cycle of the 2030 Agenda, which states that the High-Level Political Forum must meet every four years under the auspices of the General Assembly with Heads of State and governments. The aim is to provide policy guidance, identify progress and emerging issues, and deploy new measures to accelerate implementation.

The first meeting of the SDG Summit took place in 2019. At that time, it was highlighted that more ambitious and decisive steps were needed to achieve the SDGs, which led to implementing a “Decade of Action” (2020-2030). 

In the opening remarks of the 2019 SDG Summit, the President of the UN General Assembly at that time, Tijjani Muhammad-Bande, stated, “A decade of action and delivery is our opportunity to fulfill the historic promise of the 2030 Agenda and ensure collective, global action and shared responsibility. We must take action—striving together, delivering for all.”

That meeting closed with a political declaration entitled Gearing up for a Decade of Action and Delivery for Sustainable Development” (A/74/4), which outlined lines and commitments for action.

Months later, the decade of action became a call to “build back better.” The pandemic unraveled hard-won commitments and forced us to change priorities, reallocate resources, and rethink the value of multilateralism.

Current debts

Today, halfway to the deadline for achieving the SDGs and amid a reality different from 2019, the time has come for a new tracking and monitoring cycle of the 2030 Agenda. If in 2019, we needed ten years of determined action to achieve the SDGs, we now only have seven, and we have taken a step backward. As reflected by the Secretary-General in a special edition of his annual report on the SDGs, “more than half the world is being left behind. Progress on 50% [of the SDG targets] is weak and insufficient…and we have stalled or gone into reverse on more than 30% of the SDGs.”

Power struggles between world powers, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the loss of confidence in international institutions, and the attention generated by discourses that propose magical solutions to real problems have led to fake news, which distorts the value of the 2030 Agenda.

Despite repeated calls for action and proposals, the funding required to achieve the SDGs is not forthcoming. In the meantime, the effects of climate change are becoming more tragic and costly in both human and financial terms. The global economy is progressing despite inflationary turbulence and the threat of stagnation. 

Technologies that provide solutions are not transferred to those in need, creating new gaps. Despite the discourse, several countries continue subsidizing fossil fuels. As the Secretary-General suggests, we need a new global social contract because the one we have is broken.

In this context, an effort has been launched to rebuild multilateralism as a driver of change, resulting in the following milestones: the Declaration on the Commemoration of the 75th Anniversary of the United Nations,  Our Common Agenda,” and the Summit of the Future to be held in 2024. Meanwhile, the SDG Summit is nestled between optimistic hope and uneasiness about the current global context.

The difficulty in negotiating a political declaration to be adopted by consensus at the end of the SDG Summit—which concluded without a draft approved by all parties—leads us to believe that the road ahead will not be easy.

Building the future

The SDG Summit will be marked by the aspects we have just mentioned. The greatest threat, in fact, is the difficulty of a constructive dialogue between the G77 and developed countries on sensitive issues, such as financing sustainable development, climate action, technology transfer, and how human rights come into play in a version of sustainable development that goes beyond formalities.

The G77, which shows a greater capacity to block proposals than to build a consensus among its members, seems to be conditioning its contribution to the SDG Summit on the acceptance of its demands for the Summit of the Future, which has proven to be difficult to prepare as well (after months of work, no agreement has been reached regarding a written resolution to decide its scope and working methods).

Developed countries seem unwilling to expand their development financing in times of economic uncertainty, voters seem to be attracted by nationalist discourse, and in some cases, there are even xenophobic overtones (which is already apparent in developing countries as well).

The UN seems to have lost some of its power to forge agreements and bring parties together on basic issues such as peace, human rights, and sustainable development. We have seen Russia invade Ukraine, witnessed the Taliban in Afghanistan, and watched hunger grow into one of poverty’s most abject displays and growing inequities.

The SDG Summit needs to reignite ambition, and the High-Level Political Forum needs to reclaim its leading and guiding role in driving SDG progress through concrete actions and solutions that we cannot afford to keep delaying.

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