On September 18 and 19, the SDG Summit 2023 took place as part of the 78th session of the United Nations General Assembly. There was a sense of urgency surrounding the Summit, given that it marked the halfway-point to the deadline for achieving the 2030 Agenda. It also took place amidst multiple crises, including the HIV/AIDS pandemic, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, massive population migrations, an economic crisis, natural disasters, and extreme weather events across the planet.
According to the UN Secretary General, only 15% of the SDG targets are “on track,” and many others show significant setbacks compared to the baseline. As such, expectations for the summit were high, with hopes that this space for deliberation would mark a real turning point, resulting in course correction and accelerated actions on the path towards 2030.
Some takeaways from this latest SDG Summit include a divisively adopted Political Declaration, the identification of the main gaps and accelerators of SDG implementation, and the UN Secretary General’s call for action in seven concrete areas.
A Weak Political Declaration
After several months of negotiations led by Ireland and Qatar, the Political Declaration was adopted without consensus. In fact, 11 countries (Belarus, Bolivia, Cuba, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Eritrea, Iran, Nicaragua, Russia, Syria, Venezuela, and Zimbabwe) reserved the right to further review its contents following the conclusions made during the General Assembly’s High-Level segment. The fact that the Declaration has not achieved consensus undermines its implementation and is a reflection of the existing divisions among member states—not only with regard to the 2030 Agenda, but also regarding the international political situation.
Identifying the main gaps and accelerators in order to achieve the 2023 Agenda targets
Some topics are continuously repeated and increasingly echoed in international discussions and debates around development. One of the most relevant summit topics focuses on SDG financing and the urgent need for extensive reform of both the United Nations System and international financial institutions, which are being urged to mobilize more and more resources—including those from the private sector—to developing countries, as well as implement innovative financial mechanisms that facilitate access to affordable and timely financing. Other mentioned topics include access to unused Special Drawing Rights and debt swaps, such as the payment of debt for environmental services.
Additionally, digitalization, technology transfer from more technologically-advanced countries to developing countries, the use of artificial intelligence, and capacity building to generate data for development are all part of the discussions around key accelerators for the 2030 Agenda.
Other frequent topics in the deliberations include tackling the climate crisis, closing the ongoing gender gaps affecting women and girls on all fronts, increasing access to education, and including young people in decision-making related to sustainable development.
The Secretary General’s “checklist” includes seven proposals for concrete actions to accelerate progress on the 2030 Agenda
Given that global meetings such as the SDG Summit tend to be treated as an opportunity for each country to state its own priorities and achievements rather than partake in dialogues and decision-making, it is worth highlighting the Secretary General’s effort to translate political commitments into concrete actions.
In his closing remarks, António Guterres presented an “SDG rescue plan,” summarized in seven concrete steps that can be implemented immediately in order to move beyond the Summit’s political commitments towards action:
- Convert the SDG Stimulus Plan into real investments in developing countries, starting by immediately defining a group of leaders to work on this topic.
- Transform the summit commitments into concrete actions by creating investment portfolios, policies, and budgets, as well as changing the focus of the Voluntary National Reviews so that they become true accountability mechanisms and better document the progress and commitments made at the SDG Summit.
- Strengthen actions around the six transitions needed to achieve the SDGs: food, energy, digitization, education, social protection, employment, and biodiversity. Progress will be measured at the 2024 HLPF.
- Increase investment in social protection to include one billion more people by 2025 and four billion by 2030.
- Ensure that developed countries comply with the commitment to allocate 0.7% of GDP for Official Development Assistance in their next fiscal year.
- Devote time in upcoming IMF and World Bank meetings to defining the mechanisms to reallocate US $100 million of unused Special Drawing Rights and reviewing proposals related to private investment in developing countries and mechanisms for debt swaps, among other topics.
- Present proposals at COP 28 that focus on concrete actions to reduce the effects of climate change.
However, the Political Declaration adopted by the Summit only refers to future steps in paragraph 38—an extensive yet weak section lacking concrete actions that can be implemented in the short term.
Accelerating actions toward sustainable development is the best way to overcome today’s multiple global instabilities. To this end, governments continue to recognize the 2030 Agenda and its 17 SDGs as our global roadmap and platform for action.
However, major commitments from governments and real action are required in order to course correct and accelerate progress. At the global governance level, there is an urgent need to implement reforms in the United Nations and the international financial structure. In terms of making progress on the SDGs, strengthening and reforming the HLPF should be a priority, given that the Forum is the natural place to discuss and track progress on the 2030 Agenda. The HLPF has been losing traction over the years and must regain its appeal at the highest levels of government in order to strengthen national governance and thus accelerate SDG implementation and monitoring. During its current session, the UN General Assembly will once again have to discuss how the Forum works, which is an opportunity to align it with pledges of accelerated action for sustainable development.
At the same time, we must stop shifting expectations and responsibility for each meeting to the next international forum or summit; instead, we must make decisions here and now. For example, the July 2023 HLPF did not produce a political declaration, since that could be done at the SDG Summit scheduled for September. In turn, although the SDG Summit was able to obtain some political commitments, it seems there is an expectation of results from the COP 28 in Brazil, the World Economic Forum, and the 2024 Summit of the Future.
In this scenario, the Latin America and the Caribbean region has both a leadership opportunity and responsibility to follow through, since countries from this region will hold important positions, including chairing the General Assembly (Dennis Francis, Trinidad and Tobago) and the Economic and Social Council (Paúla Narváez, Chile), as well as presiding over COP 30—to be held in Brazil in 2025. Getting the region to work together in a cohesive and action-oriented way can make a big difference on a global level.