Helen Clark: Lecture on The Future We Want– Can We Make it a Reality? at the Dag Hammarskjold Foundation

04 Nov 2014

Uppsala, Sweden

It is an honor to deliver this lecture in memory of the life and work of Dag Hammarskjold, the second Secretary General of the United Nations, and a man who was so memorably described by United States President John F. Kennedy as “the greatest statesman of our century”.

Fifty years after Dag Hammarskjold lost his life in a plane tragedy near Ndola in what is today Zambia, his contribution to international solidarity and co-operation continues to be highly and widely regarded, and deservedly so. All of us at the UN today stand on the shoulders of Dag Hammarskjold and all others who played such a significant role in establishing the mission and values of the organization.
Dag Hammarskjold’s contribution was made when the UN was still in its formative years. He was among the architects of its peacekeeping efforts, and he was committed to small states getting a fair hearing at the UN. Against the backdrop of the Cold War, the decolonization of Africa has been described as the defining issue of his term. All up, his reputation at the time of his death was consolidated as an independent-minded man with great integrity and intellect. He is indeed one of Sweden’s greatest sons.

The world which Dag Hammarskjold and the United Nations of his era were confronted with is different in countless ways from that of today. The nature of conflict, for example, has changed considerably – these days, armed conflicts are far more likely to occur within states than between them, and to involve disparate non-state actors.

Yet it is a tribute to the foresight of those who drafted the UN Charter in 1945 that its three pillars of peace and security, development, and human rights remain as relevant today as they did almost seventy years ago. Yes, progress has been made on all three fronts, but there is also serious unfinished business. The debate around the post-2015 development agenda is one entry point for addressing that. I know that the Dag Hammarskjold Foundation with its broad vision for a fair and peaceful world has itself been focused on what this new agenda might look like, and how the UN development system might equip itself to support its implementation.

The Millennium Development Goals experience

The beginning of the new millennium was a good opportunity for the UN to launch a big new initiative for development. Hopes were high at the Millennium Summit, which I attended as New Zealand Prime Minister, that we might collectively do better in the new century than in the bloody one which preceded it. The Millennium Declaration painted a broad canvas, setting out hopes for more progress on all three pillars of the UN Charter. On development, the Declaration was specific, and its elements formed the basis of what were to become the MDGs.

Around the world, the MDGs were widely embraced as global development priorities. They set out to tackle extreme poverty and hunger; protect the environment; expand education; advance health, gender equality, and women’s empowerment; and foster global partnerships for development.

At the global level, there has been significant progress towards a number of the MDG targets:

•    There are hundreds of millions fewer people living in extreme poverty today than there were in 1990 – the baseline date against which progress is measured.

•    The target of halving the proportion of people without access to an improved drinking water source was achieved in 2010, five years ahead of schedule. Over 2.3 billion people gained such access between 1990 and 2012.

•    On average around the world, gender parity in primary education has been achieved, and most children now enrol in a primary school.

•    The lives of many urban slum dwellers are said to have improved.

•    Levels of infant and child mortality have decreased significantly, and there is a downward trend in maternal, tuberculosis, and global malaria deaths. The tide is turning on HIV. The evidence is that the health areas targeted by the MDGs have seen faster progress than would have been expected from the trends existing before 2000.

Bleak as the news can be on environmental degradation, some priority areas for action which were reinforced by MDG targets are showing results. It is now reported, for example, that most of the ozone layer will recover to the relatively healthy levels of the 1980s by 2050.

This is the glass more than half full view of the MDGs. The downside we all know – for example, that progress has been uneven within and between countries, and that the targets set for 2015 did not aim to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger, but only to halve the levels. By any standards, there is work to do to realize the vision of the Millennium Declaration.

The obstacles in the way are a mix of new and old problems. For example:

•    Our old enemies, war and conflict, continue to deny development and human rights to significant numbers of people. It is hard to think of a time when more crises were jostling for space in the headline news than there are right now. From Afghanistan to the Arab States region, to a number of countries from the Sahel reaching across to the Horn of Africa, and to Ukraine and elsewhere, conflict continues to take a heavy toll on communities with the impacts spilling across national borders.

•    As extreme poverty has been declining, income inequality has been rising in many countries. We estimate that more than 75 per cent of the population in developing countries are living in societies where income distribution is less equal now than it was in the 1990s. High levels of inequality make poverty reduction even harder to achieve. Both inequality and poverty reduction need to be specifically targeted.

•    The threats from environmental degradation, including of our climate, have gathered speed. More extreme weather events endanger lives, livelihoods, and whole nations. Health-damaging air pollution is a price which many are paying for fast development underpinned by fossil fuels.

•    Gender inequality is persistent and pervasive – along with the sexual and gender-based violence which blights the lives of women and girls in societies at war and allegedly at peace.

•    The rights of LGBTI people have scarcely registered on the Richter scale in many societies. Members of these communities often live in fear of violence, and even of imprisonment in those countries which have harsh and discriminatory laws.

•    Infectious disease is another old enemy. Just as we note the progress in fighting the diseases specified by the MDGs – HIV, malaria, and TB, Ebola arrives in three of the world’s poorest countries with the least capacity to fight a disease outbreak like this one. If there is ever a case for international solidarity, it is the need right now to contain the spread of this disease, and through early diagnosis to give those who are infected the best possible chance of survival.

So where now on the global development agenda?

The good news is that the emerging post-2015 agenda looks like being bolder and more transformational than what preceded it. There is also broad agreement that it should be a universal agenda – applying to all countries. This recognizes that development is not just something which happens somewhere else to other people. Developed countries have substantial development challenges too, as I know well from leading one for nine years.

Sweden has for many years promoted a vision of a world which aims for human development within the context of environmental sustainability. The very first major UN conference on the environment was held in Stockholm over four decades ago. It is telling that it was called a conference on the human environment – and that it connected the problem of poverty with that of environmental degradation. Now in 2015, we have a good chance of getting a global development agenda which recognizes that continued human development requires us to stop the unsustainable use of the ecosystems on which human life and progress depend.

Two years ago the UN Secretary-General called for “an open, inclusive and transparent consultation process with contributions from a wide range of stakeholders” for shaping the post-2015 development agenda.

Responding to this call, our UN development system has facilitated an unprecedented consultation. This has enabled people from all walks of life around the world to share their priorities for the new agenda – both face to face and online.

National consultations were held in almost 100 countries. Every effort was made to reach out to the poorest and most marginalized communities, which are not usually asked for their perspectives on global agendas. There were eleven consultations around major themes, involving civil society, academia, and officialdom. They discussed in depth governance, food security, conflict, inequalities, health, education, the environment, and other areas. The global on-line MY World survey has enabled more than five million people to rank their priorities for the future they want for our world. It will come as no surprise that health, education, and jobs came out as top priorities, but next in line was honest and responsive governance – which is so necessary for getting sustained and inclusive development results.

We greatly value Sweden’s support for these public consultations. SIDA and the Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs hosted a national consultation in December 2012, and also co-convened the global thematic consultation on health in Botswana in March last year.  

The findings from the global consultations informed the deliberations of the Open Working Group on SDGs which was appointed by the UN General Assembly. The seventeen goals and 169 targets which it has proposed do reflect much of what people have said they want in the new agenda, including some of the most transformative elements. It is important that the new agenda does reflect the hopes and aspirations of the world’s people. That will increase both its legitimacy and the level of confidence people have in global processes.

A major concern in the public consultations was to finish the unfinished business of the MDGs and to “leave no one behind”. Without doubt the new agenda will seek the eradication of poverty, along with hunger and more equitable outcomes from development.

For UNDP, it is very significant that the OWG proposal contains a goal on promoting peaceful and inclusive societies, providing access to justice for all, and building effective, accountable, and inclusive institutions. The targets recommended include promoting the rule of law and participatory and representative decision-making, tackling corruption, and promoting and enforcing laws against discrimination.

Increasingly we are seeing high levels of extreme poverty and development setbacks concentrated where there is conflict and/or poor governance, a weak state, low social cohesion and political and economic exclusion, and/or high exposure to natural disasters. There are development interventions which can address all these factors – and thereby endeavor to avert the deadly and complex humanitarian emergencies which are currently draining official development assistance budgets.

What will make achievement of an ambitious agenda a reality?

As the old saying goes, money isn’t everything, but it helps. Next July, the Third International Conference on Financing for Development will take place in Addis Ababa. Its outcome will be critical in enabling agreement to be reached on the SDGs. Funding is considered a central component of what UN Member States refer to as “means of implementation”.

Compared to the MDGs, the new sustainable development agenda will also be much more about making good policy choices. Nonetheless, the availability of official development assistance is still very important for low-income countries in particular, and commitment to ODA at adequate levels is important for building trust in the post-2015 negotiations.

The discussions on financing for development should take into account the wide range of contributions and partnerships.  ODA these days is dwarfed by the funding flows from trade, investment, and remittances, and by the domestic resource mobilization made possible by more rapid growth in developing and emerging economies. In this sense the partnerships for development are far bigger than ever before, involving significant levels of interaction across the South, as well as between North and South, and involving major private sector contributions too.

But money aside, there are also “softer” means of implementation which can help the SDGs to be a success. The UN Development Group is currently supporting a second round of consultations on a number of these, and I will comment on each in turn:

1)    The role of local government is vital. By definition this is the layer of government closest to the people, and it often has significant decision-making and spending power.

By 2030, almost sixty per cent of the world’s population will be urbanized. That puts a premium on the quality of urban governance, and that is even more essential in the world’s mega-cities which far outstrip in size many of the UN’s Member States.

“Localizing the Post-2015 agenda” was one of the themes at the 9th annual meeting of the Development Partners’ Working Group on Decentralization and Local Governance (DeLoG), which took place in Sweden. Sweden and UNDP are both members of this group. In its work the empowerment of local government has repeatedly been cited as critical for development success.

2.    Effective institutions are also vital for implementing development agendas. They have critical roles in designing and implementing the policies needed to advance sustainable development. Strengthening institutional capacities was not mentioned in the MDGs, but as a “means of implementation” it must not be neglected in the SDGs.

This strengthening ideally needs to go beyond improving the effectiveness and efficiency of institutions and into making them more open and responsive to stakeholders in policy design, implementation, and monitoring. If inclusion of all stakeholders, especially the most vulnerable and marginalized, is made a cornerstone of institutional strengthening, UNDP believes that the implementation of the post-2015 agenda will be more successful.

Strengthening the capacity of institutions is a key area of UNDP’s work around the world. In many countries we enjoy Sweden’s direct support for this, not least in fragile states from Liberia to Afghanistan and South Sudan.

3.    To elaborate further, the importance of broad participatory monitoring and accountability in implementing the new agenda is widely recognized. What has come through in the global consultations is that people want to be engaged, not just in debating what the global agenda should be, but also in driving it through. They want to hold their leaders to account, and they want access to the information and open data which will enable them to monitor what is happening.  

A number of best practices aimed at broadening participation and strengthening participatory monitoring of development processes have been highlighted in the consultations. They include the Citizen’s Evaluation for Good Governance in Albania which uses a scorecard for social auditing and gender budgeting; Zambia’s use of M-WASH, a mobile and web-based monitoring, evaluation, and reporting system which reaches 1.7 million people focusing on water and sanitation services; and Thailand’s iMonitor application which tracks and evaluates the delivery of HIV services, allowing people to log ‘alerts” if ARV medicines and condoms are not available in health centers, and to report discrimination against HIV positive people in the workplace.  

4.    The full, active, and meaningful engagement of civil society is required to support participatory monitoring and accountability. An enabling environment for that needs to be created, including through legislation, so that civil society can contribute systematically.
There are a number of models of effective civil society engagement in advancing development. For example, the Zambia national dialogue noted that the Citizen Voice and Action model, which facilitates dialogue between communities and government with the goal of improving services (such as health care and education), has been highly effective.

5.    The role of the private sector in implementation is also essential, as a source of investment, employment, and innovation, and as a partner in pooling resources and sharing risks. Overall, how businesses do business has a significant bearing on whether poverty is eradicated and sustainability is achieved.

The private sector has shown considerable interest in the post-2015 development agenda, including through the work of the UN Global Compact. Here in Sweden, Leadership for Sustainable Development – a group of some twenty leading companies – has committed to take action on sustainable business and poverty reduction, and in finding long term solutions to today’s major development challenges.

6.    In implementing the new development agenda, culture and heritage needs to be recognized as a source of values and a driver of economic opportunity.

Culturally sensitive approaches are important in getting development results, including in education and in the promotion of gender equality. Around the world such approaches have enabled girls, for example, to stay at school and ward off pressures for early marriage and childbirth, thereby expanding their choices throughout their lifetimes.

In addition to taking part in the consultations on the “softer” means of implementation, UNDP is also working with a number of partners to trial how indicators for new areas of goals might be designed and measured.

The main focus of this exercise has been on proposed Goal 16 on the promotion of peaceful and inclusive societies, access to justice, and the importance of effective, accountable, and inclusive institutions. We think success on such a goal would help drive progress on all the others. Yet it is considered one of the more controversial goals and many countries are unfamiliar with how such a goal could be measured, and how broadly-defined universal targets and indicators could be translated at the national level. Our pilots, therefore, seek primarily to address these practical measurement questions, as well as the processes which countries would need to go through to set, implement, and monitor appropriate national targets and indicators.

Pilots are currently underway in Indonesia, Rwanda, Tunisia, and Albania, and others are planned. These are at an early stage and concrete results are not yet available. The exercise is confirming, however, that while the topic of “governance” is often politically charged in intergovernmental processes in New York, at the national and sub-national levels it can be operationalized in non-controversial ways. Usually these efforts are led by planning divisions or departments which are focused on the nuts and bolts of how to design, implement, and measure progress on the agenda.

Across all the consultations on post-2015, a persistent call has come for a “data revolution” to ensure that the information and analysis needed to monitor progress are available. This requires strengthening capacity at the national level and UNDP is backing initiatives addressing this; for example, by supporting a community of African statisticians working on how to address the gap in availability of high-quality, nationally-produced peace and governance data in its Strategy for the Harmonization of Statistics in Africa (SHaSA).

The central role of the United Nations in driving the post-2015 agenda

The UN’s universality, legitimacy, strong normative foundation, and unparalleled global operational presence gives it a unique platform from which to facilitate the global partnerships needed to implement the post-2015 agenda.

UNDP itself has also unique strengths. We have a proven ability to influence policy and build capacity, and a long-standing role as a trusted partner working across sectors and with multiple stakeholders, often on sensitive issues. Our large country network and our core co-ordination function for the UN development system reinforce UNDP’s strengths. We are able to contribute to the design and implementation of the kinds of integrated solutions so urgently needed for sustainable development. Our new Strategic Plan for 2014 to 2017 is both more strategic and more focused, and we are adjusting our structures, systems, and processes to enable us to deliver consistently better advice and support for development results.

A broader reflection is also occurring in the UN Development Group to ensure that as a collective we are “fit for purpose” for post-2015. The aim is to build on the strengths and added value of the UN system and to make it more agile. We need all agencies working collaboratively in support of national and global priorities and to be able to demonstrate the value of what they do.

So: can we make “the Future We Want” a reality? Yes, we can, if Member States commit to playing their part, and also open up the space for citizens, civil society, the private sector, and other voices.

The hard issues can’t be dodged. We can’t eradicate poverty in countries at war or where human rights are systematically violated.  We can’t avoid development setbacks unless there is more investment in disaster risk reduction, conflict prevention, and resilience to other shocks.

Strong global partnerships and national ownership of the post-2015 agenda could move mountains. We count on Sweden, a strong multilateralist and one of the world’s most committed development partners, to be a voice for the things which matter in driving the post-2015 agenda.