15 September 2023
Pre-SDG Summit Dialogue Examines Opportunities to Raise Ambition
Photo Credit: Lynn Wagner
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The online discussion themed, ‘What to Expect from the Upcoming SDG Summit?’ was held on 14 September 2023, in advance of the SDG Summit, taking place in New York, US, from 18-19 September.

Participants reflected on why this Summit matters, and highlighted successes and lessons learned.

The SDG Lab, CEPEI, and the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) organized a virtual dialogue on what to expect for the SDG Summit. The webinar explored why this Summit is crucial, discussed how to raise ambition for SDG implementation, and highlighted lessons learned pivotal to turbocharging the 2030 Agenda in the remaining seven years.

The online discussion themed, ‘What to Expect from the Upcoming SDG Summit?’ was held on 14 September 2023, in advance of the SDG Summit, taking place in New York, US, from 18-19 September.

Trine Schmidt, Strategic Advisor, UN SDG Lab, moderated the discussion. She said the SDG Summit marks the halfway point for the achievement of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its SDGs and invited the participants to reflect on why this Summit matters.

Nathalie Bernasconi-Osterwalder, IISD Co-CEO, offered welcome remarks. She said the SDG Summit takes place almost exactly eight years after the UN General Assembly (UNGA) adopted the SDGs, setting the stage for a new era and an ambitious agenda for people and the planet. She said the mid-point in SDG implementation is a critical moment to come together for dialogue on how to stay on track and find new energy to pour into commitments. Bernasconi-Osterwalder called for doubling down on the SDGs with the future in mind as the systems we build to advance the Goals today will have impact tomorrow and beyond 2030.

On expectations for the Summit and raising ambition, Nudhara Yusuf, Executive Coordinator of the Global Governance Innovation Network, and Global Youth Coordinator at the Coalition for the UN We Need (C4UN), used a soccer game metaphor to capture the Summit’s role in: taking stock of progress at halftime; noting what targets have been achieved and what targets have remained static or regressed; and reevaluating what we can do differently to turn the game around. She drew attention to the different multilateral agendas, including multiple high-level meetings during the UNGA High-level Week and the process to advance Our Common Agenda, and highlighted the way we are managing these different agendas as a key gap. Yusuf hoped the Summit would distill and bring them together by focusing on three “buckets of issues:” implementing “what is there”; developing entry points for issues that fall into a “do-soon” category; and talking about things that are still contentious.   

Sheikh Abdulrahman Al-Thani, Second Secretary, Permanent Mission of Qatar to the UN, noted that while we still have 7.5 years, every day counts. He identified the mid-point in SDG implementation as an urgent call for action, political will, and high-level engagement, and stressed the need to talk about “how to reach the Goals as much as possible by 2030.”

John Gilroy, First Secretary, Lead on Sustainable Development, Permanent Mission of Ireland to the UN, said Member States share a sense of realism when it comes to how badly we are off track at the halfway point. He underscored that while there is still time for change, it has to be the right kind of change, stressing the need to foster our understanding of synergies and holistic approaches. Gilroy further highlighted:

  • A clear commitment to the 2030 Agenda as our blueprint and “our last best hope” as the core message of the Summit and the political declaration it will adopt;
  • The growing recognition that the SDGs provide “a complicated solution to a really complicated problem” through meaningful integration in national processes; and
  • The fundamental role of financing in achieving the SDGs, hoping the SDG Summit creates momentum to “move the needle” on finance conversations.

On successes and lessons learned, Yusuf spoke about the importance of adding sustainability to the 2030 Agenda by including the technical expertise of youth “in terms of the intergenerational nature of things.” She called for: identifying entry points for change and using disaggregated data to see if these accelerators are working; and “closing feedback loops and generating virtual cycles of change” by making sure commitments feed back into action. Yusuf further emphasized the need to standardize how we think about progress and warned against making contentious, and renegotiating, issues that had already been agreed.

Al-Thani said while the 2030 Agenda brought Member States together around the SDGs, not all the Goals and targets are the same for every country. He emphasized the need for countries to generate national commitments to implement the SDGs at home.

Gilroy highlighted the global awareness of the 2030 Agenda and solidarity around the SDGs when the multilateral system is facing skepticism as successes. Among lessons learned, he noted: the lack of robust monitoring and accountability, which has hurt the Agenda; and the need to standardize voluntary national reviews (VNRs) as “without knowing where we are, we cannot figure out where we need to go.”

The speakers then answered questions from the audience.

Al-Thani emphasized that SDG localization needs to occur on a case-by-case basis as many countries have financing issues. He stressed that leaders need to be held accountable for what say they are doing to implement the Goals in their countries.

Gilroy said countries should come to the High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF) to talk about not only successes but also challenges and learn from others as “pretending you are doing great will not help you course correct.” “It is okay to be ambitious and fail,” he said. To ramp up implementation, Gilroy recommended to keep pushing and build momentum to meaningfully integrate the SDGs in new areas that can serve as accelerators.

On how to make the SDGs “cool,” Yusuf acknowledged concentration around issues that are easier to understand. She called for clear messaging on the framing of overarching issues and for using easily accessible language. Gilroy suggested building on many actors’ focus on climate and using it as an entry point to help people understand the economic and social impacts, thus making sure engagement is not siloed.

On national commitments expected from the SDG Summit, Gilroy indicated that the UN Secretary-General intends to collate them and make sure there is follow-up. “It is not about headline announcements but implementing the commitments,” he said.

Looking beyond 2030, Yusuf called for clarity of the road going forward and for “getting on the right side of the multiplier effect” as the impacts of the choices we make today, good or bad, will only increase. She said the SDG Summit is the ‘what,’ and the 2024 Summit of the Future is the ‘how,’ as it would “give us the toolkit to achieve the SDGs.” She underscored the need for the outcomes of the SDG Summit to feed into the Summit of the Future.

In conclusion, Schmidt thanked the participants and invited them to register for the SDG Summit Debrief that will take place on 28 September. [What to Expect from the Upcoming SDG Summit?]

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