Helen Clark: Speech on Transforming Societies: People, Planet and Prosperity; the New Global Sustainable Development Agenda at The Global Transformation Forum

Oct 21, 2015

UNDP is pleased to join the Government of Malaysia and the BFR (Big Fast Results) Institute as a strategic partner in this Global Transformation Forum. The forum is very timely as we approach the end of a watershed year for development when major new global agendas are being agreed.

Last month, world leaders meeting at the United Nations in New York adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) set out global priorities for both people and planet. They tackle important human development and other challenges, and the means of creating a more peaceful, inclusive, and sustainable world.

This new agenda, replacing the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), should be seen in the context of three other global development-related processes this year:
•    the outcome of the Third UN World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction in Sendai, Japan. If development isn’t risk informed, it won’t be sustainable development;
•    the Addis Ababa Action Agenda adopted at the Third International Conference on Financing for Development in July in Ethiopia. Money may not be everything, but it does matter rather a lot in achieving development progress;
•    the new agreement on climate change expected to be reached at COP21 in Paris. Climate change has emerged as one of the major threats – some would say the major threat – to sustainable development.

But finalising global agendas is one thing; implementing them is another. I hope that this forum and many others can project a sense of urgency about moving from agreement to action.

The focus at this Forum is on transformation - a key word for implementation of all the new global agendas. The sub-title of the 2030 Agenda is “Transforming our World”. Indeed, fundamental transformations in the way the world lives, works, and does business are needed for building the low carbon, climate resilient, green and inclusive economies and societies of the future.

Agenda 2030 challenges us:
•    to transform for “people” and for “planet”;
•    to transform how we understand and how we strive for “prosperity”;
•    and to travel a road to transformation based on peace, stability, inclusion, and partnerships.

Let me elaborate on each of these points.

Transforming Societies for People and for Planet

The 2030 Agenda puts people at the centre of sustainable development - as its ultimate beneficiaries. But the Agenda is clear that people’s well-being can only be secured if the planet on which we all depend is itself healthy.

(a)    People
Having people at the centre of the new agenda builds on the human development approach adopted by UNDP and many other development actors, including governments, since the publication of the first global Human Development Report in 1990. The human development paradigm was developed as an alternative to the tyranny of judging development progress by the size of GDP per capita alone. Every year the Human Development Index ranks countries’ development status on a weighted formula. It takes into account education and health status alongside GDP per capita to give a more balanced picture of progress. It conveys an image of development as being about achieving overall wellbeing, based on people living longer, healthier, and more fulfilling lives.

Agenda 2030 is premised on leaving no one behind in development. It aspires to “end poverty in all its forms everywhere”. It is a universal agenda, urging actions by all countries. Thus the new Sustainable Development Goals lift the bar much higher than the Millennium Development Goals which preceded them did. Reaching the goals and targets will require both political will and smart strategies to reach the last-mile of exclusion and confront the often painful and entrenched biases which have left those excluded behind.

Reducing inequality is identified as a top priority in the SDGs. While many developing countries have, on average, increased their average incomes and converged in GDP per capita towards more advanced economies, inequalities have also grown in many nations rich and poor. UNDP estimates that seventy per cent of people in developing countries are living in societies which are less equal now than they were in 1990 – the baseline date for measuring MDG progress. The International Labor Organization (ILO) warns that child poverty is rising in eighteen of the 28 European Union member states, and suggests a link to falling levels of maternity and child benefits.

Gender inequality remains a major challenge, hindering the capacity of nations to unlock the full transformative contribution which women can make to our world.

Overall, high levels of inequality tear at the very fabric of our societies. Political, economic, and/or social exclusion and the lack of hope which goes with that have contributed to the rise of sectarianism and violence.

Reducing inequalities will require proactive policies and investments across education, skills training, sexual and reproductive health services, availability of credit, and in all the other services which widen opportunity. It may require legislative and regulatory change, and reorientation of societal norms.

Placing people at the centre of development also has implications for how today’s refugee and migrant crises are handled. They are driven by both flight from war and conflict and by flight from poverty. How the tens of  millions of displaced people in our world today are treated is a test of our humanity, and of our commitment to the people-centered aspiration of the 2030 Agenda.

(b)    Planet
Agenda 2030 commits all UN Member States to reversing existing patterns of environmental degradation, including by taking urgent action on climate change.

Sometimes our dependence on our planet’s ecosystems is oversimplified. It is not only those living directly off the land or from forests who are dependent on the health of ecosystems, critical as their needs are – we all are dependent on ecosystem health. Ecosystem damage not only causes loss of biodiversity – important as that is. It has huge consequences for human security, wellbeing, and economies. The poorest and most vulnerable are affected the most by environmental degradation, but in the end, we all are.

Take the serious problem of haze being experienced in this part of South East Asia at present – it has economic, social and environmental implications. It is a complex trans border issue which needs comprehensive sustainable development responses to resolve it. I sincerely hope ways will be found to address this challenge.

The current world population of 7.3 billion is expected to reach 9.7 billion in the next 35 years. Unless we change how we govern and use the world’s resources, we will further threaten the health of the planet which gives us food, nutrition, clean air and water.

Climate change in itself is one of the greatest challenges of our time. Its impacts are already being felt around the world. To preserve development gains, we must ensure that adaptation to what has already happened is a priority, alongside mitigation to avert the worst happening and ensure a more stable climate. This matters enormously to developing countries on the frontlines of climate change. A new grouping of finance ministers from highly vulnerable countries has just formed to advocate for adequate financing for climate action in their countries. Called the V20, its voice must be heard in the run up to COP21 in Paris.

Climate leadership and action is needed from all governments. Governments can ensure, for example, that their policy and regulatory settings create environments which attract investment into renewable energy and other areas of mitigation. These kinds of investments have potential to create new jobs, support economic growth, and diversify energy sources. UNDP has worked on conducive regulatory regimes, including for renewable energy, in a number of countries. We also join the IMF in calling for an end to fossil fuel subsidies everywhere in order to release public funds for sustainable development, while also ensuring social protection for the vulnerable.

Climate change COP 21 in Paris follows closely on from the adoption of the 2030 Agenda. Let us hope that the good will from the successful multilateral process on the SDGs can flow into reaching an ambitious global agreement on climate change, both on mitigation and adaptation.

Transforming how we understand and strive towards Prosperity
When we think of what it means to be prosperous, we are somehow drawn instinctively towards ideals of high incomes, vibrant industrial activity, and bustling metropolitan centres. The tendency still is to measure success by how fast economies grow.  Shared prosperity, however, calls for consideration of not only the rate of economic growth, but also its quality. Good economic performance needs to translate into inclusive and sustainable development which reduces poverty and inequality while also protecting our planet.

This is challenging, including in developed countries. Data from the International Labour Organisation shows, for example, that labour productivity in thirty-six developed economies rose by seventeen per cent between 1999 and 2013, but that real wages increased by only six per cent over the same period. The late 1990s to 2007 period was the first in which economic expansion in the United States did not translate into increasing incomes for the majority of the population.

In a number of developing countries, GDP growth fueled by the extractives sector has not contributed to fast poverty reduction. Yet with effective governance and policies, that could change to see more countries and their people benefiting from their resource endowment and not suffering a “resource curse”.

Generating inclusive and sustainable growth and shared prosperity requires ensuring that all people – including women, youth, persons with disabilities, indigenous people, and members of minorities of all kinds have access to decent work, social protection, and financial services.

It is therefore very welcome to see the agreement to a new social compact in the Addis Ababa Action Agenda, with UN Member States undertaking to provide fiscally sustainable and nationally appropriate social protection systems, including social protection floors.

We should also bear in mind that the health of our planet is under threat largely because of the way economies and societies have traditionally developed. The way progress is measured has generally under-reported or ignored altogether the true environmental costs of our activity. The new global agenda requires us therefore to transform our economies by shifting to sustainable consumption and production patterns and managing natural resources sustainably.

To achieve the SDGs, major new investments are needed in infrastructure. When these investments take place in sustainable and resilient infrastructure, they will create jobs and lay the foundations for long-term growth.

More broadly, conducive incentives and regulations can help ensure that private investment decisions move the world towards sustainable development. Through commitment to eco-sensitive ways of operating and to inclusive business approaches which make micro business and SMEs part of companies’ core business as suppliers, distributors, or retailers, the impact can be very positive.

Transforming Societies by Ensuring Peace and Pursuing Partnerships

Finally, towards the “how” of the transformation. There cannot be any “how” to virtually anything without peace – it is a prerequisite for sustainable development. And the breadth and scope of the new agenda calls for broad partnerships, across countries and multiple stakeholders.

The preamble of the SDG Agenda notes that “there can be no sustainable development without peace, and no peace without sustainable development”.

We need to invest in a better understanding of the root causes of conflict and their complex economic, social, and political dynamics. We need to acknowledge the changing nature of fragility and crises. The UN was founded to end war between nations, and that has largely been achieved. But today’s civil wars and asymmetrical conflicts require new approaches and tools – and their precursors could be addressed much earlier.

SDG 16 breaks new ground in committing Member States to “promote peaceful and inclusive societies, provide access to justice for all, and build effective, accountable, and inclusive institutions at all levels”. The inclusion of this Goal is recognition of the link between achieving sustainable development and peace.

Many countries and societies continue to bear the human and economic costs of conflict, with spillover effects being felt thousands of miles away from the epicentres of instability. Worldwide displacement reached an all-time high this year, with close to sixty million people estimated to be displaced.

If Goal 16 were universally achieved, the conflicts we see destroying lives and hopes and driving so many to take desperate and dangerous journeys to other lands could become a thing of the past.

There need to be greater efforts to address the drivers of conflict and instability. This could be through strengthening social cohesion, establishing the rule of law and the capacity for peaceful dispute resolution, and making governance more inclusive and effective. Lack of voice and of meaningful participation in political structures is capable of precipitating conflict – and these factors are often accompanied by economic and social exclusion as well. Together, these are a toxic brew.

The role of civil society will be important for the success of the SDGs. We need to support free, vibrant, and safe civic spaces which enable civil society actors, including always women and youth, to contribute effectively to the building of more peaceful, just, and inclusive societies.

UN Member States have committed to a revitalized Global Partnership which will work in a spirit of global solidarity, bring together all stakeholders, and mobilize all available resources for sustainable development.

Collective action is needed to address shared challenges, including climate change, violent conflicts and the security and refugee crises they generate, an unsettled global economy, the threat of contagious diseases, and disasters.

Financing needs for implementation of the SDGs are great. All sources of finance – domestic and international, public and private – will be essential. Synergies must be found between the use of environment and climate finance and development finance. One source of finance does not substitute for another, and Official Development Assistance will remain essential for the poorest and most vulnerable countries.  Yet aid alone is but a small part of the development finance equation.

While each country has primary responsibility for its own economic and social development as recognized in the 2030 Agenda, national development efforts need to be supported by an enabling international economic environment, including coherent and mutually supporting world trade, monetary, and financial systems, and strengthened and enhanced global economic governance.

New forms of partnerships must also reflect the changing geopolitical landscape and the full diversity of financial flows and development actors, including within the Global South. South-South Co-operation has become a vital source of innovation, knowledge, expertise, and solutions in tackling development challenges. It will play a central role in implementation of the new global agenda as a complement to and not as a substitute for traditional North-South co-operation.

Role of the United Nations development system
I cannot conclude without saying a word about the role of the United Nations development system, which must play its part and transform itself to support implementation of the new global agenda. We have agreed a common approach to supporting governments and national stakeholders on implementation. It is called ‘MAPS’, which stands for mainstreaming, acceleration and policy support.

“Mainstreaming”, refers to the support we can give governments as they incorporate the agenda in their national and local strategies, plans, and budgets, and strengthen their data systems. This will require intensive outreach to national stakeholders about the new agenda, and, where appropriate, strengthening the capacities of stakeholders to contribute.

“Acceleration” entails supporting countries to identify obstacles and bottlenecks standing in the way of making progress on goals and targets, and identifying actions which can remove them. An acceleration approach to achieving MDG targets was used successfully in more than fifty countries over the past five years.

“Policy support” will make co-ordinated policy and technical support available from the UN system to countries on request, drawing on our extensive expertise and programming experience.

MAPS is an approach which can be adjusted to each development context and set of challenges faced. Supporting partnerships, the availability of quality data and analysis, and accountability are themes which cut across all three components of our approach to implementation.

Just as the UN Millennium Campaign advocated globally for the MDGs, so a successor campaign will seek to popularize the goals in every country, and to bring stakeholders together to support implementation, including by sponsoring citizen-driven processes to track progress.


Sustainable development in the 21st century is not something which happens to somebody else, somewhere else. We all have a stake in it, and every country has work to do to progress towards it. There are challenges in the new Sustainable Development Goals for every country on earth.
The good news is that our world has more wealth, more knowledge, and more technologies at its disposal than ever before. The challenges we face are mostly human induced. We can tackle them, but not if we keep doing business as usual and expecting different results.

Ours is the last generation which can head off the worst effects of climate change, and the first generation with the wealth and knowledge to eradicate poverty. For this, leadership from each one of us is needed.

If the global community collectively is prepared to step up to the challenge of achieving the Sustainable Development Goals, then there’s a chance of achieving sustainable development – and with it transforming prospects for people and our planet.

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