High-Level Political Forum Opens amid Calls for More Robust Action to Fulfil Sustainable Development Goals, as Rising Inequality Threatens Progress

Four years after their adoption, progress on many of the Sustainable Development Goals remains slow amid rising inequality, the impacts of climate change and the world's most vulnerable people suffering the most, the United Nations High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development heard today as it began its fourth annual session.

Over two weeks, the Forum � under the auspices of the Economic and Social Council � will review progress in implementing the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and pinpoint challenges ahead of the General Assembly's Sustainable Development Goals Summit at Headquarters on 24 and 25 September.

The global response thus far has not been ambitious enough, said Liu Zhemin, Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs. Referring to the 2019 special edition of the Secretary-General's progress report on the Sustainable Development Goals, he said that, while gains have been made in several areas, progress remains slow on many targets.

Our collective ambition for realizing the 2030 Agenda hinges on how we manage the evolving risks and challenges and whether we seize the social, economic and environmental opportunities before us; it is imperative to act now with renewed commitment and accelerated action, he said, encouraging delegates to return to New York in September with fresh acceleration initiatives.

Yolanda Joab Mori, Founder and Executive Director of Island PRIDE and One Young World Ambassador of the Federated States of Micronesia, challenged leaders to be bold. Rather than work in silos, they must close the disconnect between Governments and grass roots, she said, underscoring the effects of climate change on small island developing States. We need to start thinking differently and welcome disruption, she added, encouraging Forum participants to move faster and demonstrate more courage.

Chris Skinner, an author and commentator from the United Kingdom, discussed the promise of fintech � which integrates finance and technology � to extend financial services to more people in ways that can advance the 2030 Agenda. Emphasizing that banking should not be only for the wealthy, he said the new world of finance can reach the unreachable, teach young people about financial literacy and help to protect older persons from financial predators.

Najat Maalla M'jid, Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Violence against Children, said implementation of the 2030 Agenda will help keep the promise of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which is marking its thirtieth anniversary this year. Announcing that her office will launch a report next week on ending violence against children by 2030, she warned that such abuse remains hidden and pervasive.

Economic and Social Council President Inga Rhonda King (Saint Vincent and the Grenadines) said the Forum will discuss 6 of the 17 Goals: equitable quality education; inclusive and sustainable economic growth and decent work for all; inequalities; combating climate change; promoting peaceful and inclusive societies; and strengthening the means of implementation. This is a global moment where we are all together, she said. We need to use it to its utmost.

Council Vice-President Valentin Rybakov (Belarus) shared key messages from the Council's integration segment, held on 8 July, which focused on efforts to empower people and ensure inclusiveness and equality.

Today's opening statements were followed by a two-part interactive dialogue focused on where the world now stands on achieving the Goals and who is most at risk of being left behind. Several speakers warned that growing inequality worldwide threatens to undermine sustainable development and derail efforts to eradicate extreme poverty. An afternoon panel was dedicated to reviewing implementation of the Goals and interactions between them.

The High-Level Political Forum will reconvene at 9 a.m. on Wednesday, 10 July, to continue its work.

Opening Remarks

The Economic and Social Council, opening the first meeting of its High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development, adopted a provisional agenda (document E/HLPF/2019/1).

INGA RHONDA KING (Saint Vincent and the Grenadines), President of the Economic and Social Council, said the meeting marks the last in its first cycle, with the successful review of all 17 Sustainable Development Goals set out in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and a total of 142 countries having presented voluntary national reviews. Four years after the adoption of the 2030 Agenda, this meeting is special, she said, with the Council having delivered on its mandate. The meeting is not an end in itself, but a global platform to showcase experiences, share lessons learned and forge partnerships.

Outlining the Forum's activities for the current session � from 9 to 19 July, including eight special events and more than 130 side events � she said the theme centres on empowering people and ensuring inclusiveness and equality. Six Sustainable Development Goals will be discussed: equitable quality education; inclusive and sustainable economic growth and decent work for all; inequalities; combating climate change; promoting peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development; and strengthening the means of implementation. Also under discussion are updates on progress and challenges and whether efforts are on track towards realizing the 2030 Agenda, she said, highlighting that the Forum would ultimately adopt a political declaration. We have the unprecedented opportunity to talk to each other and learn from each other, she said. This is a global moment where we are all together. We need to use it to its utmost.

VALENTIN RYBAKOV (Belarus), Vice-President of the Economic and Social Council, shared the key messages from the Council's integration segment, held on 8 July, which focused on efforts to empower people and ensure inclusiveness and equality. Underscoring the close interconnection between the Goals and the five Ps of the 2030 Agenda � people, planet, prosperity, peace and partnership � he said the world has changed since the Goals were adopted in 2015, with challenges to multilateralism, accelerated climate change, technological advances and protracted crises having important implications for development. The integration segment heard that achieving the Goals requires an immediate course change with the promise of leaving no one behind based on internationally recognized principles and human rights standards. Experts from Council subsidiary bodies, and the entire United Nations system, emphasized the need to address deep-rooted inequalities and vulnerabilities by focusing on mechanisms that lead to concentrated wealth and power at the top. They also emphasized the need for a profound overhaul of current development models, working with all actors to change behaviours in support of the Goals.

He went on to say that siloed thinking is slowing progress on the 2030 Agenda, with too much emphasis placed on short-term trade-offs and no consideration of long-term synergies. The integration segment also heard that hunger and poverty must be addressed through mutually reinforcing actions while also building resilience. Integrated policies are needed to equip people with the skills required for the jobs of the future, including green jobs. Budgets must be coherent with the Goals, he said, adding that much-needed fiscal space can be created by providing innovative financing and combating illicit financial flows, among other things. Local governments play a critical role in breaking down silos and accelerating implementation of the Goals. Emphasizing that sustainable development and the rule of law are strongly interrelated and mutually reinforcing, he said a deep review of macroeconomic and fiscal policies is required to ensure that people are not pushed behind. International cooperation will be essential in that regard, he said.

LIU ZHEMIN, Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs, said the 2030 Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals are our blueprint for an inclusive development that leaves no one behind, carrying a powerful message that we will join forces to carry everyone along on our journey to create an equitable, prosperous and sustainable future for all. The 2030 Agenda also lays out a plan for improving the lives of millions of people. Since 2016, the Forum has been making a vital contribution to the Agenda's implementation by helping countries to maximize and track their progress. But, critical challenges persist and the clock is ticking, he said, adding that the most vulnerable people and countries continue to suffer the most. The global response thus far has not been ambitious enough, he stressed.

He said the 2019 special edition of the Secretary-General's progress report on the Sustainable Development Goals found that, while gains have been made in several areas, progress remains slow on many targets. Our collective ambition for realizing the 2030 Agenda hinges on how we manage the evolving risks and challenges and whether we seize the social, economic and environmental opportunities before us; it is imperative to act now with renewed commitment and accelerated action, he said, encouraging delegates to come to New York in September to announce their new acceleration initiatives.

Indeed, 2019 is a defining year, he said, noting that the Forum is completing its four-year cycle under the Council's auspices. For the first time since the 2030 Agenda's inception, there will be two high-level political forums � the Council's current meeting, and in September, the General Assembly's Sustainable Development Goals Summit. In the current landscape of deepening inequalities and human suffering, it is critical to demonstrate how truly committed everyone remains to the 2030 Agenda. A goal of the meeting is to build on important gains, he said, encouraging all to share experiences and lessons learned, strengthen partnerships and help guide policy in ways that lead to a world of dignity for all.

NAJAT MAALLA M'JID, Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Violence Against Children, said effective implementation of the 2030 Agenda will help keep the promise of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which is marking its thirtieth anniversary this year. However, the Forum and voluntary national reviews have revealed slow progress and a need for greater urgency. Announcing that her office will launch a report next week on ending violence against children by 2030, she said it will document positive change and lessons learned while also showcasing successful programmes and policies. She warned, however, that violence against children remains hidden and pervasive, undermining the achievement of the Goals and full implementation of the 2030 Agenda.

Citing examples, she said a child dies as a result of violence every five minutes, while shouting, yelling and screaming are common forms of discipline for one-year-olds. Some 300 million children between the ages of two and four are victims of physical and psychological abuse, and every year at least 1 billion children suffer some form of violence. Meanwhile, disturbing trends threaten the gains made for children, including climate change, long-term conflicts and severe humanitarian disasters, increasing migration, growing inequality and terrorism. In his foreword to her upcoming report, the Secretary-General stresses that violence against children is not inevitable and that by placing children at the heart of the 2030 Agenda, its ambitious vision can be realized. She urged the Forum to keep children in mind during its discussions, adding that the summit on the Sustainable Development Goals in September must do likewise in order to realize the right of every child to survival, development and protection.

CHRIS SKINNER, author and commentator from the United Kingdom, said less than one third of people around the world now have access to banking, due in part to the field being changed by new technologies. A new theme called fintech integrates finance and technology, with 12,000 companies now providing services such as peer-to-peer lending. In 2018, $111 billion was invested in companies that are rearchitecting financial services, from Bitcoin trade to innovative lending. Growth in the industry is enormous, with one seven-year-old company started by two young men, aged 19 and 21, now valued at $20 billion. Indeed, teenagers and young people who code are changing the way financing, banking and trade are being practiced.

While new technologies are both decimating and changing financial services, more people can be reached, he said. Now, because of digital distribution, that is possible and new ways can be found to advance the 2030 Agenda. For example, new products can be renewed in minutes instead of years to deliver financial services. In fact, everything should be available all the time everywhere, he said, adding that banking should not be only for the rich. All unbanked, underbanked and underserved people must be included. The new world of finance can reach the unreachable, teach young people about financial literacy and help to protect older persons from financial predators. Finance can also be delivered by technology in a seamless manner, with individuals not limited to opening a bank account only by dealing in person with a formal institution. Going forward, the field demands new business models from new institutions in order to produce the maximum impact on the most people, with a view to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.

YOLANDA JOAB MORI, Founder and Executive Director of Island PRIDE and One Young World Ambassador of the Federated States of Micronesia, said that, when she thinks of sustainable development, she thinks of her grandmother, who has 90 years of indigenous knowledge, practice and expertise. When she tells me that the seasons are misbehaving, that means something, she said. As a young person involved in climate change adaptation at the community level, she sees that decisions taken at high-level meetings do not translate into action on the ground where it matters. Emphasizing that the Goals need young people as much as young people need the Goals, she recalled discussions during the Council's 2019 Youth Forum in April, which drew attention to, among other things, a lack of access to quality education and the need for policies that combat inequality.

Indeed, for young people, it is no longer a question of whether climate change is real, she said, but whether it is understood � and no one understands it more than Pacific Islanders who live with its impacts every day. Stressing that science is not negotiable, she called for a halt to fossil fuel subsidies and greater efforts towards clean and green societies. Young people are starving for inclusive leadership that places people and planet above profit, uplifts equality and empowers everyone, even a small island girl like me, she said. The world cannot keep working in silos, but, rather, it must close the disconnect between Governments and grass roots. Resources must be mobilized so that implementation actually happens, with greater accessibility at the community level. We need to start thinking differently and welcome disruption, she said, emphasizing that business as usual is not progress and encouraging the Forum to do more, move faster and demonstrate more courage.

Interactive Dialogue I

The Council then held an interactive dialogue titled Where we stand?, in which Liu Zhenmin, Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs, delivered a keynote speech. Moderated by Minh-Thu Pham, Executive Director for Policy, United Nations Foundation, it featured presentations by Julio Santaella, President of the National Institute of Statistics and Geography, Mexico; Marta Acosta, Auditor General of Costa Rica; Robin Ogilvy, Special Representative and Permanent Observer of Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) to the United Nations; and Thomas Brooks, Chief Scientist, International Union for Conservation of Nature.

Mr. LIU introduced the special edition of the Secretary-General's report on the progress towards Sustainable Development Goals (document E/2019/68), noting that it is based on available data and takes stock of how far the international community has come over the past four years in terms of implementing the Sustainable Development Goals. Progress has been made in poverty reduction, health and access to electricity. Governments are taking action, signing onto the Paris Agreement on climate change, developing national urban policies and putting in place policy instruments on sustainable production and consumption.

But, the report also sounds the alarm that environmental conditions are deteriorating, he said, as the sea levels continue to rise and many species are at risk of extinction due to ocean acidification. Land degradation remains unchecked. Many ecological deteriorations are caused by climate change and affect the poorest. We are not on a trajectory to achieve the SDGs by 2030, he said. With the next decade of implementation in mind, the report identifies eight cross cutting areas where political leadership and urgent, scalable multi-stakeholder actions are needed to dramatically accelerate progress, he said, stressing the importance of strengthening multilateralism on all fronts to achieve sustainable development.

Ms. PHAM invited the audience to participate in polls on Slido.com, asking them about topics they are most excited to discuss.

Mr. SANTAELLA stressed the importance of dialogue between the statistical community and other stakeholders. Without adequate measurements, implementing the global Goals will be difficult. Noting that there are about 232 indicators covering the 17 Goals, he said some still lack methodologies, and more broadly, national statistics systems continue to face difficulties. But, 2020 is an important year to assess indicators, he stressed, calling for more investment in national statistical systems.

Ms. ACOSTA said that audit outcomes show that a majority of countries have begun implementing the Sustainable Development Goals, put regulatory frameworks in place and allocated resources. However, it is also clear that implementation gaps exist between and within counties, with some still at an initial stage and not yet measuring progress. Costing is not aligned with national plans.

Mr. OGILVY said this year's High-Level Political Forum is taking place against a worrying background involving trade and investment. It is important not to lose sight of shared responsibilities for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals, including OECD countries. None of these industrialized countries have met Goal 5 on gender equality, he said, also expressing concern about transboundary threats, such as climate change. Only a handful countries are walking the talk, he said, urging Governments to urgently step up their efforts.

Mr. BROOKS, stressing that nature is in crisis, called for pursuing sustainable development in a balanced manner, taking into account its social, economic and environmental dimensions. With several major conferences on the horizon, including the World Conservation Congress, 2020 offers an opportunity to adjust the pace of implementation towards 2030. Urgent action is particularly needed on Goals 14 (ocean conservation) and 15 (sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems), he said, stressing that a science-based approach is essential.

In the ensuing discussion, delegates described both national efforts and the broader challenges of meeting the 2030 targets, with the representative of the European Union expressing concern over biodiversity losses and greenhouse gas emissions, and reiterating the bloc's readiness to step up efforts.

The representative of Iran said unilateral economic, financial and trade sanctions against developing countries undermine efforts to implement the Sustainable Development Goals. Renewed commitment to multilateralism is essential.

The representative of Indonesia said his country is making progress through good governance, aligning national policies with the 2030 Agenda and making poverty reduction the highest priority.

The representative of Sweden highlighted the multidimensional nature of poverty.

Ms. ACOSTA stressed that having institutional arrangements in place is one aspect; implementation is another and there is a need to take action. Cultural barriers hinder implementation of the Goals.

Mr. OGILVY emphasized the importance of leadership at all levels and the need to make polluting expensive by placing a price on carbon emissions. While the provision of official development assistance (ODA) can be effective, there are not enough such resources and he advocated investing in capacity to mobilize domestic financing.

Mr. SANTAELLA said that, without good data, implementation will take place in a random manner.

The representative of Costa Rica asked about the role of the United Nations after countries align their national agendas with the 2030 Agenda.

Mr. LIU said the Secretary-General initiated reforms to ensure the United Nations system, including regional commissions, is better placed to support Member States. Under the new resident coordinator system, the United Nations country teams are delivering as one, he said, recalling that agencies used to operate in silos before the reforms were carried out.

Also participating in the dialogue were representatives of Botswana, Finland and Turkey, as well as civil society.

Interactive Dialogue II

A second interactive dialogue on the theme Who is at risk of being left behind? was moderated by Nikhil Seth, Executive Director of the United Nations Institute for Training and Research, and featured a keynote speech by Lucas Chancel, Professor and co-director of the World Inequality Lab and of the World Inequality Database at the Paris School of Economics, and coordinator of the World Inequality Report 2018. It also included presentations by Alicia Barcena, Executive Secretary of the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) and coordinator of the regional economic commissions; Jarkko Turunen, Mission Chief to Cambodia of the Asia and Pacific Department at the International Monetary Fund (IMF); Stephen Chacha, Co-Founder of the Tanzania Data Lab and Africa Philanthropic Foundation; and Sarah Charles, Senior Director for Humanitarian Policy and Advocacy at the International Rescue Committee. George Khoury, Vice-Chair of the National Association for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in Lebanon, was lead discussant.

Mr. CHANCEL said the past decade has seen remarkable global economic growth, with the number of people living on more than $10 a day growing by 1 billion. But, major challenges persist, with economic growth highly carbon-based and countries far from achieving the objectives of the Paris Agreement. Moreover, the world is moving back towards an era of extreme inequality. Indeed, inequality is rising at different speeds in different places, but it is rising everywhere, making it more difficult to address sustainable development. Between 1980 and 2016, the top 1 per cent of the global population captured 27 per cent of total economic growth, while the lowest 50 per cent captured just 12 per cent. Although the world is not on track to eradicate extreme poverty by 2030, tackling extreme inequality would have important implications for achieving that goal, he said.

He pointed to taxation as a proven tool for limiting the concentration of wealth while also generating funds for development. However, during the expansion of globalization, the average corporate tax rate worldwide has decreased from 50 per cent to about half that. Shareholders pay less tax and a similar story can be told about wealthy individuals. Some European countries have compensated with higher taxes on consumption, an approach that places a greater burden on low- and middle-income groups, fuelling resentment against globalization and threatening social order in certain countries. Tackling extreme inequality is possible, but it is a matter of political will, he stated.

Mr. SETH said the question of sustainable development is littered with such expressions as no one left behind and endeavouring to reach the furthest first, understood to be persons in vulnerable situations. Of the 92 most distressed countries, or about half of all Member States, the number of States that have moved up the development ladder since 1945 can be counted on the fingers of two hands, with most being in Asia. Extreme poverty will be not be eradicated by 2030, he said, noting that hunger levels have grown since 2015 and conflict has intensified. Eighty-five per cent of the world's displaced persons are in developing countries. Global growth is slow, uncertain and volatile, amid rising intolerance and a lack of trust in Government and institutions.

Ms. BA�RCENA, speaking on behalf of the five regional economic commissions, discussed the main findings of their respective regional forums when Member States and other stakeholders review the degree to which the Goals are integrated into national development plans and budgets. While there is some progress in such areas as quality education and clean energy, the Asia-Pacific region is not on track on any of the Goals, amid stagnation, regression and environmental degradation. The situation is even worse in Africa where none of the Goals will be achieved. Given the slow progress made on ending extreme poverty, she said it would take $638 billion a year to make progress on the continent. In Latin America and the Caribbean, there have been improvements in lowering child mortality and protecting marine areas, but the interesting trend is inequality, she said, adding that middle-income countries in the Caribbean face big challenges. Good indicators have been seen in the European region, but in the Arab region, refugees, displaced persons and migrants are being left behind.

Mr. TURUNEN, focusing on the South-East Asia region, said the main factor for sustainable development has been economic growth. Going forward, the region must use the Goals as a policy road map. Remarkable progress has been made in reducing poverty and expanding the middle class. If incomes continue to grow, extreme poverty is expected to be eradicated in many countries in the region by 2030. The Asia-Pacific region has also made gains in education, health care, infrastructure, reducing inequality and ensuring that prosperity is broadly shared while protecting the environment. Further success will depend on good policies, he said.

Mr. CHACHA said Africa is the world's fastest-growing region, with its human development index significantly improving. But, poverty and gaps in access to education and health care persist alongside deep inequalities, eight ongoing conflicts and the hard-hitting impacts of climate change. Big data gaps make it difficult to identify those left behind. Pointing to the African Union's protocols on older persons, persons with disabilities and women's empowerment, he urged that efforts focus on their implementation. More investment is needed in those sectors that employ the most Africans, such as agriculture, as well as in health and education. Noting that $638 billion a year is required for Africa to achieve the Goals, he called for more debt relief, the fulfilment of ODA commitments and greater technology transfer.

Ms. CHARLES said that, under the current sustainable development regime, refugees and internally displaced persons are all but invisible. They are rarely mentioned in voluntary national reviews, and when they are, little if any relevant data is attached. In aggregated reports, they are described as a burden, if at all. She urged the Forum to acknowledge that refugees and internally displaced persons are being left behind and to ask Member States to include them in their national development plans and voluntary national reviews. Multilateral banks and United Nations entities must provide technical and statistical support to fragile States and targets must be incorporated into the global compacts on migration and refugees. Most of all, refugees and internally displaced persons must be made visible.

Mr. KHOURY underscored the economic consequences of excluding persons with disabilities from actions to fulfil the 2030 Agenda. Redressing inequalities requires dedicated resources, but in practice, such resources are rarely available. Gaps exist in critical areas, he said, pointing to a lack of sign language interpretation in health care facilities and insufficient support services that would enable persons with disabilities to live on their own. Governments have a duty to align fiscal policies with their human rights obligations and to take steps to make inclusion a reality. Emphasizing that inclusion is a two-way process, he said people with disabilities also have an obligation to ensure that no one is left behind.

In the ensuing discussion, the representative of the European Union described development policies that the bloc is putting into place, such as assisting small island developing States to strengthen their resilience against climate change. She also emphasized a rights-based approach to development.

The representative of Finland drew attention to the lack of social protection in the informal economy, where women make up a disproportionate portion of the workforce. He outlined various ways in which Governments can support a transition to the formal economy.

The representative of Ethiopia underscored the importance of mobilizing domestic financial resources, adding that illicit financial flows can have a huge impact on development in vulnerable countries.

The representative of the International Trade Union Confederation urged Governments to commit to labour protection guarantees for all workers, as well as to universal social protection coverage.

The representative of the indigenous peoples major group urged the United Nations and other development actors to reach out more to indigenous peoples, who account for 5 per cent of the world's population, but 15 per cent of its poor, with indigenous women facing multiple forms of discrimination. While indigenous peoples manage 80 per cent of the global biodiversity, this is not fully taken into account, she added.

The representative of Nigeria said that, while there is more talk about inequality within countries, there is not as much discussion about inequalities between States. He wondered what could be done to address that problem.

Also participating in the interactive dialogue were representatives of Haiti, Bahamas, as well as speakers from the children and youth major group and the United Nations Working Group on People of African Descent.

Source: United Nations