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UN deputy chief warns of faltering progress towards SDGs

by Haruna Gimba
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By Haruna Gimba

Multiple interconnected global crises are putting achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) at risk – both in the Arab region and the rest of the world, UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed warned on Tuesday. 

“Let me be frank: we are not doing well. Our progress towards the SDGs has faltered and even gone into reverse on some important targets and Goals, leaving many behind,” she said in opening remarks to the Arab Forum for Sustainable Development (AFSD) in Beirut, Lebanon. 

World leaders adopted the 17 SDGs in 2015, laying out a roadmap to a more just, equitable and “green” global future by 2030.  With countries now at the halfway mark, Ms. Mohammed called for an honest appraisal to decide on course corrections. 

She highlighted how the COVID-19 pandemic, the war in Ukraine and the “triple planetary crisis” – climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution – have affected lives and livelihoods. 

The fallouts in the Arab world include rising poverty, which is approaching 50 per cent in the region’s poorer countries, and food insecurity.  

The recent devastating earthquakes in Syria and Türkiye have only added to the suffering. 

“Unless we act now, all these factors could put the promise to reach the Sustainable Development Goals far out of reach for this region and for the rest of the world,” she said. “We need an urgent review of how policy decisions and investment can put the region back on track.” 

Ms. Mohammed said despite these challenges, the Arab region has made progress towards sustainable development in renewable energy, internet access and social protection, which should serve as inspiration for the road ahead. 

However, the collective debt burden of countries in the region has risen dramatically, she added, pointing to the “broken” global financial system.    

She recalled that the UN Secretary-General has set out urgent and necessary reforms to the global financial architecture while also calling for a $500 billion annual Stimulus Plan for the SDGs.  

She also underscored the need for climate action, noting that the region has been hit by droughts and sandstorms which will only get worse with global warming. 

The United Arab Emirates will host the COP28 UN climate change conference this year, and she said the country “has a huge responsibility to reach consensus around accelerating the transition away from fossil fuels – in the region and around the world.” 

She also stressed that while sustainable development is essential, a crucial component – gender equality – is often overlooked. 

“The math is simple. Without the contributions of half their members, societies will only fulfil half their potential,” she said.   “We need the full contributions of all, to weather the current storms and build inclusive, sustainable economies and societies for the future.” 

Speaking at another AFSD event, Ms. Mohammed underscored the importance of the private sector – from micro-enterprises to multinational corporations – in realizing a sustainable global future. 

“The SDGs will fail without the private sector,” she warned.   “We urgently need powerful private sector partnerships that invest in the transitions necessary to accelerate development progress and get the SDGs back on track.” 

She said the business community can play a crucial role in bridging the financing gap to achieve the goals by 2030, which has been estimated to exceed $660 billion per year in 12 Arab countries.  

Although private capital is abundant, she said only a small share is aligned with the SDGs and the challenge is to mobilize domestic and foreign private capital to help close the gap. 

She also noted positive developments, as recent corporate finance deals have revealed a move towards sustainability in the region, especially in renewable energy, water and transportation. 

However, she said investments in social infrastructure and services, equality, peace and justice, remain too few and too little. 

The Arab Forum for Sustainable Development (AFSD), which concludes on Thursday, is organized by the UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA), based in Beirut. 

Prior to the opening, the Deputy Secretary-General met with the AFSD-2023 Chair, Waed Badhib, Yemen’s Minister of Planning and International Cooperation. 

She also held a press conference on Tuesday alongside the ESCWA Executive Secretary, Rola Dashti, and Mr. Badhib. 

Ms. Mohammed and UN Resident Coordinators from the Arab region later went on a field visit to a community kitchen in Beirut set up by the Lebanese Union for People with Physical Disabilities.   

“Access Kitchen” is supported by UN Women under a joint programme with the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). 

The Deputy Secretary-General listened to the challenges facing women and girls with disabilities in Lebanon, and how they are coping under the multiple crises affecting the country. She then took part in a hands-on meal preparation. 

Ms. Mohammed also discussed with Coordinators how best to accelerate momentum towards achieve sustainable development ahead of the SDG Summit at UN Headquarters in New York in September. 

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