Virtual SDG summit: urgent action needed in times of COVID-19

At a fully virtual SDG summit, enthusiasm remained for achieving the UN's Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), even after the severe blow of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, there is still a lack of consensus on what the post-coronavirus society should look like.

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Two young people lead part of SDG summit

Young people lead a side event on the economic inclusion of young people.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are a well-designed plan for a better world in 2030. Among other things, this means a world which is 'free from poverty, hunger, disease, in which every individual can lead a fulfilling life'. All UN member states signed up to these SDGs in 2015.

Every year in July, the UN organises a high-level summit – a High-Level Political Forum (HLPF) – in New York to take stock of the SDGs. This year, it turned out to be a very special summit. Not only because we are now 5 years in, but especially because the world is in a full-on coronavirus crisis. The summit took place entirely virtually, a technical masterwork.

Not on track

Alexander Verstraete co-ordinated the summit at the FPS Foreign Affairs. He looks back quite satisfied. ‘More than 1.100 persons followed the summit and many Ministers, Prime Ministers and Presidents also spoke. However, a virtual summit offers fewer opportunities for debate and informal conversations, and the messages remain a little more superficial.’

Of course, the key question remains: where do we stand with the SDGs, now that we have already covered a third of the route? ‘Every year, the UN draws up an SDG progress report,’ says Verstraete. ‘Even without the coronavirus, we would still not be on track, for example with equality, food security, biodiversity and climate. Because of the coronavirus crisis, the backlog is widening considerably.’

After all, the coronavirus crisis had a negative impact on many areas, including health, hunger, poverty and education. Verstraete: ‘Malawi, for example, argued that they simply don't have the ability to organise distance learning. They don't have enough Internet access or computers. Closed schools in Malawi mean no more classes.’

UN Secretary-General António Guterres

‘Everything we do during and after this COVID-19 crisis must be with a strong focus on building more equal, inclusive and sustainable economies and societies that are more resilient in the face of pandemics, climate change, and the many other global challenges we face.’ António Guterres - Secretary-General, United Nations ​
© UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

Enduring enthusiasm

The SDG summit did show that enthusiasm for the SDGs has not yet faded. During the summit, no less than 47 countries presented their voluntary progress report. ‘Many had prepared it very well and often a Minister or even a President presented the report.’ These included a number of Belgian Development Cooperation partner countries, in particular the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mozambique, Niger, Uganda, Morocco, Benin and Burundi.

Voluntary progress reports give a country the opportunity to involve the entire government or even the whole community, including NGOs, in bringing this about. Although Verstraete observed that this seems to be quite difficult at times. ‘During the presentation by Guinea, for example, the young people were also allowed to have their say. A representative of the young people indicated that they were very satisfied with the cooperation with the government in the preparation of the report. However, during the Q&A session, another youngster revealed just the opposite. It is certainly positive that critical voices such as these have the opportunity to make themselves heard at this UN summit.’

Critical voices were also heard during the presentations by Syria and Russia. ‘In the case of Syria, an NGO was able to say to their Minister in front of the whole world that the government had institutionalised violence.’

European countries such as Finland, Austria and Estonia were also doing their best. Finland even invited a developing country (Mozambique) and a Western country (Switzerland) to critically comment its report.

Multilateralism and build back better

The summit also made it clear that the vast majority of countries remain in favour of international cooperation or multilateralism. The tone was clear: we have to work together to get through the crisis, international solidarity is indispensable.

There was also consensus on the fact that the post-coronavirus society needs to become better than beforeBuild back better became the motto for the whole summit. ‘It's just that the countries are interpreting this in different ways,’ says Verstraete. ‘For the EU, this means a greener and more digital society. Other countries see more of an economic revival, without adding green touches to it to the same extent.’

In any event, it will need to be done in the remaining Decade of Action. ‘Next year will demonstrate the extent to which the declarations and recovery plans will actually lead to concrete actions,’ concludes Verstraete. ‘The summit ended with some disappointment. In the absence of unanimity, the usual ministerial statement did not materialise. Hopefully, this will not foreshadow what is to come.’

Belgium at the SDG summit

For Belgium, a 17-strong delegation took part in the SDG summit, containing a broad representation of civil society: young people, women, North-South NGOs, local authorities, etc. The North-South NGOs even took the floor on behalf of Belgium.

Civil society was also intensively involved in the preparations. Young Belgians, along with young foreigners, even organised a well-attended side event on the economic inclusion of young people in coronavirus times. They were referring here to SDG8.6: reducing the number of young people who are neither working, studying nor training. Minister of Development Cooperation Alexander De Croo introduced the debate. In doing so, our country showed that young people – and civil society – are important.

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