Amina Mohammed, right, the deputy secretary-general of the UN,
signed a partnership agreement with the World Economic Forum, led
by Borge Brende, left, to speed up progress on the Sustainable
Development Goals. António Guterres, the UN secretary-general
(behind Mohammed) and Klaus Schwab, the Forum’s chief executive,
joined the ceremony in June.
By Barbara Crossette
UNITED NATIONS, Jul 25 2019 (IPS)
The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are in trouble. United
Nations officials are concerned and say so publicly.
Secretary-General António Guterres joined in raising an alarm in
mid-July when he introduced the most recent official
“It is abundantly clear that a much deeper, faster and more
ambitious response is needed to unleash the social and economic
transformation needed to achieve our 2030 goals,” he wrote.
Separately, a mammoth, 478-page study by independent experts drove
the message home with extensive data to illustrate the crisis.
The experts’ report, a joint project of the Bertelsmann
Stiftung in Germany and Sustainable Development Solutions Network
in New York, reveals some bleak findings: progress has been uneven
at best, and in some cases has been reversed.
The study found that all nations were performing worst on
addressing climate change, and no country has achieved a
“green” rating. Many obstacles to success or the causes of
reversals included tax havens, banking secrecy, poor labor
standards, slavery and conflict.
Half the nations of the world are not on track to eradicate
extreme poverty, a major — if not the primary — objective of
the goals, the report found. Action on the SDGs, which were adopted
in 2015 as the 2030 Agenda, are nearing their fifth year of
The most striking prediction of potential failure has, perhaps
surprisingly, come from the top UN official in Asia. On July 18,
the head of the Bangkok-based regional commission for Asia and the
Pacific (Escap), Armida Salsiah Alisjahbana of Indonesia,
warned in a UN News radio interview while attending a
high-level UN forum on development in New York that her region was
on track to miss all the goals.
The area covers a vast swath of the globe, stretching from the
eastern Mediterranean to the Pacific rim, home to 60 percent of the
world’s 7.7 people. China, India and Indonesia alone account for
nearly three billion people. Alisjahbana, a UN under
secretary-general, said that Escap’s latest survey showed some
evidence that the region is going backward, particularly in water
resources and environmental sustainability.
At UN headquarters, one controversial and much-debated response
to the crisis has been to team up in a “strategic partnership”
with the World Economic Forum. This institution, founded in 1971 by
Klaus Schwab, a German economist and engineer, is best known for
its annual star-studded, invitation-only get-togethers in Davos, a
Swiss mountain resort, which attracts government officials,
business leaders and celebrities.
In announcing the partnership with the UN in a broad statement
of intent with few details, the World Economic Forum claimed that
it can “accelerate the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for
It defines itself as “the international organization for
public-private cooperation” and lists six areas where the UN
partnership can boost the development goals: in financing the 2030
Agenda and in addressing climate change, health, digital
cooperation, gender equality and education.
The Forum has been steadily expanding its
international presence through convening “thought leaders”
around the world on topical issues, to exchange ideas and build
influential networks on economic, industrial and social
Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed signed the joint
framework agreement for the UN with Borge Brende, the Forum’s
president. Guterres and Klaus Schwab, the Forum’s executive
chairman, were onlookers at the ceremony on June 13.
Mohammed, who led the formulation of the SDGs, has dominated the
UN’s development agenda, sidelining the UN Development
She was a strong proponent of creating the SDG package on the
advice and consent of governments — bottom-up from the field, not
top-down as the Millennium Development Goals were written in 2000
by international development specialists in and around the office
of Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
Through the new UN-World Economic Forum, Mohammed is increasing
her international roles. She will be taking part in numerous Forum
initiatives and will review the possibility of linking the UN’s
resident development coordinators in national capitals with Forum
The theory underlying the creation of the SDGs, with governments
as the key decision-makers, was a gamble. Human rights received no
significant attention in the SDGs, reflecting numerous
governments’ attitudes or demands on these issues.
Rapid social changes and their place in development were
ignored: the burgeoning international movement for LGBTQ
recognition and rights, new diversity in what may constitute a
“family” and the rising tide of activist women challenging male
domination in politics and society, to name a few.
The SDGs are unwieldy, as critics have pointed out since the
adoption of the 2030 agenda. The 17 goals are burdened with 169
targets and 230 indicators for measuring progress.
The strategic partnership with the World Economic Forum is not
the first UN approach to the private sector.
Stephen Browne, the author of a book that will be published
later this year, “UN Reform: 75 Years of Challenge and Change,”
worked for more than 30 years in the UN development system,
including in Africa and Asia.
He has observed the trajectory of UN/private-sector cooperation,
which has had some positive effects, he writes in the new book.
With the creation of the Global Compact (which Annan introduced at
the World Economic Forum in 1999), “relations with the private
sector took on another dimension.”
Browne writes: “The timing was germane. Globalization was
already raising anxieties about its inclusiveness and it was
appropriate for the UN to be shown conveying some concern to the
private sector. . . . Galvanizing private sector interest in UN
goals has had the positive effect of enhancing interest in and
comprehension of the world body, helping to improve its public
image in commercial circles.
The UN has also become better known to the private sector
through the many GC local networks which have been established in
all the major emerging economies.
“But the GC [Global Compact] has also carried risks for the
UN, leaving it open to accusations of associating with companies
indulging in corporate malpractice. . . . The Global Compact cannot
wholly avoid ‘blue wash’ [the UN equivalent to whitewash in the
eyes of critics] but it restricts the use of the UN logo and
establishes conditions for the selection of commercial partners. .
. . Companies are in a large majority on the GC Board and are the
principal contributors to the trust fund which supports the GC
secretariat. Critics have claimed that the GC serves as a platform
for the promotion of corporate interests at the UN, and not the
other way round as originally intended.”
Annan’s successor, Ban Ki-moon, who asked all UN agencies and
projects to stress overarching human-rights criteria in their work
and publications, created several more narrowly targeted
partnerships in, for example, stressing women’s importance in
development, advancing sustainable energy and improving
“There is a sense, however,” Browne writes in his
forthcoming book, “that the UN perceived these initiatives as
ends in themselves: any partnership being better than none. There
has never been a rigorous attempt to evaluate the UN’s
[multistakeholder partnerships] and determine whether they actually
add significant value. . . . It is not even clear to what extent
they have succeeded in mobilizing additional funding.”
Partnerships with corporations and rich foundations have drawn
sustained criticism from various civil society sectors, especially
when companies are producing and promoting goods — foods, for
example — that are considered to have harmful effects on children
or the general population.
In a message from Geneva, where he lives, Browne described his
persistent qualm about reliance on private-sector agreements and
compacts: “My real contention,” he wrote, “is that the UN
goes into partnerships as if they are a desirable end in
themselves, without having determined what real net human
development benefits have flowed from them, or could flow.”
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As SDGs Falter, the UN Turns to the Rich and Famous