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Deputy Secretary-General, at Meeting of University Presidents, Says Sharing Their Analytical Expertise, Teaching Core Values Can Advance Sustainable Development

Following are UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohamed’s remarks, as prepared for delivery, at a meeting of university presidents, in New York today:

I thank the Sustainable Development Solutions Network and applaud Professor Sachs and his team for their leadership and for bringing us together.  I thank Rajiv Shah, President of Rockefeller Foundation, and Lee C. Bollinger, President and Seth Low Professor of Columbia University, for their unwavering support to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The Secretary-General has just flagged some of the challenges we face in our world today, starting, but not ending, with the COVID-19 pandemic.  I would like to build on his thoughts and identify some of the ways in which universities can help the world to overcome these challenges.

The 2030 Agenda and the SDGs remains our road map and touchstone.  And what this crisis has shown is that failure to implement the Goals comes at a heavy cost and leaves our world incredibly fragile and vulnerable.

So, as we grapple with the crisis and look to the recovery, not only do we need to stay the course with the SDGs, we need to pick up the pace and take more ambitious and decisive actions.  We must turn the COVID-19 crisis to an opportunity.  But, to do so, we must harness evidence-based policy action to address the socioeconomic impact of the pandemic and help countries recover better.

At the United Nations, we have launched a decade of action to focus minds on the job at hand — ending poverty and reducing inequality; tackling climate change and environmental degradation; and righting the century‑old wrong of gender inequality.

By pressing these three levers, we can drive change across all 17 Goals.   We are working to mobilize everyone everywhere for this endeavour.  And we are working to mobilize everyone everywhere for this endeavour.  And our everyone includes universities and institutions of higher learning.

As the home of so many of the world’s brightest and best; as the space that shapes future leaders, global citizens and the global workforce; and as the source of many of humanity’s great breakthroughs, we need you to join the sustainable development revolution.  A movement we would like to see create a momentum to deliver the SDGs.

What we are asking is that you take the SDGs as your North Star.  Allow me to illustrate some of the areas where I think you can have significant impact.  First, the SDGs are comprehensive and interconnected and they demand transdisciplinary approaches.  This is a major challenge for Governments and indeed for many of business leaders and workers who are trained to think and work in silos.

Over the past five years, I have seen Government after Government express a genuine commitment to the SDGs, but very often, they lack the know-how and capacities to govern and implement policy that delivers inclusive and sustainable economies.

And this is precisely where universities can play a key role.  Complexity and interdisciplinary analysis are your bread and butter.  So, we need you to step it up and to land such analysis in the decision-making of Governments and companies; in the thinking of public servants and the next generation.

Second, the SDGs are incredibly ambitious and with 30 per cent of the race run, we are far from where we need to be.  So, to get back on track, we will need innovation, we need ambition and we need to help countries leapfrog to a better future.  This is particularly the case for developing countries who are often still lacking some of the basic infrastructure that most industrialized countries have built up over the past century.  But, as COVID-19 has shown, it applies to all countries and to a wide range of sectors.

Right now, we have a small window of opportunity to shift to development pathways that leave fossil fuels in the ground; to rethink the relationship between consumption and natural resource use; to rapidly expand access public services like education and health care by leveraging new technologies.

Here, too, we want to draw on your expertise.  The private sector is often cited as the beating heart of innovation, and it often does drive innovations, but mostly those are likely to be financially profitable.  University research innovates more broadly and more in the interest of humanity.

We have seen universities deliver incredible breakthroughs in the past and we see it again with COVID-19 as you step up to support the discovery of vaccines, treatments and therapeutics.  We need to see that spirit of the possible expanded right across the SDGs.

Third and finally, we will only be able to make great changes needed to deliver the SDGs if we have public trust and social cohesion.  And that, in turn, requires an informed citizenry, a commitment to tolerance and space for dialogue and dissent.

In many contexts today, societies are at breaking point.  In some instances, this is due to frustrations with lack of opportunities; with unfair globalization; with abuse of power by elites; and with COVID-19 the fear of uncertainty.  But, in other instances, it is a reaction to social change — pushback against racial equality; against the rights of migrants and refugees; against the freedoms of people of other faiths and of course; against the rise of women and girls.

Our education systems, in particular universities, have an incredibly important role to play in teaching values of tolerance, respect of human rights and civic responsibility; in providing space for different views; in allowing public attitudes to change and to mature.  SDG success depends on the reigniting of such values and the rediscovery of our common humanity.

So, in short, my message to you today is to make your leadership count and your voice resonate in the global village that will make the Decade of Action a decade of delivery for people and planet.

Help us to step up the pace; to deal with complexity; to advance innovative solutions and to rekindle our faith in each other, in our common humanity.

Survive COVID-19, we will — I have no doubt about that; but thriving to deliver the Decade of Action will require us to invest in young minds as we embark upon the intergenerational transition — we have the largest cohort of youth ever, ingenuity of cities and exponential opportunities offered by technology and the digital age.

We look forward to welcoming you all to the General Assembly in September, though virtual platforms like this one, for the United Nations seventy-fifth anniversary, Beijing+25, biodiversity and the SDG moment which kick‑starts the decade to deliver the SDGs.

For information media. Not an official record.