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Arab States Must Have Fiscal Space, Financial Resources to Unleash Potential, Deputy Secretary-General Tells Regional Forum for Sustainable Development

Following are UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed’s remarks at the Arab Forum for Sustainable Development 2022 opening session in Beirut today:

I am thrilled to be with you today for the opening of the Arab Forum for Sustainable Development.

We are meeting at a crucial time, when our ability to achieve the goals we set ourselves in the 2030 Agenda hangs in the balance.  COVID‑19 wrought havoc on our societies and economies.  And now, the war in Ukraine is destabilizing a global economy still reeling from the pandemic — triggering dramatic spikes in prices of food, fuel and other essential goods.

Across the Arab region, COVID‑19 reversed the first signs of progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).  It pushed the overall debt burden to an equivalent of 60 per cent of GDP (gross domestic product).  The rich are getting richer while unemployment rates in the region have risen to the highest levels worldwide — particularly amongst young people.

And COVID‑19 is only compounding other challenges in the region ‑ from the climate crisis and biodiversity loss to conflicts that continue to destroy lives and livelihoods.  The result is a region with the highest number of refugees and internally displaced people in the world.

Achieving the SDGs was never going to be easy.  But it is possible.  Getting back on track will require policy choices aligned with the 2030 Agenda and a clear emphasis on leaving no one behind.  Public action and investment rely on strong institutions and governance models to deliver inclusive, sustainable growth and development.

The Secretary-General’s report on Our Common Agenda provides focus and force.  This sixth session of the Arab Forum for Sustainable Development is our opportunity to chart an ambitious path forward.  I want to highlight five priorities to help inform your discussions this week.

First, we must build resilience against the pandemic.  The Arab region has made significant progress in tackling the COVID‑19 pandemic, with some countries reaching a vaccination rate of 90 per cent.  But it has also shone a harsh light on the inequalities within the region.  Less than 2 per cent of people in Yemen are fully vaccinated, increasing the risk of new variants that threaten not only the region, but the world.

Vaccine inequity is a moral outrage — and a danger to us all.  But vaccines alone are not enough.  This is a watershed moment to build stronger health systems by investing in primary health care and health surveillance systems and in local production of vaccines, diagnostics and treatments.

Second, we need investments in people, especially women and youth.  This will require a clear focus on creating decent jobs matched by social protection, skills training and greater opportunities for young people.  Governments in the Arab region have spent $6.3 billion on social assistance to counter the impacts of the pandemic.  Some two thirds of that went to people who previously had no social protection at all.  This provides a solid foundation to build on and for people in the region to gain trust in the institutions that represent and serve them.

The Global Accelerator for Jobs and Social Protection can provide critical support to these efforts.  It aims to create 400 million decent new jobs in the care, green, and digital sectors and expand social protection to nearly 4 billion people — half the global population — by 2030.  Progress in this area will also require a step change to achieve SDG 5.  This means investing in education, health care and opportunities for girls and women.

The Secretary-General has presented five transformative recommendations to achieve gender equality in this generation:  repealing all gender-discriminatory laws; promoting gender parity in all spheres and at all levels of decision-making; facilitating women’s economic inclusion by providing access to jobs and opportunities; ensuring greater inclusion of younger women; and implementing an emergency response plan to prevent and end gender-based violence.

Third, we must recover the huge learning losses of the pandemic and reinvent the future of education.  Today, education systems across the world are being challenged.  In some countries, the pandemic is causing a generational catastrophe.  And everywhere else, conventional education systems are struggling to prepare learners for our rapidly changing world.

That is why the Secretary-General is convening a Summit on Transforming Education this September.  I am pleased that Mr. Leonardo Garnier, the Secretary-General’s Special Adviser on the Transforming Education Summit, is joining us today remotely to hear your thoughts and suggestions.  The Summit will help mobilize the action, ambition, solutions, and solidarity needed to transform education between now and 2030.  We count on the active participation of Governments and leaders of the Arab region in the preparation of the Summit.

Fourth, we must super-charge just, green transitions.  Building on the progress made in Glasgow, we need urgent efforts to reduce emissions and keep global warming below 1.5°C.  We need to build resilience against climate impacts that are increasing in frequency and severity.  In a region where the economic fallout from land degradation amounts to an estimated $9 billion every year — and where 18 countries are below the water poverty line — addressing the climate crisis is a common responsibility shared by all countries.

The next climate conference, COP27 in Egypt, is a critical opportunity to put climate adaptation — and its financing — front and centre.  You can count on the Secretary-General’s support.  He has been clear:  developed countries must urgently deliver on their commitment to double adaptation finance to at least $40 billion per year by 2025.

We must accelerate the energy transition by investing fossil fuel revenues to new, low-carbon development models in a just and inclusive way.  And we must build more sustainable and resilient food systems.  This has become even more urgent now as the Ukraine crisis threatens food security across the Arab world, which relies heavily on wheat imports from both [the Russian Federation] and Ukraine.

Lastly, we must advance digital connectivity.  Today, the digital divide is a driver of inequality and exclusion.  But with investments in affordable connectivity and digital skills, the digital transition could become a driver of inclusion for the entire region, increasing the participation of women, girls, young people and excluded groups.

Fifth, we need a different approach to transitions from crisis and post-crisis settings.  We need to scale up development investments and better protect lives and livelihoods for all, including refugees and internally displaced people.  In other words, time has come to recognize that only sustainable development offers long-term solutions to political and humanitarian challenges.  I also want to recognize the generosity and solidarity of our host country for giving refuge over many years to people fleeing violent conflict.  As a global community, we are indebted to Lebanon.

North Africa and the Middle East are home to remarkable dynamism and enormous potential.  But to unleash this potential and achieve a sustainable recovery and build resilience, Arab States must have the necessary fiscal space and financial resources.  This can only happen with serious reforms to the international financial architecture, which shamelessly favours the rich and punishes the poor.

Bold steps are needed to address the debt crisis engulfing many countries in the region — including by building on the Common Framework for Debt Treatment, integrating disaster clauses into debt contracts to protect countries in times of crisis, and using innovative financing tools, such as the climate and SDG-debt swap mechanism pioneered by ESCWA (Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia).

To bolster liquidity, we need to improve global tax governance and combat illicit financial flows.  We will continue to advocate for the re-channelling of special drawing rights from advanced economies to those in need, and for the speedy operationalization of the International Monetary Fund’s Resilience and Sustainability Trust.

Finance needs to be invested where it matters most — in the real economy, creating viable futures for the region’s young people.  We will continue to work with national Governments to develop long-term financing strategies in support of the 2030 Agenda, including through the use of integrated national financing frameworks.

Tomorrow, I will chair the meeting of the Regional Collaborative Platform — our mechanism that brings together all United Nations regional directors in the Arab States.  With the United Nations reforms now well advanced, I hope we will adopt an ambitious work plan to support countries across the region and agree on concrete deliverables.

In the Arab region, ESCWA is taking a leading role to harness the power of data across national statistical offices and United Nations agencies to deliver data on the SDGs.  This is critical for policymaking, for targeted action and for ensuring that no one is left behind.

And our strengthened United Nations country teams and resident coordinators offer a clear conduit to ensure that the regional resources, assets and expertise land at country level with impact at scale.  Our Assistant Secretary-General for Development Coordination, Robert Piper, is here with us today and works around the clock to ensure that happens.

At this pivotal moment, we need your leadership and engagement in support of the Sustainable Development Goals.  Together — and only together — we can build a future of peace, dignity and prosperity for all.

For information media. Not an official record.