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Governments Must Act Now to Save Lives, Foster Holistic Change across Societies, Speakers Say, as Economic and Social Council Opens High-Level Political Forum

With food prices at near record highs, rising energy costs triggering fuel shortages and the financial squeeze induced by COVID-19 limiting the ability of the world’s least developed countries to bounce back, Governments must act now to save lives and foster holistic change across their societies, speakers stressed today as the Economic and Social Council high-level political forum opened its 2022 session.

Convened under the theme, “Building back better from the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) while advancing the full implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development”, the forum — which runs until 15 July — will explore the extent to which the pandemic has impacted efforts to implement the framework, in particular, its Sustainable Development Goals 4 (quality education), 5 (Gender Equality, 14 (life below water), 15 (life on land) and 17 (partnerships).

“The pressure is on and the expectations are weighing heavily upon us,” said Collen Vixen Kelapile (Botswana), President of the Economic and Social Council, striking a note of “high hope” and optimism.  “We can and we shall overcome our challenges.”

The fact that delegates gathered in person signals that many countries are well-advanced in controlling the COVID-19 pandemic, he said, providing an opportunity to build back better, rectify lifestyles and improve the resilience of socioeconomic and health systems.  The 2030 Agenda and the 17 Sustainable Development Goals provide the blueprint in which to anchor the recovery.

He said that while 75 million to 95 million people will live in extreme poverty in 2022, compared to pre-pandemic levels, the global economy is still set to grow by 3.1 per cent, according to the Department of Economic and Social Affairs.  In addition, many countries are institutionalizing the social protection measures put in place during the pandemic, while others are strengthening their health systems and turning to a nature-positive economy.

He noted that tools such as the COVAX mechanism and the mRNA vaccine technology transfer hub can significantly increase global immunity, protect health systems, reduce the risk of new variants and allow economies to truly restart.  He welcomed the increase in International Monetary Fund (IMF) special drawing rights, and the Debt Service Suspension Initiative initiated by the G20 and Paris Club.  But efforts must go further.  He called for more political will, determination, courage, trust and solidarity to implement the solutions that will “propel us to new heights” in a world where peace and prosperity are available to all and strong, inclusive partnerships are mobilized to those ends.

Amina Mohammed, Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations then delivered the main messages from the voluntary national reviews, a process now in its seventh year.  The 44 countries presenting in 2022 bring the total to 187, marking near universal reporting.  The reviews provided “stark” insight into the setbacks brought about by COVID-19, continued conflicts and the “triple threat” of climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution.  They spoke to the serious impact on education, health care and economic outcomes.   “Many families saw their incomes reduced,” she stressed.  Across all countries, women, young people and children were among the hardest hit.

However, she said the reviews also offered “a great deal” of hope, with countries implementing innovative solutions and policies to build back better, through cash transfer programmes, debt moratoriums, national resilience plans and Government stimulus packages.  They reported advances in agriculture, diversified education, social protection, expansions of the digital economy, tax base optimization and legislation to counter domestic violence.

Above all, she said the reviews demonstrated the “incredible” value of the Sustainable Development Goals in holding Governments, partners, United Nations agencies and others accountable for achieving sustainable development.  She described the multiple crises as a wakeup call.  “I believe we can turn them into an opportunity,” she said.

Offering economic context, Nicholas Stern, Professor of Economics and Governance and Dean of the Institute for Climate Change and Environmental Research at the London School of Economics, said the world is at a crossroads after a decade of low economic growth, investment problems, and now, shocks related to the pandemic and the war in Ukraine.  Added to this is the sense of urgency conveyed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change through its reports, he noted, stressing that the fight against climate change requires more effective growth.

At the same time, he said the crisis forces countries to rethink production and consumption patterns, design more breathable cities and innovate for the well-being of all.  Investments are needed — but it is important to understand on what scale, in which geographical areas and in which sectors, he said, acknowledging that the pressures unleashed by the pandemic and the conflict in Ukraine make it all the more urgent to revive emerging markets.  The drive to net-zero emissions will require an investment of 2 per cent of global gross domestic product (GDP), according to a study carried out for the United Kingdom presidency of the G7.

With investment at historic lows, he said building back better therefore will require good policies, supported by international partnerships and financing, to address the debt problems faced by many countries, as quickly as possible.  He underscored the critical importance of external funding in that context, noting that while official development assistance (ODA) remains important, the private sector and international banks must do their part.

“Coordination is everything,” said Suriya Chindawongse, Vice-President of the Economic and Social Council, delivering messages from the organ’s coordination segment.  He explained that in a world of scarce resources, multiple crises and severe time constraints, effective coordination is a crucial force multiplier for the Council and its 30-plus bodies in their main charge of rescuing and advancing sustainable development.  “All voices should be heard,” he said, laying out the myriad ways the Council envisions addressing inequity.

Liu Zhenmin, Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs, introduced the Secretary-General's progress report on the process for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030.  With the world now in its third year of the pandemic, progress has been halted or even reversed:  nearly 15 million people died due to COVID-19 during 2021, while an additional 75 to 95 million people are expected to live in extreme poverty in 2022, compared to pre-pandemic numbers.  Some 147 million children have been deprived of at least half of their classroom education in the past two years.

He pointed to overwhelmed health systems, women disproportionately hit by socioeconomic challenges and a 6 per cent increase in carbon emissions in 2021, all of which raises fears of disaster if the commitments made are not up to the climate emergency.  The world is also experiencing the highest number of violent conflicts since 1945, with the outbreak of war in Ukraine pushing prices of food, fuel and fertilizers to extraordinary levels and disrupting supply chains and global trade.

“Combined with the refugee crisis, the impacts of this conflict can lead to a food crisis,” he warned, and could reduce global economic growth by 0.9 per cent in 2022, with implications for aid flows.

Going forward, he called for low-carbon development and vaccine equity, with immunization coverage of 70 per cent of the population in all countries as soon as possible.  A large-scale transformation of international finance and the debt mechanism is also needed.  He underscored the importance of providing countries with the fiscal space and liquidity needed to affect change by redirecting unused special drawing rights to countries in need.  In the end, the global economy will require a new social contract so that everyone benefits from global public goods.

Mari Pangestu, Managing Director of Development Policy and Partnerships, World Bank Group, added to the list of challenges slow growth, investment stagnant productivity — and now, rising inflation, interest rates and the potential for stagflation.  The World Bank Group and its partners continue to provide vital support to help spur economic recovery and transformation, build human capital and improve access to critical infrastructure.

Since the start of the pandemic, she said, the Bank has surged in operational support to developing countries, with critical capital and financing reaching $269 billion.  It also disbursed $10.1 billion to 78 countries for vaccination, saving the livelihoods of households and small- and medium-sized enterprises alike.  The Bank views the crisis as an opportunity to strengthen health systems, pandemic preparedness and response systems and build adaptable social protection systems, all paying attention to the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on women and building sustainability into climate change actions.

Describing support to developing countries, she said the Bank committed $170 billion over the next 15 months, including for the food crisis response.  It has allocated $30 billion over the next 15 months to support households, farmers and production, and facilitate trade and agriculture inputs, with a focus on long-term investment in food and nutrition security.  She called for integrating development efforts with those for climate change, stressing that, left unchecked, climate change could push 132 million people into poverty over the next decade.  “Let’s get to work,” she said.

Kailash Satyarthi, Sustainable Development Goals Advocate and 2014 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate from India, said the remarks made over the last hour have indeed brought a measure of hope.  “We have enough knowledge of the problems, and we know the solutions.  What we need is strong resolve” and generous investment, he stressed.  The measure of success is whether the benefits of development have reached the last child in society — the girl born into chronic poverty, who is bought and sold “like cattle” into slavery, brothels or workshops.  Answering to her, and her longstanding need for safety, freedom and education, is the criterion.  Only then can policies be seen as successful.

The need is great, he assured.  For the first time in two decades, the number of child labourers has grown, from 150 to 160 million, while the number of youth out of school in sub-Saharan Africa has risen by 10,000 each week in the last decade alone.  The pandemic has exacerbated and deepened this situation, while the invasion of Ukraine has placed millions of children at high risk of starvation.  The children who are forced to work are the same as those who are denied education, lack access to drinking water and sanitation, live in abject poverty, or are trapped in intergenerational illiteracy.

“We have to act with a sense of urgency,” he insisted.  Only 0.13 per cent of the $12 trillion outlined in the G7 Global Agenda for Action was allocated to low-income countries — not even a half per cent.  The $650 billion in IMF special drawing rights meanwhile allocates $2,000 per European child versus $60 per African child.  “This is injustice, until or unless we can answer with dignity, equity and justice to Africa, particularly children.  We have to change our priorities.”

In the area of education, he said companies are promoting a new doctrine of learning — one motivated by profit, rather than learning outcomes:  the idea that richer children will have a teacher, but those who are poor will be taught by a device they do not have and Internet access that is out of their reach.  Stressing that only $53 billion can ensure social protection for all children and all new mothers in all low-income countries — a little more of 1 per cent of what European countries spend on their social protection programmes or 10 days of global military spending — he said:  “Investment in our children is not only an investment in the future, it is one that will save humanity, justice and peace in the world.”

Valentina Muñoz Rabanal, Sustainable Development Goals Advocate, youth feminist activist and digital rights advocate from Chile, said her country made history just a day earlier for presenting the first Constitution drafted with gender parity.  Noting that she is likely the youngest person in the room at the age of 19, she said there is one thing all participants today have in common.  “None of us will live to see a world with gender equality […] not anyone on Earth who is alive today.”

According to 2021 data by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the gender gap will take more than 135 years to be bridged, she said, noting that the health crisis has added 36 years to this count.  Stressing that the outbreak of conflict is followed by the displacement of people, hunger and poverty, she said women’s rights are often the first casualties:  one in five refugee women experiences sexual violence during humanitarian emergencies, while girls are the first to abandon their education.  “Crises are a fervent enemy of women’s rights,” she explained.

Against that backdrop, she said countries cannot postpone the Sustainable Development Goals.  Actions must be taken now, not when political leaders — “that is you” — decide they have the will to do it.  The 2030 Agenda is a global agreement; it is no longer a negotiation and never was a “wish list”, she said.

She called for embracing crises as an opportunity, noting that the post-COVID world has brought greater connectivity, an impressive display of initiatives to reduce the digital divide and international alliances to promote scientific research as never before.  Yet, countries are still in debt.  Noting that when one is late for a meeting, one runs, she emphasized:  “This is the time to run.”

She said it is with great anger and sorrow that she is here today, while her colleagues are resisting a violent attack on reproductive rights with the repeal of the constitutional right to abortion, one that is enshrined in Goal 3.  No Sustainable Development Goal can be separated from the others.  They interact as a complete organism.  Therefore, the right to abortion directly impacts Goals 1, 5, 8, 13 and 16, she said.  “It seems that a man with a gun has more rights than a person with a uterus.  And that is not the fault of any pandemic.”

If leaders continue to excuse themselves by saying the crisis has caused a reversal of human rights, “we will be advancing towards the 1800 agenda, not the 2030 Agenda,” she observed.  They must stop fearing crises, because no crisis takes away the responsibility to work for human rights.   She invited the forum’s delegates to listen, observe, negotiate and to run.  “We have an appointment with this Agenda and we are all behind schedule.”

Also today, delegates took part in two panel discussions along the themes, “Building back better and advancing the Sustainable Development Goals” and “Financing a robust crisis response and investing in the Sustainable Development Goals”.

The high-level political forum will reconvene at 9 a.m. on Wednesday, 6 July.

For information media. Not an official record.