Around 70 people were gathered for two talks at UN City in Copenhagen a sunny Wednesday morning in the end of August. By show of hands, the moderator established that the crowd consisted of 40% from UN agencies, 5% from government institutions, and the rest from civil society. I wondered why there was no reference to a ‘private sector’ category. Perhaps the private sector is now viewed as part of civil society? Or perhaps no one thought they would prioritize the UN events over office time, and therefore their presence didn’t need to be established? The lack of roll call for for-profit representatives in the debate was something that echoed through the talks in general. A hope for stronger cooperation with the private sector is still a focus of the SDGs, further emphasized by goal #17 “global partnerships for sustainable development”.

Two topics were on the agenda: “From Poverty to Prosperity” and “The United Nations in a time of change”, both with four participants in the panel representing the world of international relations from ambassadors to UN officials.

In the first session, four Danish ambassadors candidly painted different pictures of how the work on SDGs is progressing, and the challenges and opportunities related to them. During the second session, four representatives from central UN agencies discussed the three priority areas set by the Secretary General: peace and security, the UN development system and the reform plans that are underway for the UN. Proactive actions should be prioritized over delayed aid, particularly in cases where there is a high risk of humanitarian catastrophes. Further, UN agencies should cooperate more on joint programs and missions.

The UN as a mirror of the world

Throughout the two sessions I was reminded of an important aspect of human and government nature: self interest. Donor countries earmark funding for the causes they themselves think are most important, and the UN agencies compete among themselves for limited funding. There is a trade off between nutritional health in Mozambique and basic education in Myanmar. As the Danish ambassador to Mali pointed out, the “sexy” projects get the most funding.

Several times the panelists made a point of highlighting that the SDGs are not a roadmap for UN activities until 2030, but in fact are goals agreed to by national governments, making them a global roadmap we are jointly accountable to. Many, myself included, seem to forget this in the rush to try to remember the periodic table containing all 17 of them. Official development assistance (ODA) increased by 8.9% in 2016 to USD 142.6 billion. At the same time, there is a global infrastructure gap, with a USD 1-1.5 trillion annual gap in developing countries alone. With this in mind, it is apparent that accountability to the SDGs needs to be shared in the broadest of terms.

State of the nations

We heard from ambassadors from Austria, Ghana, Italy, Mali, Mozambique and Myanmar. We heard from representatives in Copenhagen and New York. We also heard questions and remarks from the crowd. One man from Benin stood up and asked an interesting questions related to the structural dependency of 14 central and western African countries on the CFA-franc. The question reached beyond the current state of global geopolitics and well into the colonial past. It is a reminder that we in future solutions still are stuck in past structures. The question was lost in the many that came from the crowd, and was not answered during the sessions. Several other remarks echoed the thoughts that cooperation on international development is becoming more nationalistic in approach and focus, and that lack of funding is resulting in a ‘blame game’. It nicely summed up the current state of the UN and the world, with both new challenges and old frameworks.

I left with new information on dynamics and priorities, and with a reinforced conviction that the call to action initiated by the SDG cannot be left to governments and international agencies alone.


Eva C. Knutsen