SDG Lab in the news: Neue Zürcher Zeitung

In this interview, SDG Lab Director Nadia Isler discusses the 2030 Agenda and the 17 Sustainable Development Goals. This feature appeared in the May 23, 2019 edition of the Swiss German newspaper, Neue Zürcher Zeitung, as a special supplement on occasion of the 2019 Swiss Economic Forum. The interview was originally published in German.

‘Enough of thinking in silos’

Nadia Isler discusses the 2030 Agenda and the SDGs

Ms Isler, you are the Director of the SDG Lab. What are they Goals about?

On January 1, 2016, the 17 Sustainable Development Goals of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development – adopted by all 193 Member States of the United Nations – officially came into force.

These Goals are nothing less than a historical commitment of every single country towards defining very precise sets of common objectives in addressing the social, economic and environmental challenges of our world. In that sense, the 2030 Agenda and the 17 Goals are unique in that they call for action by all countries, poor, rich and middle-income to promote prosperity while protecting the planet.

It has never been done before that every single state and country has united behind a common political commitment. More than a political commitment, the 2030 Agenda is a platform for action that every single citizen can contribute to.

What are the most important individual areas of the Sustainable Development Goals?

This is a question I get asked a lot. The 17 SDGs are indivisible, and they need to be addressed in their totality. Many people think of the Goals as being discrete stand-alone objectives, or that some might be more important than others. What we do at the SDG Lab in Geneva and in the broader UN system is to drive home the message that every Goal is connected. It is an integrated agenda that cannot be separated.

That may sound like UN jargon, but what it means is that if a country fails on one SDG, it will not be able to address the other Goals. For example, if we want to achieve SDG 3: Good Health and Well-Being, it means no longer looking at public health only through the lens of the health sector. You also need to address issues related to education, to clean water, to access to food, to gender equality and so forth. For me, the 2030 Agenda is a recognition that the international community must address today’s global challenges in an integrated and a systemic way.

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What are the biggest challenges in achieving these goals? Aren't there also contradictions in the achievement of these goals?

I think all of us that are pushing the 2030 Agenda forward would probably come up with different sets of challenges. From the perspective of the SDG Lab, the challenges that I see are linked to embracing new ways of thinking and working.

Many of today’s governments, organizations and institutions are structured in a way that is not conducive to grasping the connectivity of the SDGs. Be it, for example, the way ministries are organized. The gold standard has been – and in many countries continues to be – a ‘silo’ approach, where you have a Ministry of Health, a Ministry of Finance, a Ministry of Economic Affairs, a Ministry of Defence, all working on sustainable development issues in an independent way. In turn, budgets and activities are organized in a manner that does not promote a cross-cutting approach.

I hear about the challenges that this way of working poses on a regular basis. Government representatives and other stakeholders come to the SDG Lab and share that it is difficult to implement the 2030 Agenda because of those sectoral silos in which we have been used to working in and which our ministries and organizations are still built according to. Therefore, a whole of government approach is essential to realizing the SDGs by 2030.

To the second part of your question: the global community is facing a tremendous number of challenges that can only be solved by working together and using the SDGs as a road map. The Goals are squarely centred on promoting a more sustainable world that works for all of humanity and life on the planet. I do not see anything contradictory about that.  

What progress has been made in implementing the Goals?

We are witnessing strong progress in the implementation of the 2030 Agenda and the 17 Goals. First of all, the mere fact that we have 193 UN Member States behind this agenda is a significant signal of progress. The fact that so many countries are working hard, hand-in-hand, for citizens to know about the Goals, who then, in turn, hold their governments and other stakeholders accountable is a success.

Another sign of progress is the increasing number of governments that are reporting on SDG implementation progress, through what is called ‘Voluntary National Reviews’. This process, which states are not obliged to do, encourages countries to report on the tangible steps being taken to implement the 2030 Agenda, and to share the challenges and the critical gaps they are facing. In parallel, civil society, the private sector, academia and other stakeholders are rallying around the SDGs and taking them on as their own action platforms. These diverse coalitions make Agenda 2030 so fundamentally different from previous initiatives.

How well known are the SDGs among the population? Do you notice that the public's perception is increasing and the Goals are being understood?

At the level of the UN, there is a lot being done to increase public awareness of and engagement in the SDGs. One such activity in Switzerland is the Perception Change Project, which is an initiative spearheaded by the Director-General of UN Geneva, Michael Møller. One of its key activities is helping demystify the SDGs, spur action for the Goals, and to bring the work of the UN and other international organizations based in Geneva closer to Swiss citizens and communities. The Project has developed a publication called 170 daily actions to change our world that provides concrete examples of what we can all do in our daily lives to make a difference.

There is also a lot that is being done in the field of education. Schools, colleges and universities around the world have made the SDGs an intrinsic part of their curriculum to ensure that students know about the Goals. For its part, the UN recently launched a SDG Book Club to help children learn about the SDGs through a reading list of curated books. Sparking the interest, imagination and curiosity of children from a young age is vital. I am struck every time I talk about the SDGs with very young people, including children as young as five. They really want to know about the Goals and, more importantly, what they can do to make them actionable.

Finally, if people, your readers, do not know about the SDGs, then get the information. Get to know the 2030 Agenda better. Talk about the agenda with other people to make sure that as many people as possible know about it. We all have a responsibility to raise awareness of the new possibilities that the SDGs represent to improve the lives of millions of people.

How can the implementation of the SDGs be financed?

It is a question we are often asked. Mobilizing enough financing remains a major challenge in implementing the 2030 Agenda. There is no doubt that the global community cannot rely on classic development assistance only to deliver the SDGs and sustain progress beyond 2030. That will not be enough. We are being compelled to find more private funding sources and to unlock more domestic public resources.

Private sector engagement is a big topic of conversation in and outside the UN. We need to bring both communities together – the private and public sectors – and find common incentives to engage. Switzerland has an incredible concentration of expertise on finance and sustainable development, and we are trying to see these two communities converge to mobilize resources for the SDGs.

What drives you?

I am an optimist. I can very confidentially say that we should all be optimistic because there are many reasons to be hopeful. Not least when you see the number of different stakeholders behind the SDGs and the movement that is being created and getting bigger by the day. This is what really makes me think that we are in a different era. As gloomy as the news is, and as grim as everything may seem, we have an unprecedented opportunity to eliminate extreme poverty and put the world on a sustainable path.

You ask what drives me? Knowing that I am contributing to this movement for a more sustainable, equitable and just world. I have two children and I see how aware and alert they are with the state of the planet. They remind me daily of the importance of individual responsibility and action.