United Nations Under-Secretary-General Noeleen Heyzer discusses the new Sustainable Development Goals. She has played an important role in forging the new goals, that will take the place of the Millennium Development Goals that expire at the end of 2015.


Title: Moving from the MDGs: New Goals for a New Era

Description: United Nations Under-Secretary-General Noeleen Heyzer discusses the new Sustainable Development Goals. She has played an important role in forging the new goals, that will take the place of the Millennium Development Goals that expire at the end of 2015.

Noeleen Heyzer
United Nations

Q: The MDGs have produced mixed results globally but have been largely effective. What has been the secret to their success?
A: The millennium development goals captured the public imagination at the time when we needed to focus on poverty reduction. And also was a way of mobilizing partnerships as well as resources. And the way it was done is to keep the goal simple but also to make sure that there was a framework of accountability where you have specific targets and at the of the day to also make sure that the goals were incorporated at a national level into national action plans. And that’s why it made a difference. And of course, if you look at Asia, we have indeed achieved many of the development goals, because rising Asia has become more middle class. It has half the world’s absolute poverty, but there are still many goals that have not been achieved or the goals are unevenly achieved. So even in middle-income countries, you do have groups of people who are vulnerable, who are poorer and you need to attend to that. 

So in a sense, whilst the development goals captured the national development strategies and so on, and the public imagination, but at the same time, it also hides some of the subnational, local realities that are also needed to be addressed. So where are we now, now that we have a couple of months to the end of 2015? There are countries that are on track or communities and countries that are totally off track. And the goals that are off track are unfortunately the gender-related goals on maternal mortality, on access to sanitation and so on. So there’s a lot of unfinished business. Hunger is another major issue that we have not able to address quickly and today you have 542 million people, who go to bed hungry every night in Asia – so that’s not acceptable

Q: What do you say to those who argue that the new Sustainable Development Goals are overly ambitious, too complex, and too numerous?
A: What the millennium development goals tried to do was to address the persistent problems of development. But there are new ones that are emerging. The issue of sustainability, the fact that we need to really look into our ecosystems, the issue of rising inequalities, the need to look at youth unemployment especially after the financial crisis, how do you generate decent jobs – so there are many new issues that needed to be put in place. But what has happened is that because we needed to look  at these issues, in a way that is more integrated, because many of these issues cannot be addressed individually as individual goals, so what has happened is that there is an integrated approach. People are talking about an integrated, comprehensive development agenda that is transformative, that takes into account the need to focus on people. So it has to be people-centered but at the same time it has to be planet sensitive. So how do you do that and at the same time generate prosperity? So that the big challenge of our time.

Q: Given the complexity of the new SDGs, will it not be much more difficult to get government and stakeholder commitment to these 17 new goals?
A: The idea is that these are universal goals set in a, basically, in a global arena. But at the end of the day each country will have to define how they deal with each of these goals and how do they prioritize these goals but more of in terms of integrated way. So you can’t anymore look at your economy isolated from what is happening to your people, to your social sector. And you can’t anymore look at what is happening to your people independent of what is happening to your ecosystem. So you are asked – actually, countries are forced to look at integrated solutions. In other words, if you are looking at generating prosperity – how do you generate prosperity in such a way that it’s not just about your GDP but it is also about how you actually invest in your people. How do you reduce inequality? How do you make sure you have social inclusions? So the idea of inclusive growth and shared prosperity has come in a lot more. How do you grow and share this prosperity in a way that make sure you sustain your ecosystems and use your resources in an efficient way, use your energy in an efficient way so that we do not threaten, we do not threaten the resources for the next generation. And this is what I call intergenerational inequality if we do not address it properly.

Q: Governments need to work more effectively with corporations and the private sector to achieve development goals, how do you get businesses to mainstream the new SDGs?
A: It is about enlightened self-interest. I was very impressed at the number of private sector that participated in the Climate Change Summit that I attended last year, which the Secretary General of the United Nations convened. And there, they actually made commitments of how they will change, because at the end of the day it is how you generate both profit, but also for people. And you can’t sustain growth unless you know how to generate wealth in an entirely new way given what is happening after the post-2008 financial crisis. And the private sector is trying to bill in the issue of sustainability and governance into their value proposition. And I think that that’s a new way of thinking. So it’s not just profits for the sake of profits because you have stakeholders interest. So the private sector is not independent of private participation and also of the market. And you have the citizens actually demanding change also in the private sector. So it’s a change all throughout. But what is important, I think, for the sustainable development goals is that you have for the first time what we have been calling the means of implementation. Because in the case of the millennium goals, what you do not have is how you bring it about, whilst in this case people are talking about technologies, and therefore the private sector will have to help us with the development of new technologies as new business. We’re talking about financing. Of course, it’s just not private sector financing but how you build a partnership in such a way that there is an alignment of direction and alignment of goals so that you can actually mobilize the right type of resources including the development of human capacity. So it’s not just one of money but it’s also one of how do you run your institutions – what is your core business model in order to move this agenda forward.