Achim Steiner, UNDP Administrator, Remarks at the Japan National Press Club, Tokyo, Japan

Aug 10, 2017

With its emphasis on ‘protection’ and ‘empowerment’ of affected people, Japan is funding both UNDP and UNHCR to help address the Syrian refugee crisis in Turkey, Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon, and the Balkans. UNDP Photo

As prepared for delivery.

I am honoured to speak to you today, nearly two months into my tenure as UNDP Administrator. I am very pleased to be here in Japan, a country that has been a steadfast partner to UNDP for so many years, and to speak on a topic that I feel is critical to the future of the United Nations, and indeed of the world: the 2030 Agenda and its clarion call to collective action for sustainable development.

Over the last 20 to 30 years, the study of economics or international cooperation was premised on the simplistic notion that ‘development’ needed to occur in the global South, since the North had already attained a desired state of being. Remarkably, with the adoption of the 2030 Agenda, world leaders did away with that view. For the first time in history, countries have agreed to be guided by a  common, universal development agenda. It reflects a global consenus that every country has to do its part to ensure the health of our planet and the wellbeing of the people that inhabit it. It also acknowledges that working within national boundaries is not sufficient. Nations depend on one another and have to work together to solve the world’s most critical challenges, be it pandemics, climate change, developing the digital economy, or the ability to produce enough food for the 8.5 billion people expected to populate this planet by the year 2030. 

The SDGs build on the enormous development progress that has been made globally during the MDG era and in the years preceding it. Since 1990, the number of people living in extreme poverty has declined by more than half. Primary school enrolment is up, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, and many more girls are now in school. In fact, developing countries as a whole have eliminated gender disparity in primary, secondary and tertiary education. Considerable progress has been made in the fight against infectious diseases. New HIV infections have declined by more than 40% since 2000, and nearly 20 million people have access to life-saving antiretroviral therapy. Maternal and child mortality have also declined considerably.

But much remains to be done, and Agenda 2030 has raised the world’s ambitions to not only finish the unfinished business of the MDGs but also to address a new generation of interconnected development challenges and risks.

  • • Inequalities, especially within countries, have worsened. Many people simply have not benefited – or benefitted equally – from development progress in aggregate. Rising inequalities are a problem in their own right, and they can strain social cohesion and contribute to instability.
  • • Protracted conflicts, such as those in Syria and Afghanistan, can erode hard-won development gains. Syria is estimated to have lost more than three decades of human development progress since the crisis began. This is why peace and inclusion, underpinned by strong institutions, is an integral part of the SDGs.
  • • Disasters, including climate-related risks, can similarly threaten development progress. This is why the environment is embedded in the SDGs. Environmental degradation can be both cause and consequence of instability and conflict. Unfortunately, weather-related risks are likely to worsen unless action is taken on climate change.

The needs are great and the SDGs set the bar high, but the good news is that we are already seeing extraordinary things in these first two years of implementation.

Firstgovernments all across the world are translating their commitment at the global level into action in their own countries. More countries volunteered to report at this year’s SDG review conference in New York, the High-Level Political Forum, than was possible logistically. And for most of them, the effort is led by the president’s or prime minister’s office – not by individual ministerial departments. I have followed with great interest Japan’s ambition to be a role model as reflected in your presentation at this year’s High-Level Political Forum and by the Prime Minister’s leadership in ensuring comprehensive and effective implementation of SDG-related measures.

These efforts reflect the fact that the SDGs are highly relevant to Japan. Disaster-risk reduction and climate action is embedded across the SDGs, which is important for an island country like Japan that is prone to earthquakes and typhoons. The recent heavy rain and floods in Kyushu and Akita are a stark reminder of the devastation that disasters can bring. Gender equality also remains a national priority – for example, increasing the proportion of women executives. 

Secondwherever people hear about the Sustainable Devleopment Goals (SDGs), there is an eagerness to play a part. In the run-up to the new Agenda, over 10 million people voiced their expectations and priorities. Strong communication and engagement channels remain essential for its implemenation. I am pleased that Japan is looking to broaden public awareness of the SDGs. I would argue that the key is not so much to teach everyone to recite all the 17 Goals. Rather, what is important, is to help people understand what needs to be done differently, and to help the overall package of SDGs – relating to the planet, to society, and to the economy – be seen as the foundation for national development thinking.  The role of the media is crucial in this regard, linking the realities of people’s lives with the promise of the SDGs.

Thirdthe private sector seems to find it far easier to work with the SDGs than it used to with the Millennium Development Goals. Whereas before the private sector’s participation in the process was viewed in terms of contributing to economic growth, job creation, and tax revenue, now there is an opportunity for the private sector to take on a broader, more integrated role in the development agenda. We have a great deal to learn from this response that points to some extraordinary opportunities. Japan’s focus on the Public Private Action for Partnership is particularly relevant in this regard.

SDGs, partnerships and UNDP’s role

Indeed, we are now at a point where we are moving from the initial stages of putting SDG-related plans and governance structures in place to actually seeing policies and partnerships emerge all over the world to accelerate achievement of the SDGs. Sometimes partnerships may not refer explicitly to the 2030 Agenda or the SDGs. But what they are embracing is that development in our age cannot be defined only by individual economic parameters. It has to be shaped by the recognition that equality, equity, and sustainability are integral to development.

And above all they cannot leave anyone behind. Arguably, this is the most powerful line of the 2030 Agenda. If we take it seriously, it changes everything. Because part of what we are struggling with in the year 2017 is a development narrative that has often rationalized that to leave some people behind initially and to bring them along later is the “price of development and progress”. The resulting phenomenon of growing ‘inequality and unsustainability’ often associated with this approach frequently end up undermining development. It has thrown some societies back by generations.

This also points to the need for us all to systematically identify and manage risks, in other words, a call for risk-informed approaches to development. To assess for each context what shocks might throw development backwards.

Accordingly UNDP’s focus is on working with those who need our advice the most. We do so with a firm understanding of the global dimension of development and by forging partnerships.

In many ways, the 2030 Agenda reflects what UNDP was created for – the only broad-based UN entity focused on ‘development’. We work hand-in-hand with nations as they forge their own particular pathways, seeking synergies across sectors, to reach all members of society. UNDP is more present across the planet than virtually any other entity, even in the private sector. UNDP has people, connections, and access to knowledge across the whole globe. Our 17,000 professionals work in over 180 countries, sometimes at the extreme end of just helping people after disaster to stay alive for the next day. And at the other end, we advise nations on what a development strategy could look like for a nation that is thinking 20-30 years ahead.

UNDP-Japan partnership (incl. international issues of significance to Japan)

Adopting a truly integrated approach presents complex challenges. “Leaving no one behind” is hard to visualize in so many contexts today. And wisely identifying and managing risks requires a different set of skills. In this journey, therefore, partnerships will be essential.

UNDP’s long-standing partnership with Japan is of great value in our shared endeavour to achieving the SDGs. For example, together, we are:

  • • joining forces for stabilisation efforts in the Middle East region and addressing the root causes of violent conflict;
  • • working closely to support the economic development on the African continent;
  • • strengthening early-warning systems and disaster preparedness for tsunamis in Asia and the Pacific; and
  • • developing the capacities of Lower Middle Income Countries to improve access, delivery and introduction of new health technologies.

We are also hoping to work even more closely on gender equality and women’s economic empowerment, for example to address the burden of unpaid care. We seek to draw upon Japan’s experience regarding the inclusion of older people, including older women, in development policy and planning, to extend our work on a development approach that is sensitive to the challenges of ageing.

What we at the UN call the ‘humanitarian-development nexus’, also sits at the core of the notion of “human security” championed by Japan. Essentially it is a recognition of the fact that sustainable development and sustaining peace are two sides of the same coin. One cannot exist without the other. With its emphasis on ‘protection’ and ‘empowerment’ of affected people, Japan is funding both UNDP and UNHCR to help address the Syrian refugee crisis in Turkey, Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon, and the Balkans. It is also supporting efforts to tackle the protracted refugee situations in Uganda, Zambia and Cameroon.


Let me conclude by referring back to my initial statements about building momentum for implementing the 2030 Agenda around the world. Though they find themselves in complex situations, some of the most inspiring examples of SDG action come from countries such as Afghanistan and Somalia, Jordan and Uganda.

Afghanistan and Jordan were two of the 43 countries presenting their plans for SDG achievement at this year’s UN High-Level Political Forum, embracing the 2030 Agenda as a means for establishing the conditions for peace and development. Uganda was part of the very first cohort of reporting countries last year, presenting impressive efforts to raise awareness and to integrate the SDGs into its national framework. Somalia has mainstreamed the SDGs into its new National Development Plan – its first in more than three decades. These are remarkable efforts in remarkable times.

Let me also acknowledge once again the far-reaching efforts that Japan is undertaking to implement the SDGs at home, as well as its support in helping other countries around the world to do the same within their own national contexts. This is the kind of leadership that will help make the ambition of the SDGs a reality, and we look forward to continuing our close cooperation with Japan.

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