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Leadership for Sustainability

Last year, the UN laid out a blueprint to tackle the world's thorniest issues, including climate change, poverty, and the pursuit of sustainable development. But while global agreements are important, even the best accords are no more than words on paper if they cannot be implemented.

DAVOS – Last year was one in which the United Nations proved, in the words of Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, its ability “to deliver hope and healing to the world.” In a series of global accords – including the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, the Addis Ababa Action Agenda on Financing for Development, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, and the Paris climate agreement – the international community laid out a blueprint to tackle the world’s thorniest issues.

But, while global agreements are important – providing a framework for progress and accountability – even the best accords are no more than words on paper if they cannot be implemented. The challenges we face are mostly the result of our own actions, and we also have the ability to overcome them, but not if we continue doing business as usual and expect different results.

The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were adopted by the UN in 2000 with the goal of tackling some of the most daunting development challenges: eradicating poverty and hunger; enrolling all children in school; turning the tide on HIV/AIDS, malaria, and TB; and reducing infant, child, and maternal mortality.

For the most part, the MDGs were a success, spurring significant progress that would have been unlikely without the focus, funding, and action mobilized by international commitment. And yet, at their conclusion, much remains to be done.

The MDGs’ target of halving the proportion of people living in extreme poverty by 2015 was met. But what about the other half? For many in the so-called “bottom billion,” life has scarcely changed. Meanwhile, child poverty is on the rise in 18 of the European Union’s 28 member countries, which the International Labor Organization attributes to cutbacks in benefits for children and mothers. The era of austerity has not been kind to social protection systems.

Gender inequality also remains pervasive. When women are disempowered and underrepresented in decision-making processes, meeting their needs often is not given high priority. This has consequences for entire societies, which are poorer if they fail to tap the full potential of half their population.

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At the same time, the rapid pace of environmental degradation is damaging the climate, as well as degrading ecosystems on which humans depend. Species loss undermines livelihoods, health, and food and water security. And while damage to natural ecosystems affects us all, it is the poorest and most vulnerable who suffer the most.

It is important to note, too, that sustainable development is not possible without peace and stability. Sadly, humanitarian emergencies created by war and conflict are overwhelming the international community’s capacity to respond. Spending on humanitarian relief has tripled in the last decade; but the costs of meeting the vital needs of refugees and other victims of conflict have risen faster.

That is why the MDGs’ successor framework, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), is so important. The goals, which the UN formally adopted last fall to guide sustainable development for the next 15 years, are universal; they apply to countries at all income levels. By investing in more inclusive and peaceful societies and in minimizing the risk of disasters, we will be able to reduce the need for spending on humanitarian interventions.

Of course, achieving the SDGs will not be easy. Radical adjustments will be needed in the way we live, work, produce, consume, generate our energy, transport ourselves, and design our cities. Capacity will need to be built. Governance must be improved. Sweeping policy, legislative, and regulatory changes will be needed. And a commitment to building lasting stability based on peaceful and inclusive societies will be essential.

The better world envisaged in the SDGs cannot be realized without strong leadership. For starters, that means finding the required funding. Money is not everything, but it certainly helps, and official development assistance will be an important part of any funding stream.

Second, broad coalitions must be formed. Governments acting alone will not be able to achieve the SDGs. Their involvement will be vital, but broader leadership will also be required from civil society, the scientific community, academia, local government, and the private sector.

Finally, leadership from multilateral organizations, including the UN Development Programme, will be needed. Our job is to help countries eradicate poverty in a way that reduces inequality and exclusion, while protecting the ecosystems on which life depends.

And yet we must acknowledge an inconvenient truth: We will be striving to achieve the SDGs during a time of heightened global volatility. This makes it all the more difficult – and even more imperative – to devise and implement effective strategies to combat the factors driving it: growing inequalities and unchecked discrimination, environmental degradation, and prolonged conflict and instability.

Our generation is the last that will have the chance to head off the worst effects of climate change. It is also the first generation that can eradicate extreme poverty and secure a more hopeful future for all. Putting the planet on the path to sustainable development is achievable – but it will require fearless leadership from us all.