Recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic and its devastating socioeconomic consequences must not leave anyone behind, speakers told the high-level political forum on sustainable development as it opened its 2021 session today.
Over two weeks, the forum — under the auspices of the Economic and Social Council — will review progress in implementing the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which was adopted in 2015.
The 2021 session provides a paramount opportunity to show unwavering commitment for the achievement of the 2030 Agenda despite the obstacles and challenges posed by the pandemic, said Munir Akram (Pakistan), President of the Economic and Social Council, stressing that the forum can offer a further basis for a multilateral effort to resume and accelerate progress to ultimately realize the vision of the 2030 Agenda.
This year’s theme focuses on sustainable, resilient recovery from the COVID‑19 pandemic that promotes the economic, social and environmental dimensions of sustainable development: building an inclusive, effective path for realizing the 2030 Agenda in the context of the decade of action and delivery for sustainable development.
In the afternoon, a panel discussion on the theme “Building resilience against future shocks through structural changes and investment in sustainable infrastructure” was chaired by Mr. Akram and moderated by Atif Kubursi, professor emeritus at McMaster University in Canada. The following speakers made presentations: Isabelle Durant, Acting Secretary-General of UNCTAD; Vera Songwe, Executive Secretary of Economic Commission for Africa (ECA); Jim Hall, Professor of Climate and Environmental Risks and former Director of the Environmental Change Institute, Oxford University; Erik Berglof, Chief Economist of Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank; Isabel Ortiz, Director, Global Social Justice Program Initiative for Policy Dialogue; Gavin Power, Executive Vice‑President and Chief of Sustainable Development and International Affairs of PIMCO; and Stephen Devereux, Professorial Fellow, Co-Director of the Centre for Social Protection Institute of Development Studies.
Serving as lead discussants were Mami Mizutori, Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Disaster Risk Reduction and Head of the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction; Francesco La Camera, Director‑General of IRENA; Yannick Glemarec, Executive Director of the Green Climate Fund; Andre Zhu, Senior Vice‑President of Global Affairs and General Counsel of Pinduoduo, China; Refat Sabbah, President of the Global Campaign for Education and the General Director and founder of the Teacher Creativity Center, Palestine (Education and Academia Stakeholder Group); and Suran Maharjan, Volunteers Major Group. Eamon Ryan, Minister for Transport and Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications of Ireland, served as a respondent.
Mr. KUBURSI opened the discussion, saying that the impact of this massive economic slowdown is likely to trickle down to fragile economies and vulnerable communities, exacerbating human insecurity. The world’s unequal divides will hamper the collective ability to feel safe again, he said, highlighting the sharp gaps in areas from the digital divide to collective security. One of the pandemic’s immediate consequences is the widespread questioning of the globalized economy’s failure to deal with the COVID-19 and its impact. Globalization cannot be taken for granted any more as people call for balancing its benefits against the inherent risks and challenges that global value and supply chains have faced in today’s globalized economy. If there is a lesson to learn from this crisis, that is likely to be repeated with the onslaught of climate change, it is that the world needs to change its entrenched and dysfunctional consumption habits, the highly polarized income and wealth distribution systems and its relentless pursuit of growth.
Ms. DURANT, recalling that global investment shrank during the pandemic, said Governments and businesses are now striving to build back, prioritizing resilience in their recovery plans. Investments are needed in, among other things, green economies, infrastructure and other key areas in line with the 2030 Agenda. The problem is that most recovery funding targets certain States. As such, tailored investments must aim at reaching low-income developing countries along with efforts to boost private investment. Efforts must also support multilateral and bilateral lenders. Social governance and environmental considerations must be part of such plans, she said, adding that UNCTAD has an action plan for realizing the Sustainable Development Goals, which could help States.
Ms. SONGWE, highlighting three areas for coordinated action, said financing must first be tailored to contribute effectively to national economies, including by addressing the issue of liquidity. The United States effort for financing is bold, but funds have yet to arrive in nations in need. Cooperation is needed to ensure an effective distribution of COVID-19 vaccines, she said, noting that Africa has only vaccinated 2 percent of its population. Market access also needs to be coordinated, she said, adding that taking these steps can help to realize the 2030 Agenda and recover from the pandemic.
Mr. HALL highlighted his work as a professor and director of the Environmental Change Institute at Oxford University, saying that resilience entails improving the capacity to improve reactions against shocks. Social safety nets and building institutions’ capacity are among the steps needed. Infrastructure systems can be made more resilient by diversifying to find ways to avert catastrophes. To address this issue, he recommended regular stress tests to be conducted on such systems before a crisis arrives.
Mr. BERGLOF made a pre-recorded video statement, outlining the work of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.
The forum then heard from the lead discussants.
Ms. MIZUTORI said that if recovery funds are invested wisely, resilience will be bolstered. Social and economic systems must be constructed based on the risks at hand. Infrastructure investments must include building resilience along with recognizing the interlinkages among other sectors. The private sector will launch investment in infrastructure projects, with the United Nations leading with global benchmarks to ensure progress, she said.
Mr. LA CAMERA said that building back better is a guiding principle for decision makers when responding to the immediate and longer-term needs of people and the planet. The renewables-led energy transition is central alongside focused and targeted infrastructure investments. Also needed are greater system flexibility, modern grids and significant investment in grid-connected and off-grid renewable power‑generation infrastructure. Public institutions can play a significant role in working together to mitigate investment risks and encourage the flow of private sector capital that is needed to build back better. This reinforcing process can help to attract the $4 trillion of investment needed annually, to align the energy system with the 2030 Agenda and the Paris Agreement on climate change. By doing so, the world can ensure universal access to energy, education services and health-care facilities, while creating stable, productive economic opportunities for millions of people. These are the hallmarks of more resilient societies, he said, adding that building back better means building back greener.
Mr. RYAN said that Ireland is playing its part at this critical moment when the world tackles the climate crisis and the pandemic. The developed world must do more, he said, adding that efforts must address climate change and other urgent concerns. Reducing emissions is key, he said, outlining the United Nations efforts in this regard. With a spirit of cooperation, as seen in protecting the elderly during the pandemic, he said that it is now time for the world to protect its younger generation and their future.
During the ensuing discussion, some participants highlighted national and global examples. Several offered suggestions on lessons learned and how best to proceed as the world grapples with COVID-19 and its consequences.
The representative of Guyana said efforts must ensure that livelihoods are protected. Approaches must consider access for all and must be non‑discriminatory, with an aim of reaching the entire population. There should also be a movement to encourage financial institutions and partners that support such efforts to consider concessionary initiatives to fund sustainable, resilient infrastructure projects.
The representative of France said her country is investing in infrastructure to deal with climate change and supporting related structural reforms. Efforts are addressing the resilience of such systems along with the consideration of the positive environmental impact. Collective public transport and other areas help to combat social divisions and other inequalities. However, financing needs are significant, often going beyond public funding, she said, adding that France is making efforts to promote public-private partnerships in this regard.
The representative of Thailand said investments have targeted the national health sector to better prepare for future shocks and have supported sustainable, resilient infrastructure. Private sector involvement can make disaster risk efforts part of their businesses, he said, also calling on international donors to increase their support for infrastructure development.
A representative of civil society said the scientific and technological community, co-organized by the International Science Council and the World Federation of Engineering Organizations, has underlined the important role these fields can and must play in building a resilient and sustainable future. As such, he called on the United Nations system and Member States to establish trust and confidence in the scientific, engineering and technology community. Highlighting areas for action, he said good governance, stability, transparent procurement and delivery processes are essential, with the World Federation of Engineering Organizations’ model code of ethics being a guide for sustainable development and environmental stewardship.
The representative of China said infrastructure gaps must be addressed, with help from the international community. Efforts must also promote post-pandemic recovery, education, transportation and health, to ensure that no one is left behind. Innovation must help to develop new business models and green infrastructure. For its part, China has worked on various projects to advance transportation projects, including a China-Europe rail line initiative that began in 2013.
The forum then heard from the remaining panellists.
Ms. ORTIZ said the pandemic has shown the weak state of public health systems after decades of insufficient investments. Since the 1980s, the Washington Consensus has left a legacy of minimal investment in the social sectors that must be abandoned to achieve a structural transformation. To do so, she said investments must be made in universal public health, education and social protection. A few safety nets targeted to the poor, with private pensions for the rich, cannot and will not lift societies, she said, noting that most countries are reversing pension privatization, because it did not work. Outlining ways to achieve structural transformation, she said countries need universal public social protection systems. In addition, investments are needed to secure affordable drinking water, as demonstrated by more than 250 reversals of the privatization of water over the last 15 years, she said, pointing to the re-municipalization of the Paris water supply in 2010 as an example which led to cheaper prices and better delivery. Structural transformation must also generate employment with living wages, she continued. Pointing to existing fiscal space even in the poorest countries, she said there are at least eight financing options, fully supported by policy statements from the United Nations and international financial institutions. Governments around the world have been successfully applying these options for decades, she said, adding that: “There is financing; achieving the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030 can be done.”
Mr. POWER said PIMCO projects are aligned with the 2030 Agenda across many sectors. Noting the drop in private sector investment, he said that public‑private‑sector partnerships are essential now. PIMCO manages $600 billion in assets that are oriented to the 2030 Agenda. However, a market failure in national 2030 Agenda plans is apparent, he said, pointing to targeted efforts to reverse that trend. Pioneering work is unfolding in the area of sustainable infrastructure investment. These and other related actions are keeping with the notion of building back better, he said.
Mr. DEVEREUX said shock‑response systems have the ability to respond rapidly in times of crisis. The best way to improve such systems is boosting efforts across sectors. Beneficiary management systems and digitalized payment mechanisms are some of the tools Governments can use in this regard. However, glaring gaps in social protection systems must urgently be filled, he said, drawing attention to the challenges facing some countries. For instance, he said, farmers often are not reached by social assistance. More broadly, he said that temporary interventions during the pandemic should be extended to ensure that social protection covers those in need at all times.
Mr. GLEMAREC said the Green Climate Fund is the largest of its kind and uses a multiple-pronged approach. Citing a range of ongoing initiatives, he said partnerships are developing the benefits of green solutions. Efforts are aimed at making blended finance work better, he said, citing examples of financing sustainable infrastructure projects in 42 countries. Initiatives are also focusing on domestic financing institutions, he said, highlighting a project in South Africa to recycle water.
Mr. ZHU said that, in China, agriculture is at the centre of his organization’s growth strategy. To address the traditional distribution networks that were blocked by the pandemic, efforts included operationalizing a livestream channel and online grocery services, which improved the situation and also created millions of jobs. Infrastructure must be developed in a sustainable way going forward, he said. Stakeholders must partner closely to advance innovations, like online retail for food. As such, the food system will become more resilient when it is grown and distributed better.
Mr. SABBAH said action is needed to reduce the cycle of poverty. Solidarity leads to justice, which, in turn, can guarantee change. Institutions must reflect on their procedures and commit to making progress. Educational systems must also be examined and improved. The pandemic exposed how big the problems are, but some partnerships are not translating into practice on the ground. To address these issues, a solid collective value system is required, he said, adding that empty assurances are not enough to ensure progress.
Mr. MAHARJAN highlighted the crucial role played by civil society, with volunteers bridging key gaps between stakeholders. In Nepal, such efforts are supporting projects related to sustainable infrastructure development, education and health sectors. Initiatives centre on building a fairer and more resilient world, he said.
Also participating in the panel discussion were the representatives of Indonesia and Guatemala. Representatives of several civil society and stakeholder groups also participated.