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IISD Speech: IISD President and CEO Scott Vaughan at the Regional Forum on Sustainable Development for the UNECE Region, Geneva

March 27, 2017 – Madam Chair, Deputy Secretary General, Excellencies

Thank you for inviting me to this important regional forum.

We are in the second year of the SDGs. In this short time, a strong foundation has been laid. Most countries, virtually all UN agencies and most bilateral and multilateral donors are focused on the SDGs to varying degrees. Programs, donor coordination, data, indicators and evaluation are all aligning to specific SDG goals and targets.

And yet, the SDGs remain fragile. Implementation is not inevitable. We see backlashes aimed at key targets, and climate change is but one example. Anti-immigration and anti-migration rhetoric, rising protectionism, the clawing back of international development assistance are others.

Therefore, the SDGs need a sustained push, not only by those in this room and in other assemblies like this, but also with sceptics not present.

Countries of this region have always been at the forefront of global and regional action, from early binding regional targets to reduce harmful air pollutants, to integrating sustainability in road transport. My plea to you today is to continue your leadership. There is no better way to lead than by demonstrating through implementation the tangible, concrete benefits of the SDG agenda.  

A key theme of this forum is advancing shared prosperity, health and well-being. We need this kind of positive framing of the SDGs more than ever. A growing body of work by behavioural psychologists shows that prompting public action through negative warnings—for example “Stop climate change or change your lifestyles because what you are doing today is bad”—doesn’t resonate.  So finding concrete examples of what the SDGs mean to the lives of households, families, small businesses and farmers is urgent.

It is also difficult.  

For 20 years, calls have been made to measure well-being and prosperity in ways that go beyond GDP. Much of the rage today in many countries springs from people who simply don’t believe aggregated GDP numbers reflect their conditions and anxieties. They are concerned about wages, income, job security, their children’s health, education and access to a clean environment – things GDP was never intended to measure.   

A few months ago, my IISD colleagues released a report that examined national well-being from a comprehensive wealth perspective. This is the first report of its kind at the national level. It drew on the pioneering work of Sir Partha Dasgupta, Robert Repetto, the UN Statistical Commission, UNEP and others.  

Our report references GDP. But it examines with robust statistical evidence the four pillars that comprise well-being: human capital, natural capital, produced capital and social capital. Together, these four elements provide a comprehensive, holistic picture of national well-being.

We are not advocating discarding GDP. But the SDGs demand by their definition a comprehensive and holistic way to measure progress that goes beyond that core economic indicator devised by the architects of the Bretton Woods systems 72 years ago.  

I mention the need to go beyond GDP and Bretton Woods because they both embody the greatest challenge of the SDGs—that is, their call for an integrated, coherent, holistic and ambitious or transformative agenda.

Getting beyond GDP is hard. It has entered the policy vernacular. Institutional integration may be even harder. Unlike the Bretton Woods system, which was based on a small, core set of liberal economic ideas that in turn created three primary institutions to implement them at the global level—the IMF, World Bank and GATT/WTO—the SDGs created no new institutions—other than the High Level Political Form (HLPF)—and thus demand we work together with what exists.

We support and applaud the leadership of the Deputy Secretary General in advancing coherence and integration across the UN system.  

And we see inspiring examples of collaboration around the SDGs everywhere. For example, the 6,000 community-level foundations that together leverage USD 60 billion in funding annually are increasingly focused on what the SDGs mean in their communities and cities, and finding new ways to cooperate that build reciprocity and benefit from the sharing of solutions that take shape within communities that can be replicated and scaled.

Here in Geneva, IISD is excited to partner with UNOG in supporting a platform for the 50-some multilateral, research, civil society and business organizations located in the city to explore  meaningful partnerships and innovate together through the Geneva 2030 Ecosystem and the establishment of the SDG Lab.  We at IISD are grateful for the leadership of UNOG Director General Michael Mueller and senior officials: I want to applaud the extraordinary leadership of UNECE Executive Secretary Christian Fris Bach in being an early, passionate and effective champion of the SDGs.

UNECE has stressed that civil society organizations play an important role in realizing the new, innovative ideas embedded in SDG 17.  Civil society organizations broadly realize that the SDGs are too large, complex, urgent and important for any one group to lead alone. And we have a new generation of leaders within our organizations who are frankly impatient for action, uninterested in turf battles and have a truly global lens that sees beyond national borders.

Civil society organizations have a vital role in SDG implementation, from challenging conventional wisdom with big ideas backed by robust evidence, to celebrating and sharing progress, and holding governments and institutions to account for any lack of innovation and ambition.

We are also seeing progress among a growing number of countries—including in this region. The German Sustainable Development Strategy coordinated through the Chancellor’s Office or Finland Sustainable Development Commission chaired by the Prime Minister are but two examples.The Belarus SDG train remains one of my favorite examples in aligning the SDGs with public education.There are many others, Forums like this can amplify and build on these examples.

Mr. President, I wanted to make three final brief points.

The first is finance. We see rapid growth in Green Bonds, and the issuance last month of the first Sustainable Development Bond by the World Bank. We need to align increased innovation in green and climate finance with the SDGs. There are new models to cost and blend finance for the USD 50 trillion in infrastructure spending over the coming two decades.  We don’t need infrastructure models to mimic development blueprints of the past century, but rather accelerate the financing of inclusive, sustainable infrastructure for the rest of this century.  

Second, new avenues to share SDG knowledge are emerging quickly. I’d encourage this Forum to think how best to align public policy around Information Communications Technology to advance the SDGs, particularly to a new demographic. I’m proud of the open-access IISD SDG Knowledge Hub online portal that builds on the 25 years of experience of my talented colleagues of the Earth Negotiations Bulletin.

My last point should have been my first—the role of gender equality in the SDGs. The SDGs send a clear message: gender equality is not only a goal in itself but it is also a means to achieve all the other goals. Put another way, the SDGs cannot be achieved without addressing gender inequalities and discrimination against women.

Mr. President, Distinguished Colleagues, thank you.