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Sustainable Development Now at the Heart of the UN

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By J Nastranis

NEW YORK (IDN) – The United Nations General Assembly has approved a landmark consensus resolution, which Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed assures will allow the world body to transform a “cacophony” of efforts under way to make sustainable development a reality into a “symphony”.

Secretary-General António Guterres has described the plan as “the most ambitious and comprehensive transformation of the UN development system in decades,” paving the way for a new era of “national ownership” of development, supported by the whole UN system, in a tailored fashion, allowing countries to pursue sustainable economic and social development.

“It sets the foundations to reposition sustainable development at the heart of the United Nations,” he said, after the 193-member intergovernmental body adopted the six-part reform resolution by consensus on May 31.

The General Assembly resolution will hit the ground running in January 2019 – three years after the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, adopted by world leaders in September 2015 at an historic UN Summit, officially came into force.

Speaking before the adoption of the reform, General Assembly President Miroslav Lajčák, said that though “this resolution, today, is not seen by everyone, as the perfect document,” it is “a “legitimate outcome of a multilateral process. It shows what we are capable of.”

Speaking before the adoption of the reform resolution, Ambassador Sabri Boukadoum, Permanent Representative of Algeria in his capacity as co‑facilitator, said that while the resolution marked the beginning of a new era, it was also a first step, with bold and new decisions that required collective work for a smooth transition.

He looked forward to a regular exchange of ideas throughout the implementation process, adding that the Secretariat’s technical note explaining parts of the text would be a key input into the implementation plan. He was also encouraged that the entire development system and United Nations Development Group would be fully engaged in that process. The review of the reinvigorated Resident Coordinator system would be another milestone in building a strong system supported by sustainable funding.

Ambassador Ib Petersen, Permanent Representative of Denmark, also a co‑facilitator, called May 31 an historic day, with the ambition expressed matching that of the 2030 Agenda. Member States called on the development system to act on the resolution as soon as possible. Indeed, multilateral cooperation was a balance between optimal efficiency and maximum legitimacy. While there were different opinions on the recommendations, they nonetheless had gained maximum legitimacy, with support from all Member States, Petersen said.

The representative of the United States, noting that her country was the largest contributor to the development system, said the resolution changed the way the Organization would run those activities. She expected the reforms would lead to less bureaucracy, and more flexibility for agencies to act quickly, focus on core mandates and make tough choices about priorities.

Success would create a system that was more responsive to those who needed it most. Noting that the resolution limited increases in assessed contributions, which was critical, she said the fact that it was accepted by consensus sent a strong message to the world. “We have empowered the Secretary‑General to make important changes,” she said.

India’s delegate said development system reform proposals flowed from a collective desire to improve delivery. Yet, they came at a time of severe resource constraints. That stark contradiction had been a major fault line in the debates leading to today.

From the start, India had supported the Secretary‑General’s reform proposals, especially to delegate authority and increase accountability. However, the draft had been modified substantially, with funding modalities now different than the Secretary‑General’s initial proposal.

The volume of funding was also unclear, while the proposed enhancement of cost‑sharing and levies on earmarked funding could lead to possible shortfalls. Nonetheless, India supported the text and looked forward to the implementation report to be presented by the Secretary‑General.

Following the adoption, delegates widely recognized that the resolution represented the beginning of a new era. “There is no better time for reform than now,” said Ethiopia’s representative, speaking on behalf of the African States. Yet, it was only the first step, she said, calling on Member States to ensure the smooth implementation of the plan.

Sharing several concerns, she said the reform must unfold alongside an inclusive dialogue with relevant Governments. “The truly challenging part – the implementation phase – begins now,” said Bulgaria’s representative, on behalf of the European Union, pledging his support for action.

Delegates broadly voiced their commitment, including those from China, Guatemala, Mexico and Brazil, with some requesting regular updates on the plan’s implementation. However, for the reform to succeed, a change in mindset must be initiated, said Egypt’s delegate, speaking on behalf of the ‘Group of 77’ developing countries and China.

Warning that members would bear the brunt of costs if the resolution was poorly implemented, he outlined several essential ways to avoid that, including by ensuring transparency and inclusiveness. Member States must have access to the implementation plan and provide their input to the Secretary‑General. “With this resolution, we have shown our solidarity,” he said. “Now is the time to deliver on promises.”

Many delegates underlined the gravity of the current development landscape and the need to achieve concrete gains in reaching the 2030 Agenda goals. “The stakes are extremely high,” said the representative of Maldives, speaking on behalf of the Alliance of Small Island States, underlining the critical role of the Resident Coordinator system. Echoing a common concern, she voiced reservations about the unpredictable funding structure and hope that the Secretary‑General would address the issue.

Indeed, the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals hinged on the successful implementation of the plan, many declared. The representative of Bangladesh, speaking on behalf of the least developed countries, welcomed provisions that called for targeted action for States seeking to graduate from the group, while Canada’s delegate, speaking also for Australia and New Zealand, said a strong implementation plan was critical for the success of the development system itself, which would work on eliminating any fragmented efforts on the ground.

In that vein, many delegates requested the regular monitoring of progress, with Rwanda’s delegate noting that the implementation phase would in fact determine the success of the reform and subsequently the outcome of the 2030 Agenda.

May 31 mandate “gives practical meaning to our collective promise to advance the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for everyone, everywhere – with poverty eradication by 2030 as its first goal, leaving no one behind,” the UN chief explained. “In the end, reform is about putting in place the mechanisms to make a real difference in the lives of people.”

The reform process will mean significant changes to the setup, leadership, accountability mechanisms and capacities of the whole UN development system; ensuring it meets national needs not only for implementing the SDGs, but also in meeting the climate change commitments made through the 2015 Paris Agreement.

Otherwise known as the Global Goals, the SDGs are a universal call to action, to end poverty and hunger; to protect the planet and ensure that all people enjoy peace and prosperity.

More specifically, the reform gives Resident Coordinators – the most senior UN development officials at the country level – a dedicated, independent role in coordinating the activities of all the various UN entities working locally, which make up UN Country Teams.

Guterres noted that being a Resident Coordinator is “one of the most challenging jobs” at the UN, and the 129 Resident Coordinators covering 165 countries are working hard “in some cases against all odds.”

Currently, successful coordination depends too much on individual personalities and the goodwill of those involved, he said, highlighting that this reform will help resolve “a historic deficit in our coordination function” and accentuate strategies that work and are effective.  

With the reform, the functions of the resident coordinator are separated from those of the resident representative of the UN Development Programme (UNDP). “You will be able to count on impartial and empowered Resident Coordinators – fully devoted to the needs that you require to fulfil the 2030 Agenda, drawing on experience, skills and knowledge across the system,” Guterres said.

In terms of strategic direction, the General Assembly took note of the Secretary‑General’s proposal to merge the New York‑based Executive Boards of funds and programmes, and stressed the need to improve monitoring and reporting on system‑wide results.

Significantly improving voluntary and grant‑based funding was also vital and the General Assembly welcomed the Secretary‑General’s call for a “funding compact”. It took note of his proposals to bring core resources to a minimum 30 per cent level in the next five years, and to double both inter‑agency pooled funds to $3.4 billion and entity‑specific thematic funds to $800 million by 2023.

As a starting point, the Assembly requested the development system to allocate at least 15 per cent of non‑core resources for development to joint activities, and among other things, comply with the highest international transparency standards.

An official of the UN Secretariat then announced that implementing the resolution would require $255 million annually, a major portion of which would require extra-budgetary resources. The Secretariat’s share of the United Nations Development Group cost‑sharing arrangement for 2019 would range from $13 to $16 million, and related requirements would be submitted to the General Assembly for approval at its seventy‑third session beginning in September 2018. [IDN-InDepthNews – 4 June 2018]

Photo: Secretary-General António Guterres (centre) addresses the General Assembly on the repositioning of the UN Development System. To his left is Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed and at right is General Assembly President Miroslav Lajčák. UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate.

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