UN reform, Trump, the SDGs, and moonshots: 6 things to watch at Global Goals Week

The United Nations Headquarters in  New York. Photo by: ser_is_snarkish / CC BY-NC-ND

NEW YORK — A new United Nations chief bent on reform. An unpredictable American president set to deliver his first address. Persistent humanitarian crises and flaring global hotspots. Emerging technologies that could revolutionize — or disrupt — efforts to end poverty and fight disease.

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There is plenty to ponder and discuss in New York next week, as international delegations arrive for Global Goals Week — the 72nd session of the United Nations General Assembly and the slew of side events, closed-door meetings, breakfasts, dinners, parties, and protests that will clog Manhattan’s streets and stretch its security lines.

Major newcomers to the scene include Bloomberg Philanthropies, which is convening more than 40 heads of state and numerous business leaders in a forum many consider the inheritor of the Clinton Global Initiative’s former spotlight. Bill and Melinda Gates will host Goalkeepers, where speakers including former President Barack Obama and education champion Malala Yousafzai will look to keep the Sustainable Development Goals in focus as countries move toward implementing them. Devex will be on site to provide an insider look at the biggest week in global development.

Here are six key issues we’ll be watching for as Global Goals Week unfolds.

1. UN reform and António Guterres’ debut UNGA as secretary-general

The core issue next week for the United Nations is rooted in a question that U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres raised earlier this summer, and has been floated repeatedly since: Does the U.N. need to rethink the way it does its work? The new secretary-general says: “Yes.” In a report he circulated at the end of June, called “Repositioning the U.N. development system to deliver on the 2030 Agenda – Ensuring a Better Future for All,” he laid out a vision for reform.

Of course, it is normal practice for new U.N. chiefs to issue a fresh set of bold proposed changes when they come into office. Guterres, less than a year into the job, is no different in aiming high with a new vision for the multilateral organization. But this time around, given the pronounced financial strain the U.N. is experiencing, it could cause some member states to think carefully about how the system could be reworked to function more effectively. Look for ways this debate plays out as U.N. bigwigs and donor nations mix and mingle all week.

The proposed shifts, in their early, draft forms, have already raised some alarm. But they have also garnered support from some former top U.N. officials, including Helen Clark, who wrote this week that the U.N. is “failing in vital areas” and needs more top-down leadership from the secretary-general.

Guterres' vision for UN reform to make debut during Global Goals week

Two months after the U.N. secretary-general first rolled out his blueprint plans for reforming the U.N., global leaders will consider what a reworked system could look like. If fully implemented, the management reform plan could make the U.N. look quite different, restructuring power on the ground and further consolidating leadership at U.N. headquarters among Guterres and other top U.N. officials. 

The reform plans have also gained other perhaps unexpected supporters, including U.S. President Donald Trump, who has called for a meeting of world leaders on U.N. reform on Monday, before his address to the General Assembly, as Reuters reports. All participants are reportedly obliged to sign a declaration backing Guterres’ plans for management reform. Guterres will also speak at the event, which is co-hosted by the United Kingdom. In a schedule crowded with high-profile events — often featuring glamorous celebrities or major development players — this meeting of political leaders will be one of the most important conclaves of the entire week.

2. Will President Trump ‘lean in’ or out of UN global efforts?

Much has been made of the impending showdown between two newcomers to the U.N. General Assembly’s center stage: Secretary General António Guterres and President Donald Trump. Or will it be the start of an unlikely — if not beautiful — friendship?

When Trump tweeted in December last year, “As to the U.N., things will be different after Jan. 20th,” most took it as an ominous warning from an anti-”globalist” president-elect who has spurned multilateral cooperation and threatened deep cuts in U.S. contributions to the international organization. But Guterres, who also assumed office in January, campaigned on a similar message: promising that things will be different at his U.N. In the lead up to the 72nd session of the U.N. general assembly, some see a glimmer of hope that Trump’s delegates to the global gathering might emphasize areas of mutual interest, while voicing support for the more efficient and effective organization that Guterres has promised to shape.

All of that will depend on which version of the Trump administration shows up to the party. Will the president use the occasion of his first speech to the assembly of world leaders — scheduled for Tuesday morning — to champion areas where America still might lead the world, such as humanitarian assistance, global health investments, and using the leverage of its outsized resources to drive reform? Or will Trump play to his own electoral base by lambasting the Paris climate agreement, ridiculing the U.N.’s failure to resolve global problems, and reiterating past threats to cut off U.S. funding to the international body?

The U.S. delegation will be smaller than in recent years. In her briefing on Thursday, State Department Spokesperson Heather Nauert chalked that up, at least in part, to a desire for cost savings. "The hotel rates alone are ridiculously expensive," Nauert told reporters.

With so much of UNGA’s action happening in the hallways, not from the podium, the public face of U.S. engagement is not the only thing that will matter. Trump’s economic advisor Gary Cohn is convening a high-level group to talk about how to balance climate action with national economic goals — which could create an opening for continued U.S. international climate engagement. Trump himself will lead a session on U.N. reform, and leaders including U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator Mark Green will be onsite to clarify U.S. development priorities under this administration. Delegates from USAID’s partner countries will no doubt have plenty of questions.

3. Humanitarian crises: A diplomatic surge amid crippling fallout

The depth and breadth of global humanitarian crises will cast a shadow over this year’s U.N. General Assembly. More people are displaced than at any point since World War II, the majority with no near-term prospects of returning safely home. Four countries are seeing famine or near-famine conditions. Yet at a time when need has never been greater, humanitarian budgets have flatlined. So far in 2017, the U.N. has just 15 percent of the total funds it says it needs for relief. Amid the glitz and socializing of the week’s events, this stark reality will act as a backdrop for many key conversations on how to deal with some of the world’s key problems.

Conflict is a key driver of many of today’s worst humanitarian crises, from Syria and Yemen to South Sudan, Nigeria, and Myanmar. Secretary-General Guterres entered office vowing a “surge in diplomacy for peace,” and many will be watching whether he might use the U.N. General Assembly to push warring parties toward talks or resolution. So far, member state’s disagreements have deadlocked diplomatic progress, including in Syria, Venezuela, and Yemen.

Yemen may be under a particular spotlight having recently won the dubious distinction of the worst humanitarian catastrophe in the world. Saudi Arabia is under pressure to halt its military campaign in order to allow aid access and quell spiraling rates of malnutrition and the world’s fastest-moving cholera epidemic. Criticism of Riyadh has come not only from the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights, but also in an unusually direct statement from U.N. World Food Programme chief David Beasley, who said Saudi Arabia “should fund 100 percent (of the needs) of the humanitarian crisis in Yemen,” in an interview with Reuters. “Either stop the war or fund the crisis. Option three is, do both of them.” Interestingly that criticism of Saudi Arabia seemed to come in direct opposition to expressed sympathies of current occupant of the White House: proof that profound humanitarian crises can sometimes cross the usual diplomatic red lines.

Even as leaders around the table look for diplomatic openings, the U.N. system is scrambling to cope on the ground with the fallout from conflict and help millions of people in dire need. In large part, that means doing more with less. The Grand Bargain signed at the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit traded more, and more flexible, funding for a pledge by humanitarians to get their own houses in order. Innovation, transparency, and efficiency are becoming buzzwords by necessity. Some 18 months later, humanitarians will use the General Assembly to check in on progress and urge donors to keep up their end of the deal.

4. A growing role for the private sector

The week will be a vital moment for many major development players to take stock of private sector action on global development broadly and more specifically toward achieving the SDGs. As was acknowledged in the SDGs, the private sector is now seen as a critical partner in achieving future development objectives. That recognition seems only to have grown, but questions remain about how companies will engage and at what level.

More than in previous years at UNGA, there seems to be a proliferation of guides for the private sector: U.N. Global Compact put together a guide for businesses. The U.N. Foundation has hosted special briefing calls for private sector representatives, and they’ll be visible at most of the major events. It also represents the first general assembly where the private sector will have representation in the discussions. The International Chamber of Commerce, which represents tens of thousands of companies and associations, was granted formal observer status last December.

This year’s U.N. Private Sector Forum will focus on financing development, as will other events, including one organized by the Abraaj Group and the Global Impact Investing Network. Mobile network operators will be there and are releasing a report tracking progress on how the industry is contributing to the SDGs. For companies that may have previously entered the fray of Global Goals Week through participation in the now ended Clinton Global Initiative, this year offers other options, including Bloomberg’s Global Business Forum and the World Economic Forum’s Sustainable Development Impact Summit. There will be discussions about partnership, but also about how companies can do some of this work as part of their business — through investments, business lines, and product innovations.

It’s interesting too that this year, while many of the familiar faces — such as Unilever’s Paul Polman — will be there, so too will companies that haven’t previously had as big of a presence. This includes Mars, Inc., which on Sept. 5 announced it was committing about $1 billion on a new Sustainable in a Generation Plan focused on climate action, improving the lives of 1 million people in its value chain, and innovating to improve health.

5. Measuring progress, gathering data, and ensuring accountability

There are now 13 years left until the deadline set for achieving the SDGs. And for some, the fact that two years have already ticked by creates a sense of fear that — like with their predecessors, the Millennium Development Goals — the SDGs might lose momentum and struggle to achieve their lofty targets. But it’s about more than just making the progress; it’s also about understanding and measuring it.

This is a week in many ways for taking stock, and there are a plethora of reports expected to be released and findings to be shared from committees and commissions charged with ensuring accountability. Those figures and datasets will be intensely scanned by development actors large and small. But the reality is that measuring the lofty list of SDG indicators remains a challenge, one that many of those gathered in New York are eager to find ways to address.

Those key measurement tools and metrics go beyond tracking progress and can help create better programs and ensure better accountability for a shrinking pool of funds. But the number crunching can be decidedly unsexy, especially in a week of cocktail parties and celebrity sightings, from Hollywood stars to heads of state.

But efforts to find those solutions will still happen through a number of conversations, new tools, and knowledge exchanges. The Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data — a network of governments, businesses, and NGOs that aims to improve the quality of data — will be there, and Bloomberg is hosting a conference on how data science can be used to solve problems for the social good. A new SDG Reporting handbook will launch to help companies better track their progress toward the SDGs, and investors and businesses will discuss how to measure and reward impact.

6. Moonshots: The need for exponential versus incremental change

One of the most in demand speakers at UNGA side events may very well take the stage in rollerblades. His message? Likely something along the lines of how it can be easier to make something 10 times better than 10 percent better. We choose to go to the moon not because it is easy, but because it is hard, and yet that kind of thinking can make things easier to accomplish, even if counterintuitively. That is the kind of message that a community working on 17 goals that begin with “End poverty in all its forms by 2030” might stand to hear.

Astro Teller, the rollerblade-wearing captain of moonshots at X, is taking the kind of thinking that Alphabet’s moonshot factory is known for to events organized by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Skoll Foundation. Earlier this year, he spoke at the SDG Action Event on Innovation and Connectivity, where he discussed how to test radical solutions to global problems, such as the way his team is working on Project Loon to connect people to the internet via balloons. At Goalkeepers, Teller will talk about the technology and innovation developments having an impact on extreme poverty, and at We the Future, he will open a series of conversations that capture how to go from incremental change to exponential thinking to achieve the systemic change that will be needed to achieve the 17 SDGs.

A new mindset for the SDGs? Top takeaways from Singularity University's Global Summit

Devex reports from Singularity University's Global Summit in San Francisco on how "exponential thinking" can support innovation in implementing the Sustainable Development Goals.

One of the major proponents of exponential thinking for the SDGs is Singularity University, which started as a Silicon Valley think tank, but has evolved into a global community to apply exponential technologies ranging from artificial intelligence, to digital manufacturing, to solving global challenges. Various U.N. agencies have sent representatives to Singularity University to learn about ways to apply emerging technologies to global development, and have even launched innovation initiatives in San Francisco.

Next week, some of those Silicon Valley actors — from representatives of technology companies to human centered designers to the much-sought-after, ultra high net-worth individuals — are headed to U.N. headquarters.

What remains to be seen is whether these events have a major impact and how they change the debate. “The things that are talked about more often are the things that are the sexiest,” Kevin McAndrew, director of partnership innovation and strategy at Save the Children, told Devex in a past story on innovation labs.  “But I think the things where innovation is actually truly accomplishing something on the SDGs are much more incremental and on the edges and not as sexy.”

Devex is on the ground in New York from Sept. 15 - Sept. 22 at Global Goals Week, bringing you daily morning briefings with everything you need to know — whether you're here in person or following the events from afar. Sign up for our Global Goals Week daily briefings.

About the authors

  • Igoe michael 1

    Michael Igoe

    Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.
  • Saldiner adva

    Adva Saldinger

    Adva Saldinger is an Associate Editor at Devex, where she covers the intersection of business and international development, as well as U.S. foreign aid policy. From partnerships to trade and social entrepreneurship to impact investing, Adva explores the role the private sector and private capital play in development. A journalist with more than 10 years of experience, she has worked at several newspapers in the U.S. and lived in both Ghana and South Africa.
  • Lieberman amy

    Amy Lieberman

    Amy Lieberman is the New York Correspondent for Devex. She covers the United Nations and reports on global development and politics. Amy previously worked as a freelance reporter, covering the environment, human rights, immigration, and health across the U.S. and in more than 10 countries, including Colombia, Mexico, Nepal, and Cambodia. Her coverage has appeared in the Guardian, the Atlantic, Slate, and the Los Angeles Times. A native New Yorker, Amy received her master’s degree in politics and government from Columbia’s School of Journalism.
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    Elizabeth Dickinson

    Elizabeth Dickinson is associate editor at Devex. Based in the Middle East, she has previously served as Gulf correspondent for The National, assistant managing editor at Foreign Policy, and Nigeria correspondent at The Economist. Her writing also appeared in The New Yorker, Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Politico Magazine, and Newsweek, among others.
  • Cheney catherine%2520%25281%2529

    Catherine Cheney

    Catherine Cheney is a Senior Reporter for Devex. She covers the West Coast of the U.S., focusing on the role of technology and innovation in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. And she frequently represents Devex as a speaker and moderator. Prior to joining Devex, Catherine earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Yale University, worked as a web producer for POLITICO and reporter for World Politics Review, and helped to launch NationSwell. Catherine has reported from all over the world, and freelanced for outlets including the Atlantic and the Washington Post. She is also the West Coast ambassador for the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit that trains and connects journalists to cover responses to problems.