People take a break outside on the grounds of the United Nations headquarters during the 74th session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York. Photo by: REUTERS / Eduardo Munoz

UNITED NATIONS — The 74th United Nations General Assembly is in the books. Midtown Manhattan's residents are emerging from behind security cordons, and New York City traffic has returned to its usual density. Now the international community can take stock of whether it matched the multiple urgent priorities that framed this week with real efforts to advance progress.

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres sought to move the needle on climate action, health leaders battled politics to forge a new agreement on universal health coverage, and heads of state reconvened for the first time since 2015 to wrestle with how the world will finance the Sustainable Development Goals. Meanwhile, several new partnerships were announced this week to fast track progress on other lagging issues, including global data collection.

Government officials, business leaders, and philanthropists tried to maintain a sense of optimism — despite clear evidence that when it comes to both climate change and development, the world is falling short. Here are some of our takeaways from Global Goals Week, and predictions on what’s next for some of these major development trends.

UHC: An agreement with ‘powerful potential’

Governments committed to a landmark agreement on UHC on Monday, pledging to help all people access health services. The World Health Organization and 11 other multilateral organizations also launched a new global action plan to streamline support to national governments.

The high-level meeting kicked off with some political drama, as a leaked letter revealed that the U.S. lobbied member states to oppose “harmful” U.N. policies that promote sexual and reproductive health and rights. The agreement, in the end, still pledges to “ensure universal access to sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights.” More than 100 civil society organizations, under the umbrella of the Alliance for Gender Equality and UHC, said that the final agreement has “powerful potential.”

New WHO findings show governments need to increase their gross domestic product spending on primary health care by at least 1% in order to close the gap on health care access and prevent it from further expanding in the next few decades.

The agreement echoes this with a call for governments to increase budgetary allocations on health by an additional 1% to 2% of GDP. The agreement will be most useful at the national level, as health advocates can use it to hold their governments accountable, according to global health experts.

Philanthropy: Just like New York City traffic

Some observers compared the philanthropic sector to traffic in New York City throughout the week. There is lots of activity headed in the same direction, but the result is gridlock.

Donors at all levels have more capacity to give, but they get stuck — so the question is how to support them to be more informed and intentional. The emerging field of donor collaboratives is one way to help philanthropists identify high-impact giving opportunities and pool resources, experts explained in a World Economic Forum-hosted workshop. 

A wide range of other events focused on ways to leverage technology in support of the SDGs and how partners can help democratize data. On the heels of the U.N. High-Level Meeting on Universal Health Coverage, the Rockefeller Foundation launched the $100 million Precision Public Health Initiative, which aims to put data science tools such as predictive analytics, artificial intelligence, and machine learning in the hands of frontline health workers.

Technologies transforming health in wealthy countries should not bypass the poor, said Naveen Rao, the foundation’s managing director for health.

“How do we close data inequity gaps to make this stick? How do we get political will? How do we get a diverse core set of partners that have never worked together before with a common unified objective?” he asked.

Climate Action Summit: A ‘stepping stone’

The world’s largest emitters did not answer the U.N. secretary-general’s call for “concrete” commitments on climate change during the U.N. Climate Action Summit. But some companies, foundations, and other players made it clear that they are ready to move forward on climate adaptation and mitigation plans.

“The meeting was a stepping stone, but definitely not the end and there needs to be a lot of work to increase the momentum at government level,” said Yamide Dagnet, senior associate at the World Resources Institute’s International Climate Action Initiative.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and several other funders announced on Monday they would give $790 million to support resilience of over 300 million small-scale food producers. The Netherlands, the European Commission, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, Germany, and the World Bank will also support this work.

The U.K. government pledged £1.3 billion ($1.6 billion) to help reduce emissions in low-income countries and for biodiversity and conservation programs. Aid advocates welcomed the new funds — announced Monday by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson — but questioned whether they would be drawn from existing development assistance accounts.

New contributions to the U.N. Green Climate Fund were also announced during the summit, replenishing the fund to more than $7.3 billion, ahead of its pledging conference in October. Doubled contributions by countries such as South Korea — which gave $200 million to the Green Climate Fund — are notable, Dagnet said.

SDG financing: ‘The test of our seriousness’

The importance of both country-level resource mobilization and international accountability on taxation and debt were key messages from the High-Level Dialogue on Financing for Development on Thursday. The event, a progress report on financing efforts since the adoption of the Addis Ababa Action Agenda, rehashed some of the agenda’s key issues and stressed that progress has been too slow.  

“Financing is the test of our seriousness, without resources we will simply not deliver for people or planet,” Guterres said during the forum.

While there was some private sector engagement at the meeting, the key focus was on harnessing money in the global financial system that is improperly managed or misreported. There was also an emphasis on the benefit of tax revenues for governments to finance critical services and help achieve the SDGs.

“[Countries] must harness their own resources to finance the rapid economic and social transformation we need,” said Ghana President Nana Akufo-Addo, explaining that African countries need to take the lead on generating necessary funds. One key aspect of this work is addressing illicit financial flows that have “siphoned billions out of Africa every year,” Akufo-Addo said.

The U.N. and European Union launched a new initiative to operationalize financing discussions at the national level. The partnership will help a group of about 15 “pioneer” countries create integrated national financing frameworks that lay out a financial strategy, set priorities, manage risk, and maximize financial resources.

United Nations Development Programme Administrator Achim Steiner said the INFFs will help focus financing to better assess problems in a national or international context, and to address any issues that prevent financing from being directed towards the SDGs.

Private sector: Too many familiar faces?

Business is falling short on contributing to the SDGs, according to a new report from the U.N. Global Compact and Accenture. Of more than 1,000 CEOs surveyed, just 21% said business plays a critical role in contributing to the Global Goals. There were a lot of familiar business leaders in New York for Global Goals Week — which gives rise to the idea that the same players are stepping up.

Andrew Wilson, permanent observer to the U.N. at the International Chamber of Commerce, outlined three types of companies among those that are engaged: those few that have aligned their core business or purpose to the SDGS, those that do SDG-aligned projects or initiatives, and those that are engaged in “SDG-washing” and aren’t following up announcements with action. Changing that dynamic will require systemic change, he said, adding that it is likely best driven by the financial industry.

A group of 130 banks, representing about one-third of the world’s banking industry, signed the new Principles for Responsible Banking, an initiative aimed at reorienting banking away from a pure profit focus to a new paradigm where social and environmental impacts matter, too. The voluntary initiative drew some criticism from civil society about how long the banks may take to comply and whether it would change their fossil fuel investments.

A group of 87 companies also committed to setting climate targets across their operations and value chains to limit global temperature rise to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels and reach net-zero emissions by no later than 2050.

U.S. engagement: Sticking to the basics

While Washington, D.C. fell into chaos with news of an impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump, U.S. representatives at UNGA mostly stuck to a short script of development and humanitarian assistance priorities.

In his speech to the U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday, Trump did not discuss the new foreign aid policy framework that many in the U.S. development community anticipated. Instead, he sent a few core signals on migration, Venezuela, religious freedom, and LGBTQ rights, which came as a surprise to some observers.

In the wake of Trump’s address, which praised “patriots” and shunned “globalists,” U.S. officials offered some modest new commitments.

The State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development announced an additional $119 million in humanitarian assistance for people affected by Venezuela’s crisis. In contrast to the administration’s February effort to force aid across the border, which resulted in a dramatic and violent showdown, this tranche of funding includes $36 million that will be channeled through “impartial relief agencies” operating inside the country. USAID Administrator Mark Green also announced $52 million in funding to support Juan Guaidó’s interim government.

The White House is still waiting for its signature development achievement to become a reality: the creation of a new U.S. Development Finance Corporation. While the highly-lauded institution’s official launch has been delayed by ongoing budget negotiations, Green highlighted US DFC in a speech on the sidelines of UNGA, in which he championed “enterprise-led development.”

In front of a private sector-leaning crowd at the Concordia annual summit, the USAID chief spoke about how the agency is trying to use its procurement tools to involve companies earlier in the project design process, and to tap the creativity of a broader range of development partners.

About the authors

  • Amy Lieberman

    Amy Lieberman is the U.N. 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.
  • Adva Saldinger

    Adva Saldinger is a Senior Reporter 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.
  • 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.
  • 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, innovation, and philanthropy 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 domestically and internationally for outlets including The Atlantic and the Washington Post. Catherine also works for the Solutions Journalism Network, a non profit that trains and connects reporters to cover responses to problems.