There’s an old Irish proverb, “Ní hé lá na gaoithe lá na scolb.” Roughly translated, it means that “the day of the wind is not the day for fixing the thatch” — a common roofing material for homes in rural Ireland back in the day. The saying is a reminder that if you wait until the last minute to take action, you are done for.
In 2015, the global community came together to get ahead of clouds that were clearly gathering on the horizon. Seventeen Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), 169 targets. The 2030 Agenda was a complicated solution to the complicated problem of sustainable development. It was an attempt to turn our world in a positive direction, transforming it for the better over 15 years of solidarity and cooperation.
Now, at the halfway point of the 2030 Agenda, the thatch is sodden and the wind is getting only stronger. The shared goals of 2015 are significantly off track, with this year’s report by the United Nations secretary-general showing that progress in many areas is regressing below the 2015 baseline. If the world does not come together with determination to accelerate SDG implementation, the world we inhabit in 2030 will be a far cry from the one we set out to ensure eight years ago.
But the storm has not yet hit. We have a chance to prepare and brace ourselves for what is to come. World leaders will convene here at UN headquarters on the East River, from Sept. 18-19, for the SDG Summit. Many will arrive with national commitments — pledges to accelerate SDG implementation in their own countries and to support others in their efforts. These commitments, coupled with the UN’s SDG high-impact initiatives, can make a difference but only with two key elements: actions need to be measurable and all commitments must take into account the interrelated nature of the SDGs.
The summit will also see the adoption of the political declaration, a concise text that is the product of eight months of difficult negotiations at the UN, facilitated by the permanent representatives of Ireland and Qatar, myself and Ambassador Alya Al-Thani. This outcome does not seek to reopen the 2030 Agenda or to scale back its ambition or scope. Instead, it is a strong and clear reaffirmation of the shared commitments made in 2015. But it is also more than that: It is a call to action to correct the course and turn our world toward 2030.
The declaration is based on the fact that the SDGs remain the last best chance for putting our world on a sustainable track. The agreed actions in the text outline many steps we must take, from climate action and protecting biodiversity to empowering women and girls; and not only committing to leaving no one behind, but also, importantly, identifying those who have been left behind. Strong commitments that could help address some of the biggest obstacles to achieving the SDGs are also included. The renewed commitments call for enhancing the follow-up and review systems for the SDGs at the UN, harnessing data to track progress and improving analysis of the links across the goals and targets.
We can’t find our way to the future we want if we don’t know where we are at present.
Some of the most difficult discussions over the negotiation process focused on financing. The far-reaching language in the declaration is perhaps its most significant component. Member states had an honest and direct debate over why SDG progress has been so slow. Informed partly by the secretary-general’s proposal for an SDG stimulus and his policy brief on reform of the international financial architecture, the declaration adds political momentum to revisiting how our international financial system works and for whom.
Just as the SDGs are an interlinked and interdependent framework, the international community must recognize how the current structures and policy approaches on financing, debt and multilateral development bank governance affect member states’ efforts to deliver on their SDG commitments across all the goals.
For instance, gender equality can never be achieved without investments in education, health systems and job creation. Fiscal space is needed for these investments, but this is shrinking rapidly amid rising interest rates, unsustainable debt levels and falling rates of official development assistance globally. Reforms are needed to address these problems.
The summit on Monday and Tuesday will indeed come and go, but the critical conversation we start to have on those days must continue — in New York City, in Washington and all capitals across the world.
World leaders will next come together to discuss the SDGs in 2027. By then, the storm will have arrived. So let us seize this opportunity now to fix our “roof” — our shared planet, our common home — the only one we have.
This is an opinion essay.
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Ambassador Fergal Mythen has been permanent representative of Ireland to the UN since August 2022. Previously, he spent considerable periods of his career working for the government of Ireland in support of the Northern Ireland peace process and implementation of the Good Friday Agreement. Most recently, as director-general of the Ireland, UK and Americas Division of the Department of Foreign Affairs from 2017 to 2022, he led the team working on Northern Ireland peace process issues, Irish-British relations (including the impact of Brexit) and Irish-US and Irish-Canadian bilateral relations, as well as relations with the Latin America-Caribbean region. He has twice served in the permanent representation of Ireland to the European Union in Brussels. Earlier in his career, Mythen was seconded to the European Community Monitoring Mission in the former Yugoslavia, based in Sarajevo. He studied history and English at Trinity College and business studies at University College Dublin. He is married to Ciara Delaney and they have four children.