The world is wary that the Sustainable Development Goals will not be achieved by their deadline of 2030, but Lachezara Stoeva thinks that people should instead be focusing on how to speed up progress at this crucial midpoint.
“Although all statistics show that we’re not there, and it’s likely that we’re not going to be achieving them by the 2030 deadline,” Stoeva said in a Zoom call from Bulgaria in August, “the important thing is reaching the end goal, not about the timing. Obviously, timing is not in our favor, but we have to recommit and we have to find new ways.”
Stoeva, Bulgaria’s ambassador to the United Nations, has also just finished her yearlong elected term as the 78th president of the UN Economic and Social Council (Ecosoc), one of the six main organs of the UN and the most responsible UN entity for advancing the SDGs. And yes, she held two demanding jobs at once, but if you saw her in a UN hallway, running from meeting to meeting, she always had a moment to chat. (The new president is Paula Narváez, Chile’s ambassador to the UN.)
Stoeva spoke to PassBlue a few weeks before the SDG Summit, slated for Sept.18 to 19 at UN headquarters in New York City, during the General Assembly’s high-level week of global leaders’ speeches. Stoeva has two master’s degrees, one from the London School of Economics and the other from Sofia University in Bulgaria, and she has been her country’s top envoy at the UN since 2021.
The SDGs were created in 2015 to build on the progress of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The 17 SDGs and accompanying 169 targets are meant to accelerate development around the world — and in doing so, make the globe a safer, more prosperous and stable place for everyone. Although pockets of progress have been made globally, overall efforts on the SDGs remain abysmal. For example, six million more children missed out on immunizations in 2021 compared with in 2019, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic sidelining many gains.
The world is also failing to achieve gender equality, which women and girls are feeling acutely in war zones and Afghanistan. It is indeed an increasingly distant goal, according to the Progress on the Sustainable Development Goals: The Gender Snapshot 2023, the latest edition in the annual series produced by UN Women and the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs. Fair progress has been made in girls’ education, maternal mortality and narrowing the gender gaps in food insecurity, the UN report says, but failure to scale up and invest in gender equality is endangering the entire 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the formal name for the SDGs.
Only 15 percent of all 17 goals have been met, and 48 percent are off track and have either stagnated or regressed. Global warming and conflicts, including Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, are among the factors responsible for many of the setbacks plugging the world into an era of polycrisis, according to the World Economic Forum. The pandemic is also blamed for the dismal gains and rollbacks.
In her recent interview with PassBlue, Stoeva talked about expectations for the SDG Summit and its political declaration, which is the UN member states’ key moment to kick the agenda out of its rut. Although the declaration encountered stormy negotiations — navigated to fruition by the ambassadors of Ireland and Qatar as lead “facilitators” — they primarily reflected the hardening divides between the West vs. the global South, with the two camps mainly feuding over the reform of such financial institutions as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. By early September, the “shared commitments” by UN members were agreed on, encompassing 43 detailed, rigorous points aimed at “leaving no one behind.”
Yet the buck doesn’t stop with the summit. “Member States and all stakeholders need to follow through on the actions being committed to in the political declaration over the remaining seven years of the 2030 Agenda,” Fergal Mythen, Ireland’s envoy to the UN, told PassBlue.
The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and space.
PassBlue: What was it like leading Ecosoc as global health crises and conflicts are undoing or stalling progress made on many of the SDGs?
Stoeva: I was president of the Economic and Social Council from July 2022 to July 2023. So my presidency overlapped with all the crises. This made the Council even more relevant. For me, it was a challenge, but it was a great honor and privilege to preside over that body. When the UN Charter was created, this body was of equal importance to the Security Council. I think that during my presidency, it was proven that because of all the crises — Covid-19 pandemic, war in Ukraine, economic, financial and climate crises, food security — all came down to the Economic and Social Council. The geopolitical context is extremely difficult right now. What we managed to do during this year is for Ecosoc to be a platform where agreements could be reached. The fact that we managed to have the Financing for Development documented in April was a significant step. Ecosoc is the home of the Sustainable Development Goals, so we worked hard to give substantive inputs to be used for the summit but also for recommitting to the goals. We’re halfway through to the implementation of the goals, but we’re nowhere near completion. So this year was dedicated to a very honest and sober kind of evaluation, and asking, How can we get there? We needed solutions and a lot of ideas.
PassBlue: The SDGs mark their midpoint at the Sept. 18-19 summit at the UN. What can be achieved?
Stoeva: The SDGs are the only global sustainable development agenda we have. It is an all-encompassing agenda that is equally important to developing countries as well as developed countries, and it is for everybody to achieve it. Although all statistics show that we’re not there, what is important is to see full recommitment at the highest-possible level to the agenda, because this is our only roadmap. If you’re on a journey, the objective is to get there. You might get there slower than expected but you have to get there. The president of the General Assembly [Csaba Korosi, whose term ended on Sept. 5] talks a lot about transformative actions and game-changers. One main obstacle is financing for development. What is important to know is that there is money, there is liquidity. We just need to be creative about how we attract the private sector, how we get out of the idea that development is only state-covered, state-owned and state-led. The SDGs are for the whole society and a whole-government approach is required. So every member of society needs to participate in achieving them, part of the underlying principle of leaving no one behind. We keep talking about the SDGs as something abstract, like something that somebody else has to achieve, but we forget to see how we can contribute. This is probably one of the major challenges: how do we communicate the SDGs in a language that everybody can relate to?
PassBlue: What should the priorities be at the summit and how will they be managed?
Stoeva: By not only recommitting but also understanding that the summit is the beginning of the next seven years. We have to make sure that the leaders actually follow up, to make sure the SDGS are incorporated in their policies because it’s very difficult to reach the local level. Developing countries are doing much better in awareness of the SDGs than developed countries. It’s just building awareness. And I think that’s where journalists can help. If you can find a creative way to report on the SDGs, and it is present in the news, that can probably help..
PassBlue: So you’re saying that awareness of the SDGs is one reason progress has been slow?
Stoeva: I think there is fatigue. If you ask the average New Yorker what the SDGs are, I’m not sure they’re going to be able to respond. There’s a lot of work with companies, and the UN Global Compact is trying to engage the private sector, but it’s communication at the local level. If you go to one of our villages here, in Bulgaria, for example, I don’t think that the average mayor would be aware in detail. Another major challenge is securing funds and financing for development. The UN secretary-general [António Guterres] has posted a stimulus package, and it’s going to be one of the major issues to be discussed.
PassBlue: I want you to buttress more on solutions to success of the SDGs. In terms of responsibilities to achieving the goals, what is expected of the West vs. expectations from developing countries?
Stoeva: We have an opposition between global South and global North. It comes from all the geopolitical challenges we’re facing. And often, it is because the developing countries have been on the receiving end of the negativity of different crises. But what I think we both need to do is to stop with the preconceived perceptions of how things are going to be developing. We do need to have a little bit more trust in each other. Rather than the developing countries expecting somebody to give them something and developed countries saying, We’ve given you enough, it has to be a real partnership rather than a relationship with dominant parts on both sides. That’s very difficult to achieve. But it has to start small.
PassBlue: What are the possible outcomes that we should be expecting?
Stoeva: I would expect a consensus document [the political declaration]. We need a consensus document for the next seven years.
PassBlue: How can the UN play a constructive role reforming the international financial system — the World Bank and the IMF, for starters?
Stoeva: Yes, there have been lots of grievances about the unfairness of the current financial system, as it is the international financial institutions that are part of the UN. This was one of the main things I was trying to do during my tenure as president of Ecosoc, and we deepened dialogue with the IMF and the World Bank. They need to incorporate SDGs in their work entirely. Although, when we talk about reform, we have to realize that from the UN perspective, we can give our opinion of how things could look, but the decisions will be taken by Washington because that’s how governments work, but they need to be partners for implementing the 2030 Agenda, whether through reform or other programming. So as long as it gives the results we want, if it delivers, that’s good enough.
PassBlue: Which SDG are you most optimistic about in the agenda’s evolution since 2015?
Stoeva: I can’t pick anything because they’re interrelated. And if you’re lagging behind on one, you cannot achieve the others. You cannot eradicate poverty without getting a good education, without having gender equality or good governance.
PassBlue: How is your country, Bulgaria, carrying out the SDGs for achievement by 2030?
Stoeva: Basically, policies in Bulgaria are aligned with the Sustainable Development Goals. But they’re also aligned with the European Union. So I think that Bulgaria has a lot more work to do in terms of promoting the SDGs and promoting understanding of the SDGs. And it’s not just for us, it’s for everybody to ensure that the most vulnerable groups are given every opportunity to develop their full potential. I’m convinced that if we manage to go down to the local level, we have bigger chances. That’s where the power is
Damilola Banjo is a reporter for PassBlue. She has a master’s of science degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and a B.A. in communications and language arts from the University of Ibadan, Nigeria. She has worked as a producer for NPR’s WAFE station in Charlotte, N.C.; for the BBC as an investigative journalist; and as a staff investigative reporter for Sahara Reporters Media.