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Special Report: World Leaders Agree to Speed Up SDGs; French Envoy Refuses to Leave Niger


At a summit held on Sept. 18, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a political declaration propelling the Sustainable Development Goals to the 2030 finish line. They also acknowledged that the slow if nonexistent gains among many of the 17 goals in the last seven years reflect lack of motivation by countries worldwide. JOHN PENNEY/PASSBLUE

The common thread woven across the dozens of speeches by world leaders at the opening of the two-day United Nations Sustainable Development Goals Summit was a clarion call for faster progress toward achieving the goals’ deadline of 2030. National leaders and UN Secretary-General António Guterres all expressed hope amid minimal progress on the SDGs. They even agreed on a declaration to push for gains in the next seven years, despite divisiveness among the 193 countries.

“Renewed faith in us by the people who depend on us will help us earn credibility, trust and a sense of confidence that UN-led multilateralism delivers,” said Dennis Francis, president of the 78th session of the General Assembly, on the summit’s first day. “Our eight billion constituents are looking to us for a signal that we will keep our promises and that we are alive to the reality that we have only seven years left before 2030.  They want and deserve full reassurance that we all together recognize the circumstantial setbacks that so many have experienced and continue to endure.”

The 17 goals and accompanying 169 targets were created in 2015 to accelerate global development — and thereby enable more equal, just, safe and healthy societies — but most of the goals have experienced retrogression and stagnation. Only 15 percent have been met. They cover everything from ensuring safe sanitation and gender equality for women and girls to quality education for all and preserving the oceans.

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A combination of factors in the last seven years, since the goals’ inception, has contributed to the poor progress, said Francis, a career diplomat from Trinidad and Tobago. Some major reasons for the overall setbacks include the Covid-19 pandemic, which ground the world to a halt for almost two years; the effects of global warming, especially in the Horn of Africa and parts of the global South (such as Iraq); and Russia’s war in Ukraine.

However, Leo Varadkar, the Taoiseach (or leader, in Gaelic) of Ireland, said that though these crises have further pushed the SDGs off track, government leaders must acknowledge that the goals were stalled before the pandemic was officially declared by the World Health Organization on March 11, 2020.

“As leaders, our drive to achieve the goals has not been as strong or focused as they ought to be,” Varadkar said, noting that though crucial time has been lost, hope remains. (The UN ambassadors of Ireland and Qatar negotiated the political declaration with their fellow member states to catapult the next seven years of SDG achievements.)

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Mayada Adil, a Sudanese activist and an official SDG youth “leader” who also addressed the General Assembly, said the only way to describe the current state of the SDGs is as a “failure.” Young people, who make up half the world’s population, have been left behind in the goals’ implementation, Adil added.

“What have you done to include young people in the decision-making space?” she asked the hundreds of people gathered in the vast Assembly Hall on Monday.

Indeed, progress has been minimal, the world leaders agree, yet the effects have been significant in different corners of the world. Since the SDGs began, more than 800,000 people now have access to electricity, 146 countries are on track for reducing child death rates, improvements have been made with HIV treatment and people’s access to the Internet has increased.

“We need young people in all our diversity to be seen and heard in policy and decision-making,” Adil said.

As he must always do at a summit of these proportions, Guterres, the UN secretary-general, said he was optimistic about the adoption of the political declaration, although the formal approval occurs by the General Assembly after this week. Guterres said the document could be a game-changer in speeding up the SDG progress in only seven years.

“I am deeply encouraged by the detailed and wide-ranging draft political declaration under discussion here today — especially its commitment to improving developing countries’ access to the fuel required for SDG progress: finance,” Guterres said. “This includes clear support for an SDG stimulus of at least $500 billion a year, as well as an effective debt-relief mechanism that supports payment suspensions, longer lending terms, and lower rates.” — DAMILOLA BANJO

At a political forum on sustainable development, held by the General Assembly, the speakers included Mia Amor Mottley, prime minister of Barbados, second from left, and Ajay Banga, president of the World Bank, Sept. 18, 2023. The Assembly adopted a political declaration despite pushback from a small group of countries led by Cuba and Russia to demand the elimination of unilateral sanctions. JOHN PENNEY/PASSBLUE

French Envoy Will Stay in Niger “For as Long as We Wish”: French Foreign Minister Colonna

French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna said on Monday at the United Nations headquarters in New York City that the embattled French ambassador to Niger, Sylvain Itté, will stay in Niger “as long as we wish.”

Niger’s military authorities, who took power in a coup d’état against the democratically elected President Mohamed Bazoum on July 26, 2023, revoked the French ambassador’s credentials on Aug. 25 and declared him persona non grata. The French government has rejected the orders, saying it recognizes only the government of Bazoum and will not abide by the junta’s directives. Bazoum has been held hostage in his home by the junta in Niamey, the capital, since the coup occurred and has not signed a resignation letter despite pressure by the junta to do so.

“Our ambassador was accredited by the legitimate authorities of Niger,” Colonna said at a press conference on Sept. 18, during the opening session of the annual UN General Assembly high-level week. “He is therefore at his post and will remain there as long as we wish. We don’t have to recognize the decisions of a power that has no legitimacy.” (French President Emmanuel Macron is not attending the annual Assembly gathering.)

Colonna added: Itté “is well. I repeat that he is safe. His situation is certainly not the most pleasant in the world, and it is not justified. We are constantly monitoring developments of his situation, both the general situation and the security situation. But a decision will not be taken on the basis of an injunction.”

Macron said on Sept. 15 in France that Itté was being “held hostage” by the Nigerien junta and that he was eating military rations after the military authorities have banned food deliveries to the embassy. A directive from the military government’s foreign ministry had revoked Itté’s diplomatic immunity and his and his family’s visas.

The Quai d’Orsay’s decision to keep Itté in Niger has provoked massive street protests in Niamey. The protests, which are sponsored by the junta, call for his immediate departure as well as the exit of 1,500 French soldiers stationed in the country to fight terrorism.

The West African regional body, Ecowas, has imposed severe sanctions on the country’s economy as well as on coup leaders, including the leader, Gen. Abdourahamane Tchiani, who is calling himself “president.” The sanctions are aggravating food insecurity in one of the world’s most food-vulnerable countries.

Ecowas — the Economic Community of West African States — also threatened to intervene militarily to “restore constitutional order” in Niger after the coup, which is the eighth putsch in Francophone Africa since 2020. In response, the military junta in Niger has received support from fellow military governments in neighboring Mali and Burkina Faso to fight a possible intervention. Those countries have also expelled French troops stationed in their country and have solidified ties with Russia.

Additionally, Colonna reiterated her country’s support for Ukraine. “Any resolution of the crisis that rewards Russia’s attitude by validating the illegal pseudo-annexation of an entire part of the territory of another country, Ukraine, would only pave the way for future conflict. I said it before and I’ll say it again, if this aggression should be rewarded, another aggression will happen there or elsewhere. Let there be no doubt.”

Yet Macron is not taking part in the Security Council meeting focused on Ukraine on Sept. 20, citing the visit by King Charles III to France during the UN General Assembly high-level week. This matter did not come up at Colonna’s briefing. — DULCIE LEIMBACH 

We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts on the purpose of the SDGs?

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.

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Special Report: World Leaders Agree to Speed Up SDGs; French Envoy Refuses to Leave Niger
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