Teach SDGs in school

— Peter Thomson, president of UN General Assembly
Author: 
Peter Thomson is the President of the United Nations General Assembly. Elected to the position in June 2016, he has pledged to push for the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), particularly in Africa. In this interview with Africa Renewal’s Franck Kuwonu in Dakar, Senegal, he underscores the need to engage people around the SDGs in innovative ways. First, he explained why it was important for him to visit Africa at that time. 

Mr. Thomson: I promised my African colleagues in New York that I would make a special effort during the 71st session to come over and address some of the pressing development issues here in Africa. Actually, this is my second visit. I went to the climate change meeting in Marrakesh and I have a third visit planned for later in the year. I would like to travel to Nairobi and a few other places in Africa, including on a peacekeeping mission. But this particular visit is to three countries: Senegal, Ethiopia and Egypt. 

As President of the UN General Assembly, you expressly committed to promoting African issues, including following up on the implementation of SDGs. What can you say about African leaders, whom you’ve met so far, on their commitment to implementing the goals? 

I believe the commitment from African government leaders is strong.  This is where we can say we are achieving success. Their implementation will be strengthened by the fact that all of the leaders I have spoken to say that the SDGs have been absorbed internally and are now the basis of their national plans. I’m very optimistic and I feel strengthened by the fact that governments have done a good job in getting the SDGs into their national plans.

Yet, you have also indicated that a lot of people still don’t know much about the SDGs.

I don’t think we have done a good enough job, and when I say “we”, I mean everybody including the United Nations. We have not done a good enough job in getting humanity as a whole to understand the significance of the SDGs for our future.

What have you done so far in your current position to promote the SDGs? 

One of the things I have done is to write every head of government worldwide asking them to get SDGs into the school curricula of their countries. I think this is important because when I look at my three grandchildren, who are all under 10 years of age, I wonder how they will ever learn about the SDGs unless I as their grandfather tell them.  It is at school that they can really learn about the global goals. Youth are the most important part of this transformation because they stand to gain the most. They will live their lives with the success or the failure of the SDGs. Secondly, I have traveled to Los Angeles to talk to the entertainment industry and I have also gone to the Silicon Valley to talk to the communication and the innovation industries and ask for their support. I have asked them “what can you do to get this message out there to the world’s people?” I am very driven on this because I firmly believe that mankind is on a non-sustainable path at the moment.  

What did the entertainment and ICT industries say about your SDG message?

First of all, I find that business is better informed on the SDGs than the average citizen. Why? Because the SDGs are the next phase of business growth, especially with the developing countries being the engine of growth in the 21st century. So business is aware. The average citizen still is not aware. And I base that on personal polls. Wherever I go, I ask taxi drivers, I ask dinner guests, I ask everybody. And very seldom do I get a response that “yes I know SDGs.” Most people don’t know. So, this is why I’m worried.

In the case of the entertainment industry, people like Leonardo DiCaprio have made major strides in raising awareness of the SDGs to a wider audience. What I found in the so-called entertainment community is a firm belief that the SDGs are the best development tool we’ve got at the moment 

Likewise in Silicon Valley, there is a high level of awareness — from Google and Facebook to all the big organizations, because they understand that sustainable consumption and production will determine our future.  

Is there any plan for you to engage with similar groups in Europe, Asia or Africa? 

The first visits I made, as PGA, were to China and India where I gave that same message. If I had more time I would try to go to every country in the world and spread this message.

While in Senegal, you had planned to meet with African ministers of finance at their annual conference but the event was postponed. What did you want to tell them?

My main message to the ministers of finance in Africa is that they should think of innovative ways of financing SDGs. Of course we have to find a way of leveraging the traditional financing methods and also public–private partnerships are very important too.  I also think we should look ahead and see how development is going to be changed by innovation. The fact that technology is changing so fast means we have to think about things like education (SDG 4) in a different way.   We used to think of adding librarians or imposing huge school fees, or putting up buildings when today you can get all the information you need from little super computers we can carry around.  We have to think about education in fresh ways and make sure that everybody gets connected and that every child gets an equal chance for a quality education.