SDGs: No one will be left behind
Africa Renewal: Let me start with the significance of your appointment. This is probably one of your most challenging tasks. What came to your mind when you first heard about your new assignment?
David Nabarro: Well, the secretary-general telephoned me in December asking whether I would be ready to do this job. The first thing I thought was: I’m being asked to succeed Amina Mohammed who was an extraordinary, charismatic leader who helped the UN give birth to sustainable development goals. So it was an honour to be asked to do this job. It is a huge and daunting responsibility. At the same time, it’s a job that is enormously important because the SDGs set out a plan for the future of the world’s people and the planet. It’s a tough job because I’m being asked to help the secretary-general to ensure that the ambitions of world leaders are properly fulfilled.
Your main task will be to work with member states and other stakeholders to implement the 2030 Agenda. What does this involve?
Most of the work to implement the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is going to be done by the member states themselves —governments and the different institutions within countries. We’re already seeing signs that countries are moving fast to get their national plans aligned with this agenda. They’ll be supported by the UN and backed by a big movement of civil society, business, faith organizations, academic groups, the media and others. My job is to help the secretary-general keep an eye on who’s doing what and where he can put his energy to try and advance the process.
Who is responsible for implementing SDGs? Can governments be held accountable if they do not implement them?
The goals are owned by world leaders on behalf of their people. So in truth, the accountability is between national governments and their people, with the people having the right to expect that the goals will be addressed in their own countries and to demand this of their leaders.
It is estimated that trillions of dollars will be required over the next 15 years to finance SDGs. Where will this money come from and are you going to advocate for more resources for poor countries?
The SDGs apply to every country in the world. The concept that world leaders had when they developed these goals was that they would underlie every national development plan of all countries. That means existing spending by governments should be adjusted to align to the SDGs. A lot of the money will come from existing national budgets. But of course extra money will be needed. Some of these goals are going to be expensive. But they will be needed particularly in poorer countries to help ensure that there are opportunities for everybody and nobody gets left behind. For that, development financing is critical, supplemented in some cases by private sector investment. To ensure that development funds are available, [donors] will be asked to maintain their assistance and not to reduce it because of domestic pressures. One of our jobs within the UN is to advocate for continued development assistance for poor countries.
Experts say some of the money needed to finance SDGs could come from curbing illicit financial flows. The 2030 agenda calls for reductions in illicit financial flows and the need to strengthen the recovery and the return of stolen assets. What are your views on this?
The most important requirement for governments is for fair and transparent systems to ensure money needed for the public sector benefits the people. This is the core set of principles underlying the SDGs. If, by any chance, [money is] moved from countries without proper accountability or if there is diversion of money [to avoid paying] taxes not just in poor countries, then this undermines the realization of SDGs. That’s why proper use of tax revenue and proper use of government finance is absolutely key for the SDGs to be realized.
Are you concerned that the global fight against terrorism and extremism could pull resources away from funding SDGs?
When I talk to governments in countries affected by extremism and terrorism, I hear that they would like to have more resources to fulfil the SDGs so that younger people, particularly those that have received some education, do not find themselves being attracted to extremist behaviour. I see investment in the SDGs as an absolute prerequisite to reduce the risk of violent extremism.
One of the challenges that faced the MDGs was the absence of regular national performance reports. Are there plans to ensure citizens are informed through regular reports on the SDGs?
The 2030 Agenda is going to be regularly followed up and reviewed by all countries. This will be done through an annual mechanism called the High-Level Political Forum which will provide an opportunity for nations to explain what they have done on the SDGs. It’s a transparent way so people can question the performance of their governments and seek to understand why certain activities might not have performed as well as they should have but also to appreciate areas which have performed well.
Many countries or regions have their own development plans. For example, the African Union has the Agenda 2063. How will the SDGs square up with these plans?
The SDGs were agreed to by all world leaders, and they knew already that there were some activities in their countries that directly reflected what’s in the SDGs. The idea is not to completely redesign national plans but instead to align them with the SDGs. In some places that means leaving things as they are. In others, it means changing them so that they are better aligned.
Let’s now talk about SDG targets. Who is involved in drawing them up? Are the targets the same for both rich and poor countries?
The SDGs targets are offered to countries to help them judge progress on achieving the goals. The indicators, which apply to each of the targets, are also available for countries to assess progress. The [process] is country-first, it’s country-based, it’s country-focused and country-centred. It’s up to the countries to decide on the targets and indicators to use. It will not be for some external group to prescribe.
As the saying goes “if everything is important then nothing is.” What would you consider to be the most important SDGs that African countries could prioritize?
I’ve worked in development for more than 40 years and I’ve seen the reality of life particularly for poor and vulnerable people. Their lives are interconnected. Issues in agriculture, in climate, in gender equity, in health and education tend to be linked in a very intense way. You can’t take one area, one aspect of human existence and deal with it out of sync with another aspect. So I actually do believe that all the different issues identified in the SDGs are important and if you take one part out it is like taking a big stone out of the middle of the arch of the bridge; the whole of the bridge will fall down. I believe all of them are important.
What makes you optimistic that 15 years from now, for the most part, the world will attain the SDGs?
I am optimistic because I have seen the incredible capacity of people all over the world to come together around agreed objectives that improve human conditions and to work hard to achieve results. In the news we hear about situations where things are not good. But for every account of things going badly, there are thousands of accounts of things going well. They just don’t get in the news. It’s an optimism that makes me feel certain that people will come together and achieve the goals by putting special emphasis on climate change, on gender equity, on protracted crises, on human rights, and on financing for development.