Mr. Eliott Harris Assistant Secretary-General for Economic Development and Chief Economist

Opening Remarks
High-Level Political Forum
Higher Education Sustainability Initiative Special Event

Excellency Mona Juul,
President of ECOSOC
Supporters of Higher Education across the Globe,
Dear Colleagues,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

It gives me great pleasure to address you today at this year’s special event by the Higher Education Sustainability Initiative.

It is indeed a unique opportunity to explore how Higher Education can support our global community to recover and build back from COVID-19.

Achieving SDGs


We are facing a global crisis unlike any in the 75-year history of the United Nations – one that is killing people, spreading human suffering, and upending people’s lives.

This is a human crisis, attacking societies around the world at their core.

Its impacts will depend on whether the recovery is gradual or rapid, and whether we return to the pre-pandemic world or to one that is more sustainable and more equitable.

Initial assessments are, however, sobering – the enormous loss of lives and livelihoods; and deepening poverty and hunger are threatening the gains we have made over the past decades.

Global GDP is expected to contract sharply in 2020 – estimates range from 3.2 percent to 5.2 percent – potentially the largest contraction in economic activity since the Great Depression, and far worse than the 2008-2009 global financial crisis.

One thing is clear – if the responses to this crisis are ad-hoc, underfunded and without a view to long-term goals, the consequences of COVID-19 will be deep and long-lasting, and risk reversing decades of progress.


While the anticipated outcomes of the COVID-19 pandemic are dire, they can be averted by the actions we take now.

As countries begin to move towards recovery, coherent actions can place the world on a robust trajectory towards achieving sustainable development.

Three priorities in particular will enable the world to build back better in a unified way:

  1. Maintain past progress made towards eradicating basic deprivations

Backsliding on the progress already made on the SDGs not only imperils prospects for eradicating basic deprivations – it also reduces resilience to other shocks in the future, especially for the most vulnerable.

  1. Accelerate the universal provision of quality essential services

Guaranteed universal access to services that provide quality healthcare, education, basic income security, water, sanitation, clean energy and the Internet must become an integral part of the recovery from the COVID-19 crisis.

  1. Reverse course on the degradation of nature.

Unlike the sudden onset of the pandemic, the twin crises of climate change and biodiversity loss have built up more slowly.

The pandemic itself reveals the size of the challenge, but also affords a chance to observe – even if for a short period – the feasibility of being able to reverse the degradation of nature.

Science and technology

Ladies and gentlemen,

Science and technology are essential to humanity’s collective response to the COVID-19 pandemic. They are also essential to our efforts to achieve sustainable development.

I would like to highlight five early lessons that can strengthen how science and technology are harnessed, not only in the recovery from the pandemic, but also in support of the implementation of the 2030 Agenda and the SDGs. These priorities and lessons are drawn from UN DESA’s policy brief series on the SDGs and COVID-19, and I invite you to consult these documents, which are available on the DESA website.

The five priorities are:

  1. We need to strengthen national capacities for science-based decision making, including by looking at how science-policy advisory systems function, where they exist, and strengthening such systems where they are weak or introducing them where they do not yet exist;
  2. We need to enhance public trust in science;
  3. We also need to ensure universal access to practical solutions;
  4. We must act with greater urgency on global scientific assessments; and
  5. We need to ensure that knowledge and data can be shared more effectively for more collaborative research.

Collaborations across science and technology communities have grown in response to the current crisis, holding promise for enhanced cooperation in the future as well.

Equally important, and especially relevant for this meeting, higher education institutions are central hubs for generating and delivering critical science and technological knowledge. They will also be at the heart of efforts to deploy scientific and technological advances in ways that enhance our quality of life, provide solutions to many of our key problems, and eventually make sustainable development a reality.

SDG Summit and Actions

Ladies and Gentlemen,

The SDG Summit in September 2019 was marked by renewed commitment from world leaders to accelerate progress towards the SDGs.

Although the way ahead appeared steep, stakeholders were energized by the launch of the Decade of Action to Deliver the SDGs.

To support the Decade of Action, DESA is collecting ambitious and innovative new SDG Acceleration Actions from governments and stakeholders that are captured in an online registry.

As the global community convenes at the HLPF this week, I would like to invite you and your networks to visit the online registry and register your new SDG Acceleration Actions as well.

Let us show the world the good work that is out there.

Let us be ambitious and bold.

Together we can overcome this challenge.

Thank you for your attention.

Follow Us