7 March 2022

Build Resilience against COVID-19, Preparedness for Future, Deputy Secretary-General Tells Latin America and Caribbean Forum on Sustainable Development

Following are UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed’s remarks at the opening ceremony of the fifth meeting of the Forum of the Countries of Latin America and the Caribbean on Sustainable Development, in Costa Rica today:

I wish to begin by thanking President Carlos Alvarado Quesada of Costa Rica for hosting this year’s Regional Forum on Sustainable Development and for Costa Rica’s leadership as Chair of ECLAC [Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean) over the past two years.

President, you have been a champion of multilateralism, not only because of your voice at the global stage, but because of the action you have taken here in Costa Rica — from COVID-19 responses to determined action on climate, you took bold decision — even when unpopular — that history will vindicate.

I would like to recognize the Vice‑President of Costa Rica [Epsy Campbell Barr], our sister who has led on many occasions for women’s rights, ensuring that no one has been left behind.  Her leadership to include people of African descent has reverberated around the world, and as an African woman, we are proud of your leadership.

I also want to extend my heartfelt appreciation to ECLAC and, in particular, to my friend Alicia Bárcena.  After 25 years of service in the United Nations and 13 years leading ECLAC, this will be her last big gathering as Executive Secretary of ECLAC.  Alicia’s leadership and energy have been instrumental for Latin America and the Caribbean.  We will all miss her deeply.  Thank you, Alicia.

We are meeting at a crucial time — when our ability to achieve the goals we set ourselves in the 2030 Agenda hangs in the balance.  The COVID-19 pandemic has brought havoc to our societies and economies.  The current conflict in Ukraine and the wider geopolitical dynamics are further destabilizing a global economy still reeling from the pandemic.

Higher inflation, lower growth, disruptions to financial markets and global supply chains, and marked increases in commodity and food prices threaten our prospects of recovering from what was already the most profound crisis of our times.

Latin America and the Caribbean is one of the hardest hit regions by the pandemic.  It has suffered much higher rates of COVID-19 infections and deaths than its share of the global population, and a 7.4 per cent plunge in GDP [gross domestic product] in 2020 alone.  Poverty and hunger are at their highest since the turn of the century.  Three out of five children lost a year of school during the pandemic.

The region’s structural challenges — extreme inequalities, low productivity, unemployment and high informality — have deepened with especially severe consequences for women and youth.  Latin America is now the most indebted emerging region in the world, with the average gross debt exceeding three quarters of regional GDP.

And within the region, Caribbean nations remain tragically vulnerable to shocks.  Last week, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report identified small island developing States and Central America as hotspots of human vulnerability.  Yet, these countries are still not given adequate access to climate finance, failing on the Paris promise and the global financial architecture which today is just not fit for purpose.

Achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) was never going to be easy.  But, it is possible.  Getting back on track will require policy choices aligned with the 2030 Agenda and a clear emphasis on leaving no one behind.  Public action and investment rely on strong institutions and governance models to deliver inclusive, sustainable growth and development.  Here I like to recognize the presence of Rebeca Grynspan, the new Secretary-General of UNCTAD [United Nations Conference on Trade and Development], bringing the important aspect of trade into this discussion that has been left behind.

The Secretary-General’s report on Our Common Agenda provides focus and propulsion to our actions.  This fifth session of the Latin American and Caribbean Forum on Sustainable Development must serve as the occasion to chart an ambitious path forward.  This is a region that can and must lead the way.  I want to highlight five priorities to help inform your discussion this week.

First, we must build resilience against the pandemic and preparedness for the future.  The overall rate of vaccination in the region, at 65 per cent, masks deep inter-regional inequalities.  Vaccination rates in the Caribbean stand at 14 per cent.  In Haiti, it is a mere 1 per cent.  But, vaccines alone are not enough.  This is a watershed moment to build stronger health systems by investing in primary health care and health surveillance systems, as well as greater production of vaccines, diagnostics and treatments.

Second, we must scale up and speed up investments in the protection of people and ecosystems on the front lines of the climate crisis.  The Caribbean’s extreme vulnerability to climate disasters is well known.  Economic damages are six times higher than for other countries.  Disasters occur seven times more frequently here.  Women and girls living in poverty, in particular in small island nations and least developed countries, are most impacted.

Building on the progress made in Glasgow, we need urgent efforts to reduce emissions, embrace a trajectory that keeps global warming below 1.5°C, and build resilience against impacts that are increasing in frequency and severity.  I hope we can demonstrate similar resolve to the one we saw last week in Nairobi in our preparations for the next climate conference — COP27 — where climate adaptation, loss and damage, and its financing, must be front and centre.

You can count on the Secretary-General’s support.  He has been clear:  developed countries must urgently deliver on their commitment to double adaptation finance to at least $40 billion per year by 2025.  We will also continue to call for a more adapted cooperation with middle-income countries — to redistribute liquidity, reform the global debt architecture and support innovative instruments to improve debt repayment capacity.

The Secretary-General’s report on Our Common Agenda sheds light on an issue that is dear to this region:  the need to go beyond GDP metrics to achieve the SDGs.  In this regard, I want to commend the Caribbean Development Bank as the only institution that currently applies a multidimensional vulnerability index in its operations.  This should be adopted across all financial institutions.

Third, we must super-charge just transitions in digital connectivity, energy and food systems.  The digital divide has become a new source of inequality and exclusion in what is already a highly unequal region.  But, as we bridge the divide, the digital transition must become a driver of inclusion.  I would like to commend Costa Rica for its efforts towards bridging this gap.

Building sustainable and resilient food systems everywhere is urgent.  And I know that Latin America can chart the way with its rich and diverse diet and immense agricultural capacity.  The United Nations Food Systems Summit held last September has helped put a spotlight on this critical transition.

It is now time for this momentum to land at the country level in local communities.  Renewable energy transition offers many other amazing opportunities.  Fossil fuels are a dead end — for our planet, for humanity and for our economies.  Time has come to support countries in pursuing a just transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy.  I had the privilege not so long ago to visit what has been a standard for the globe to see Costa Rica’s example of their renewable energy at over 90 per cent.  This would not only reduce carbon emissions, but create millions of jobs and close the gaps in energy coverage.

We all know that all these transitions will ultimately depend on partnerships at a scale never witnessed before.  This is why our United Nations country teams will support Governments to convene all sectors, mobilize resources, expertise and ideas that can help change the game.  The Escazú Agreement, adopted here in Costa Rica, is a great example of an invaluable regional instrument to hold all actors accountable for practices in the agricultural and extractive sectors.

Fourth, we must rebound from the huge learning losses of the pandemic to reinvent the future of education.  Today, education systems across the world are being challenged.  In some countries, the pandemic is causing a generational catastrophe.  And everywhere else, conventional education systems are struggling to prepare learners for our rapidly changing world.

That is why the Secretary-General is convening a summit on transforming education this September.  The Summit will help mobilize the action, ambition, solutions and solidarity needed to transform education between now and 2030.  The Secretary-General has appointed the former Minister for Education of Costa Rica, Leonardo Garnier, as his Special Adviser on the Transforming Education Summit.  We count on the active participation of Governments and leaders of Latin America and the Caribbean in the preparation of the Summit.

Finally, we need to accelerate gender equality and economic transformation.  About 70 per cent of jobs generated from mid-2020 to early 2021 in the region were in the informal sector.  Yet, this remains an afterthought in economic strategies and metrics.  Robust and decent job creation must be matched by universal social protection.

And it must go hand in hand with ensuring equal opportunities for women.  Tomorrow, we will be celebrating International Women’s Day.  And I will be joining a group of young schoolgirls to hear their perspectives and dreams.  But, this is not only about their future.  It is about our shared commitments for today.  The Secretary-General has presented five transformative recommendations:  repealing all gender-discriminatory laws; promoting gender parity in all spheres and at all levels of decision-making; facilitating women’s economic inclusion; ensuring greater inclusion of younger women; and following through on an emergency response plan to prevent and end gender-based violence.

Tomorrow, I will also chair the meeting of the Regional Collaborative Platform.  With the United Nations reforms now well advanced, I hope we will adopt an ambitious work plan to support countries across the region and agree on concrete deliverables.

We will also discuss how the United Nations can continue to support Haiti as it faces another critical moment.  A couple of weeks back, I was in Port au Prince to mobilize support for the reconstruction efforts.  I was encouraged by the engagement of the international community.  Haiti is not forgotten.  But, Haitians are also tired of the missed opportunities.  This is the time to ensure Haiti recovers better.

In many ways, Latin America and the Caribbean have given birth to the Sustainable Development Goals.  As the world faces unprecedented challenges, we need your leadership to ensure that we “rescue” the SDGs and build a future of peace, dignity and prosperity.  Together, we can do it.

For information media. Not an official record.