It is worth taking a moment to cheer the United Nations for its outstanding successes this past week. The UN is the global home of diplomacy, the art of maintaining peace and co-operation in a world all too ready to head to war. Sometimes it succeeds; often it is brushed aside, by great and small powers alike. Four times last week the UN proved its enduring worth.

The first, of course, was Syria. While the American people deserve the top credit for rejecting President Barack Obama’s initial proposals to bomb Syria, and Vladimir Putin deserves the second spot for proposing a peaceful resolution in which Damascus relinquishes its chemical weapons, the UN deserves ample kudos for providing the framework in which the US-Russian diplomatic deal over the country will be consummated and even extended into a more durable peace.

The second UN success was Iran. The General Assembly is the world’s unique meeting ground for almost 200 nations. The conversations are rarely to universal liking, but as Winston Churchill declared, it is better to jaw-jaw than war-war. Each September, world leaders gather to speak to their peers and indirectly to the world public opinion. Presidents Obama and Hassan Rouhani wisely seized the moment last week to begin thawing relations that have been frozen in hate and mistrust for more than three decades.

The third success was in global development. The UN is the world’s leading institution for mobilising global co-operation to fight, and perhaps soon to end, extreme poverty. The Millennium Development Goals have been the UN’s most successful development venture to date, a 15-year effort that has rallied governments, business, expert communities and finance to push back the scourges of poverty, hunger and disease. The cynics and sceptics have also been pushed back by the real progress achieved by the MDGs. Last week marked the UN General Assembly’s final review of the MDG effort, and governments left New York with new tools in their poverty-fighting arsenal, such as the scaling up of smartphone strategies for health and education.

The fourth success, albeit provisional, was in environmental sustainability, an arena of persistent failure to date. Forty-one years ago in Stockholm, world leaders gathered to usher in a new era in which the global scale of economic activity threatens the earth’s environment at a planetary scale. Twenty-one years ago, they reconvened in Rio de Janeiro to adopt three major environmental treaties, on climate, biodiversity and desertification. Last year they convened once more in Rio, acknowledging the continuing failure to turn the 1992 treaties into significant actions on the ground.

The 2012 Rio Summit decided to launch a new set of Sustainable Development Goals to follow the Millennium Development Goals. They rightly believed that the force of the MDGs could carry over into a new period from 2016 to 2030. While the end of poverty would remain at the core of the new SDGs, the poverty-fighting agenda would be augmented by greater attention to environmental sustainability and social inclusion.

At the UN last week, the member states adopted an important agreement to carry the SDGs to a successful launch in 2015, ostensibly to cover the period to 2030. The General Assembly created a two-year road map of negotiations. Next year will be used to identify the world’s sustainable development priorities. The UN secretary-general will then take the results of those efforts and make recommendations to world leaders regarding the post-2015 development agenda. Heads of state and government will convene at the UN in September 2015 to usher in the SDGs and the associated post-2015 policy agenda.

Along side the SDG process the UN will pursue an intensified effort on human-induced climate change. Last week the UN-mandated Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change issued an important science update confirming our dire fears. Human-induced climate change is proceeding at a dangerous rate, with an increasing rate of greenhouse gas emissions. Only global-scale, well co-ordinated and greatly accelerated efforts to decarbonise the world energy system have a chance of avoiding dire climate outcomes.

To this end, Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general, has been working closely with French President François Hollande, who will host critical climate negotiations in Paris in late 2015. This past week, Mr Ban invited world leaders to a Summit on Climate Change at the UN headquarters in September next year, midway to the negotiations on the new agreement to be reached in Paris a year later. From nations across the world, leaders quickly accepted the secretary-general’s invitation.

As John F. Kennedy once said referring to the important Partial Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty a half-century ago, these four steps last week are “not the millennium”. They are not, by themselves, solutions to deep and persistent global problems. But they are steps on the way to peace, shared prosperity and environmental sustainability. For that we should be grateful, and should bolster our determination to work through the UN to address the world’s many dire challenges.


Jeffrey D. Sachs

About the author:

Jeffrey D. Sachs is a world-renowned professor of economics, leader in sustainable development, senior UN advisor, bestselling author, and syndicated columnist whose monthly newspaper columns appear in more than 80 countries.