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The 2023 SDG Summit: Achievements, Challenges, and the Role of Democracy

October 19, 2023
UN Photo/Manuel Elias

Overview of the Summit

The 2023 SDG Summit marked the halfway point between the adoption of the 2030 Agenda by the UN in 2015 and the target year of 2030 for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). The Summit provided an important opportunity for countries to highlight progress and challenges, and propose key actions for accelerating the implementation of the 2030 Agenda, while addressing gaps between the global north and global south.

The 2023 Summit also comes at a critical juncture in history, marked by several ongoing crises, including climate change, the COVID-19 pandemic, and global conflicts (in particular, the war of aggression by Russia against Ukraine). These have each significantly delayed, and even in some cases, reversed progress towards the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals, and have disproportionately affected the most vulnerable communities and nations, exacerbating already existing inequalities, as also highlighted by the Secretary-General on the SDGs Progress Report. Recent data shows that only 15% of the SDGs are currently on track. These overarching global challenges were frequently acknowledged throughout the Summit, increasing the urgency of recommitting to and hastening progress toward the 2030 Agenda. Throughout the Summit, which included 144 statements by Member States, several key issue areas emerged. 

The first, and most common, was the call for reform of the international financial architecture. In his opening remarks, the UN Secretary-General emphasized the importance of improving developing countries’ access to finance, with an SDG stimulus of at least 500 billion U.S. dollars required per year. He also called for an effective debt-relief mechanism and a change to the business model of multilateral development banks to “massively leverage private finance at affordable rates to benefit developing countries.” The call for these reforms, including support for the Secretary General’s proposed stimulus plan, was echoed by many Member States throughout the Summit. During the Plenary Segment of the Summit, eleven of fourteen groups either explicitly mentioned reform of the international financial architecture or one of the aspects of financial reform mentioned above. Perhaps the single most important outcome of the Summit was the Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment (PGII), a commitment by the U.S. in partnership with the Group of Seven Plus Member States (G7+) to mobilize 600 billion U.S. dollars by 2027 to help close the infrastructure gap in low- and middle-income nations. 

Beyond GDP. Many groups called for the implementation of a Multidimensional Vulnerability Index (MVI) that would allow for the inclusion of more than just income-based criteria in assessing countries’ eligibility for financing, making financing more accessible to developing nations, especially those most vulnerable to environmental, economic, and social crises. Others, like the Alliance of Small Island States, called for an increase in climate finance. Some also called for long-term mission-oriented lending that would allow Multilateral Development Banks (MDBs) to value the SDGs in their lending.  

Private capital. The E.U. highlighted the importance of unlocking private capital (using a portion of its public budget to de-risk private investments) given insufficient public funding and pledged 300 billion euros in developing economies in the next five years in renewable energy, stronger health systems, quality education, green transport and digital infrastructure.

Secondly, many identified food security as one of the most pressing issues globally. In his opening statement, the President of the General Assembly reminded the assembly that 1.2 billion people were still living in multidimensional poverty in 2022 and that 8% of the global population (680 million people) will still be facing hunger in 2030. The UN Secretary-General identified hunger as one of six areas where urgent action is needed. 7 out of 14 country groups, including the Caribbean Community and the Group of Least Developed Countries, also identified hunger or food insecurity as one of the most pressing current global challenges.

Thirdly, climate change was highlighted throughout the Summit as a critical global challenge. The President of the 2024 Session of the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) emphasized the harms of climate change, stating that the increased severity and frequency of natural disasters exert a disproportionate toll on vulnerable countries that are already under debt distress. Many others called upon wealthy nations to fulfill their promises to developing nations as set by The Paris Agreement . Some groups, such as the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) and the Pacific Small Island Developing States (PSIDS), identified climate change as an existential threat to their countries. Nepal reinforced their commitment to the Paris Agreement and announced that their goal is to reach net zero scenario by 2045. The European Union called for carbon pricing as a way to simultaneously make polluters pay and finance clean energy in developing countries. They urged others to do the same, reminding the Assembly that only 20% of the global greenhouse gas emissions are covered by carbon pricing. The Alliance of Small Island States also asked for Loss and Damage Funds to be operationalized and financed to help developing countries deal with the devastating effects of climate change. 

Fourthly, many identified expanding social protection and improving education as priorities, reaffirming the importance of “leaving no one behind.” This statement was echoed by 5 groups, and 4 others mentioned the importance of quality education. There were three cross-cutting issues that were frequently referenced throughout the Summit. These were the importance of digitalization, the achievement of gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls, and the strengthening of multilateralism. The World Bank President affirmed that digitalization is determinant for all other issues. The ECSOSOC President pointed out how the growing digital divide is intensifying inequalities, and particularly gender inequality. The Secretary-General highlighted the need for internet access for all. The group of Pacific Small Island Developing States emphasized the importance of improving partnerships around data and statistics for monitoring and evaluation, digital infrastructure and transformation, and STI. The Irish Prime Minister, among others, recognized the progress that has been made towards global digitalization, citing that more than 800 million people around the world have been connected to electricity since 2015, although further progress is still urgently needed.

Gender equality. The equality, empowerment, and proportionate representation of women and girls were mentioned many times as priorities not just in their own right, but also as essential to achieving international cooperation, climate action, and equitable finance policy. Many identified working towards gender equality and the empowerment of women, girls, and youth as a national priority. The ECOSOC President highlighted the importance of gender equality for progress across all the goals and targets of the 2030 Agenda, emphasizing that women and girls must benefit from equal access to quality education, economic resources, and political participation, as well as equal opportunities for jobs, leadership, and decision making at all levels. Certain groups highlighted gender equality as particularly important, including the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), and Mexico, Indonesia, Republic of Korea, Turkey, and Australia (MIKTA). 

Multilateralism. Finally, every group in their statement highlighted the need to strengthen multilateralism and international cooperation. Several groups specifically called for an end to unilateralism, especially concerning coercive measures for trade. Others, such as the African Union, cited regional cooperation as a priority. All acknowledged the importance of global solidarity in the achievement of the SDGs. 

Political declaration 

The negotiation process of the Political Declaration adopted at the SDG Summit, and later formally adopted at the General Assembly, struggled to achieve consensus. The negotiation process was heavily polarized between the G77+China and Global North countries, especially on issues related to finance and unilateral coercive measures. Countries such as Belarus, Bolivia, Cuba, North Korea, Eritrea, Iran, Nicaragua, Russia, Syria, Venezuela, and Zimbabwe accused the global north countries of not sufficiently taking into account their concerns. The Political Declaration -- divided into three sections -- dispensed shared commitments previously agreed by Member States, stressed the progress and remaining gaps of the SDGs, and most importantly, put forth a call to action to Member States for the successful achievement of the entire 2030 Agenda. Reaffirming commitments on the eradication of poverty, focusing on the poorest and most vulnerable groups, ending hunger, bridging the digital divide, combatting climate change, and focusing on investment to tackle all these challenges were debated during the negotiations. At a time where the call to action needs real action, it is important to highlight that the impediments raised in this Summit can only be effectively addressed if societies are guaranteed peace, justice, inclusion, and strong institutions. SDG 16 is the bedrock of the entire 2030 Agenda and especially needed for true transformational change; therefore, explicitly addressing this goal is still needed in the next SDG Summit and in the political declarations to come. 

Democracy and the Summit

As an intergovernmental organization committed to supporting democracy, International IDEA brings in and assesses UN processes from the lens of democracy. However, the need for stronger democratic institutions was rarely explicitly mentioned during the 2023 SDG Summit. However, two groups mentioned Goal 16 in their statements, with a focus on the linkage between peace and strong institutions, rule of law and the importance of combatting corruption.  

The Group of Seven Plus Member States (G7+), comprised of countries affected by or recovering from conflict, explicitly mentioned Goal 16 in their statement, stating that “sustainable peace, effective State institutions, and access to justice are key pillars to stability, development, and resilience.” They then called “for a joint commitment by development partners to work through and support Government-led country platforms in conflict-affected and fragile countries.” The President of the Czech Republic also mentioned Goal 16 in his statement on behalf of the Pathfinders for Peaceful, Just, and Inclusive Societies, and highlighted the need to link peace, justice, security, development, human rights and strong institutions. He then pledged to establish an open data national platform for monitoring and reporting of the SDG indicators in order “to promote good governance and policy making based on evidence.” Additionally, three countries mentioned the importance of anti-corruption measures in their statements. The President of Austria mentioned the centrality of rule of law, noting that “about 5 percent of global gross domestic product (GDP) is lost to corruption annually, and that “this 5 per cent could significantly contribute to bridging the SDG financing gap.” The Minister for Health of Zambia emphasized the negative impact of tax evasion and corruption on achieving the SDGs, and called for “development partners to support institution reforms that can address illicit financial flows, profit-shifting, and corruption.” 

This analysis was written by Gloriana Cubero Fernandez with inputs from Annika Silva-Leander and Amanda Sourek. 

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