The Next UNSG and the Sustainable Development Goals

8 min readSep 24, 2015


To: Candidates for UN Secretary-General
From: Center on International Cooperation, New York University
The Sustainable Development Goals
Date: 25 September 2015

For Ban Ki-moon, the new Sustainable Development Goals (which replace the MDGs) are central to his legacy. But, in truth, his role in agreeing the goals was small. If you are chosen to replace him as UN Secretary-General from January 2017, you will have a much bigger task: helping turn what the world’s leaders will describe at this week’s summit as a “supremely ambitious and transformational vision” into meaningful improvements in social, economic, and environmental indicators.

Forget what you think you know

It’s a good bet that you’ve already played a role in negotiating or blessing the goals (past SGs have all been UN insiders or foreign ministers). If you’re not careful, this experience will mislead you.

The UN has an unfortunate habit of believing that resolutions in New York = results on the ground. Go to capitals and it’s a very different story. Some countries have begun to prepare for implementation from 2016 onwards, but planning is still at a very early phase. Ask a sample of the world’s finance ministers whether they’re planning to spend any money delivering goals that cover every aspect of “the future of humanity and of our planet.” In most cases, you’re likely to be met with a bemused shrug.

For SDG true believers, the answer is simple. The UN needs to support ‘mainstreaming’ of the new agenda into national, subnational and local development plans, which will in turn lead to changes in national priorities and budgeting, and allow the UN to help accelerate implementation. There is, however, scant evidence that large and complex planning processes lead to tangible progress on the ground.

And even if successful, this process will take time. You are almost certain to face critical press articles by the time you take up your post — “more than one year later, nothing has been achieved.” Worse, years could tick by without much happening and you could find yourself trying to reboot the new agenda in 2022 (assuming the Security Council wants you to stick around for a second five-year term). By then, delivering more than a handful of the targets by 2030 will seem like a distant dream.

As SG you will have two roles — international spokesperson-in-chief and head of the UN delivery system.

In your role as global spokesperson, there are two main factors to bear in mind:

  • Some SDGs will make progress without UN help. Most SDG implementation is completely outside your control. The MDGs made progress on poverty reduction largely because of huge gains in China and India, which would have taken place with or without an international blessing. Some of the other goals (health, education, water) were more dependent on public action and international cooperation, but the UN was at best a mid-size player in delivering these. There is an opportunity to make the agenda (and your role in it) look good even when the UN has little direct responsibility for progress made.
  • … but some may get worse before they get better. The established ones — poverty, education and health — are driven by overall economic growth and have established partnerships to support them. But some of the new ones (inequality, violence) were on a worsening curve going into 2015. This is not the fault of the SDG process, but you may have to answer for why things are not only failing to improve, but actually getting worse.

Getting your own house in order

Your most immediate concern is the role of the UN itself in delivering the new agenda, with governments “underlin[ing] the important role and comparative advantage of an adequately resourced, relevant, coherent, efficient and effective UN system in supporting the achievement of the SDGs and sustainable development.” There’s much for you to think about in each of these areas.

  • Relevance. While some of the UN’s funds, programs and agencies are widely respected, collectively the UN punches well below its weight in development, with CIC’s analysis finding that it “stands at a crossroads. It can either embrace the deep reform required to remain relevant to development in today’s global economy, or face the prospect of continued marginalization.”
  • Coherence. The new SG will inherit the results of the next quadrennial comprehensive policy review, which is due to be completed in December 2016 and is UN member states’ main chance to ensure the UN development system will be ‘fit for purpose’ in the post-2015 environment. The previous QCPR was not a success as member states tried to micromanage coherence into the system through a General Assembly resolution. This time there is talk of a more strategic QCPR, but you’ll be reliant on your predecessor to make that happen.
  • Efficiency and effectiveness. What results does the UN deliver as a development actor? Your guess is as good as mine. CIC research found that “a weak culture of self-evaluation in the UN development agencies combines with utter incoherence in donor-led evaluation work to result in a scattershot of episodic, non-comparable, project level evaluations that provide no basis for broader assessment of agency performance or country-by-country performance.” Without system-wide data on results, any analysis of efficiency and effectiveness is built on sand.
  • Resources. The MDGs saw a substantial growth in money funneled through the UN system. It spent $26bn on development in 2013 (13.5% of total development cooperation) compared with $16.2bn on peacekeeping, global norm and standard setting, policy and advocacy. But the UN is heavily dependent on a small number of countries (12 countries provide 88% of the cash for development) and donors have become increasingly prescriptive about how they want their money to be spent. This could significantly reduce the UN’s ability to respond to the challenges of the new agenda.

From the agenda to your agenda

So what should you do?

Start now. Don’t wait until 2017 to carve out a popular and distinctive position on delivery of the post-2015 agenda. It’s not going to be decisive to your campaign, but it will give you something to talk about in the informal dialogues the General Assembly is organizing. More importantly, however, it gives you time to set out a clear agenda well before the selection battle gets messy. As you emerge at the front of the pack in the latter half of 2016, those within the system will (okay, may) begin to align themselves to your lead.

Take universality seriously. The big shift from the MDGs to the SDGs is from an agenda focused on the poorest countries to one that sets targets for all countries. This is actually a success and a big game-changer — it is the right positioning to adapt to a shifting global landscape where developing countries are rising fast in political and economic clout. But it raises significant questions about whether the UN can support policy change, build partnerships and reinforce norms in middle and high income countries where it has little or no money to spend. You need member state allies to help you navigate these waters: rich countries who seem interested in domestic implementation, on the one hand; on the other influential middle income actors who want to share their development experience with the rest of the world. The BRICS (or at least some of them) are bellwether. The SDGs were born in Rio, and all five BRICS are active, influential and sometime prickly players in New York. You’ll send an important signal by looking for leadership on development from outside the OECD and outside the P5, while reinforcing the universal message.

Pick some low hanging fruit from the SDGs to be identified with and give them a push. Don’t be fooled by those who tell you that it’s wrong to ‘cherry pick’ from an indivisible set of goals. Maybe all 169 targets will be implemented in 193 countries in the 2020s, but that’s not going to happen in the first five years. Identify those that already have the wind in their sails, and give them a further push — true of gender-related indicators and most health efforts, for instance. Make sure though that you balance social, economic and environmental priorities in your portfolio, and add something from the new SDGs (in our opinion, inequality, violence prevention and access to justice are amongst the next big things).

Plan to seize opportunity from crisis. As noted above, some SDG targets will worsen before they get better. These can actually create political momentum — new data on worsening inequality, for instance, may strengthen the hand of reformers worldwide and you can play a role in capturing that energy. You’ll need to be out in front of the issues to do that, and think about where your role can make a difference in the first five years of SDG implementation, in bringing solutions and political support to parts of the agenda that are lagging behind.

But remember the UN’s core business. Leaders have promised that the new agenda will leave no-one behind and that — moreover — they will “reach the furthest behind first.” Fine words, but there are political, institutional and economic reasons why the poorest are marginalized and excluded, and fragile political will at an elite level to change this. The UN has moral authority to spearhead a global movement to reach the most vulnerable. It can also press a range of partners to grapple with the strategic challenges posed by the post-2015 agenda’s many zero-based targets — which can only be met with radically different approaches to those who face the greatest barriers to escaping poverty.

Address partnerships clearly but carefully. Private investment across borders and remittances now dwarf official development assistance. The UN can only play a central role in delivering the SDGs if it works in partnership with others — national and local governments, civil society, private sector, individual philanthropists and so forth. So partnerships are needed. But the current SG ran into a political hole on this issue, when his proposed “partnership office” was suspected by many member states of subverting UN governance structures. A central UN role in SDG delivery will need to catalyze the actions of others, but member states must be persuaded that this strengthens rather than weakens their role.

Think carefully about the team you’re going to assemble around you. Given the size of the development challenge ahead, you need senior staff with knowledge of the technical frontiers of their domains and skills in delivery, financing, partnership-building, and change management. And not just the usual suspects from the old-school international development sector, but those with the vision to tackle a much bigger and more complex sustainable development agenda, and to link the UN’s development work with its humanitarian, rights, and peace and security priorities. And you’re going to need some canny operators who can pioneer new approaches to the politics of sustainable development. Over the past decade, the UN has been content to be a mid-size fish in a smallish pond. But if the SDGs are to be taken seriously, it will need to find a way of mixing it with the big boys (and girls) again.

The NYU Center on International Cooperation (CIC) is a non-profit research center housed at New York University (NYU). Our core mission is to enhance international responses on the countries and issues most important to conflict prevention and recovery, through direct and regular engagement with multilateral institutions and the wider policy community. Find us on Twitter and Medium.