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A crisis of leadership: The next Secretary General and the SDGs

None of the candidates who have submitted their bid thus far, have articulated a clear understanding of the sustainable development agenda.These words might sound as if they were taken from the Sustainable Development Agenda agreed last year but they were actually spoken 12 years ago by Wangari Mathaai, the founder of the Green Belt Movement and the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize.

Visionaries like Mathaai have challenged us to redefine our understanding of development to the extent that the U.N’s original mandate of promoting development, peace and human rights remains inadequate without integrating the culture of sustainability in all three areas.

It took over three years to create the sustainable development agenda, yet our efforts to select the new leader of the United Nations will take less than a year and even then the decision is handed down to a handful of states. As it stands, five permanent member States, in the UN Security Council have a veto over any candidate selected. This veto gives the ‘P5’ a lot of power and influence over the selection of the next Secretary-General and puts into question how much the selected candidate will remain politically independent from these members.

Up till now, the focus on selecting the next Secretary General has mainly been about the process and current proposals for reforms have focused on improving the fairness of the selection process. The 1 for 7 Billion campaign for example, demand a more transparent selection process including one recommendation that two candidates are proposed by the Security Council instead of one. Another pressure group, Woman SG, has been campaigning for the next Secretary General to include a woman nomination, a view supported also by several governments.

Public conversations on the candidates remain at this level leading us to focus our efforts on influencing institutional rules but not challenging the status quo of the types of leadership qualities and styles deemed to be acceptable to run the UN and its mandates.

Each candidate running has submitted a vision statement on what they will achieve as Secretary General including their plans for the sustainable development agenda; a list of 17 goals seeking to ‘transform our world’ by 2030. The transformative element of the sustainable development agenda is not the goals themselves but the vision of development which links all of them together. This new vision, defined in 2013, is based on five principles that integrate social, economic and environmental development by promoting ‘People, Planet, Prosperity, Peace’ and a redefined world order based on ‘Partnership’.

The vision statements submitted by each candidate are rarely referenced in global media outlets but are actually more important than the candidates’ credentials as they give us an insight into their priorities and their styles of leadership when driving progress on this agenda. They also give us an insight into how aligned their vision of development is with the one created in the sustainable development agenda.

For Srgjan Kerim, Macedonia’s candidate, the sustainable development agenda is to ‘end poverty in all its forms’. This is partially true; the sustainable development goals should lead to poverty reduction but unlike the Millennium Development Goals, its aim goes beyond being a technical roadmap. Ending poverty is actually only one of the 17 goals in the agenda.

Extreme poverty is his primary focus, particularly in Africa through, ‘investment in smallholder farmers, as well as in infrastructure including roads, railways, power, ports and communication networks.’ His understanding is that ending extreme poverty in Africa will be ‘through providing sustained economic growth’ but there is more to development than providing infrastructure. The view that ‘modernising’ a continent is what will lead to poverty reduction is over simplistic if inaccurate at best.

There is no discussion of the other 16 goals in the sustainable development agenda except gender and education referenced in a later chapter of his vision statement as human rights issues. Kerim’s definition of development appears to be outdated and one wonders whether his line of thinking is more appropriate for the silo mentality we took when working on the Millennium Development Goals than our current attempts to integrate different approaches to development in this new agenda.

The principle of development as economic growth (Prosperity) is also shared by other candidates. For the Croatian candidate and co-founder of the ‘first feminist group of former Yugoslavia’, Vesna Pusić economic development should be socially equitable, if we are to address the impact of economic inequality which is leading to mass migration of people from poor countries and social exclusion in ‘developed’ countries. Pusić also references the environmental principle (Planet) of the sustainable development agenda, but interestingly securitises it in comparing climate change to ‘as serious (a) threat’ as nuclear weapons.

She views the role of the Secretary General as having the ‘moral authority to keep these issues central to the global agenda.’ However, the role of the Secretary General should not be to keep moral authority but ensure global accountability. There are other individuals with global public influence such as the Pope that speak out on the moral arguments against economic inequality and climate change. The UN’s de facto existence is not to uphold a moral argument against poverty and degradation but to facilitate cooperation at the international level against these very issues. If her potential position as Secretary General only pays lip service to what we already know is wrong with the world, the next 15 years might leave us worse off with a UN that has not adapted to the changing power relations in the world nor the ‘global’ nature of issues affecting us.

Vuk Jeremić also prioritises the ‘Planet’ aspect of the sustainable development agenda noting that his main priorities will be for Member States to meet their ‘Nationally Determined Contributions to fight climate change’ and to drive UN to ‘prioritize work on this core issue’. However, neither Pusić nor Jeremić link environmental development as a cause for social justice which is important to shift the discourse on climate change out of technocratic summits and into everyday conversations on social wellbeing and progress. Prioritising climate change will test the next Secretary General’s capability to gain the political commitment of all Member States as it’s an issue that requires countries to address environmentally harmful and socially unjust systems of economic growth.

Another candidate, Danilo Türk, refers to social justice in how he envisions sustainable development. As the former President of Slovenia and a Professor of Law, Türk’s vision statement uses a lot of semantics around justice stating that achieving sustainable development requires ‘conditions … that will allow equity and fairness within societies to progress.’

According to Türk, sustainable development requires equitable use and access of resources including natural resources, access to opportunities (for work), and conditions at the international level.

It’s surprising, however, that while much of his language focuses on fairness and equity, Türk makes no mention of how the UN will hold itself and other actors accountable to making sure the results he hopes for are realised. Furthermore, he makes no reference to addressing systems of injustice; economic, social and political systems which have to be addressed if success of the sustainable development goals means success for everybody.

While the candidates discussed above prefer to highlight the social, environmental or economic principles of the sustainable development agenda, one of the candidates, Irina Bokova, attempts to combine all but without clarity or consistency. The current Director General of UNESCO’s vision of, ‘peace, sustainability, and dignity’ is adapted from a speech by the current Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon’s statement that ‘peace, prosperity, and dignity’ is the common vision of Member States.

It is not clear though, whether her new definition of development is sustainable economic growth (sustainable prosperity) or whether she has replaced economic development as the model for development with environmental development (sustainability) instead. She provides multiple interpretations of development throughout the text without clearly defining what this new interpretation of development as sustainability actually means. Despite promising something new, a ‘humanist’ approach to development, Bokova’s view of development skirts back to the state centric world view in international diplomacy, framing development within the overall aim of security and peace as opposed to integrating it with her references to social, environmental and economic wellbeing. The semantics in her vision statement contain the usual jargon of sovereignty and power found in diplomacy; even her advocacy for environmental sustainability incorporates this language as she advocates for us, to ‘protect the Earth and to respect the planetary boundaries.’ This leads to ambiguity in which she advocates for one approach (human-rights based approach) for development while solely speaking through the lens of another approach (state-centric approach).

The other candidates do not refer to the sustainable development agenda with enough depth choosing instead to reiterate what is currently being done to deliver the development goals. Natalia Gherman, for example, recommends that ‘the UN system country teams and regional centres should step up their assistance to governments in identifying the best ways of implementing the SDGs, according to the specific requirements of countries and regions.’ However, that is the current way UNDP works and in addition to this, frameworks such as the Global Partnership for Effective Development Cooperation consolidate these ways of working.

António Guterres, the former U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees acknowledges that the implementation of the sustainable development goals will be through, ‘clear priorities, tangible benchmarks, and the power to mobilize all stakeholders, promoting national ownership and ensuring no one is left behind.’ Guterres’ review does not even refer to the goals themselves and so his vision statement on the sustainable development agenda feels more like a moral compass, what should be done as opposed to an action plan of what will be done.

Igor Lukšić’s vision statement stresses the principle of partnerships advocating for citizen engagement as a way to ‘better communicating the 2030 Agenda to the ordinary people.’ However, limiting civil society’s role to promoting the agenda does little to highlight the work being done by civil society within the UN through advocacy, representation, consultation, and citizen-led monitoring and accountability initiatives. Lukšić proposes a top-down approach, when it comes to citizen engagement in development; an approach that has not been effective in the UN in articulating the needs of the most marginalised or monitoring progress of development efforts. Furthermore, this approach will do little to increase the legitimacy of the UN outside the echo chambers of development, an issue which the UN itself had tried to address with the high profile media campaigns it ran during the UN Sustainable Development Summit last September.

In a similar manner, Helen Clarks vision statement of development as social equity promotes the importance of addressing the needs of women and youth without articulating their active participation in the decision-making processes within the UN. Her reforms for the UN focus on making it more efficient and effective for Member States and not reforms to create more effective spaces for the voice and influence of marginalised groups such as women and youth. Much like Lukšić’s reference to the role of civil society, Clark’s advocacy for women and youth reiterates the status quo when it comes to the involvement of civil society within the UN.

None of the candidates who have submitted their bid thus far, have articulated a clear understanding of the principles (People, Planet, Peace, Prosperity and Partnership) of the sustainable development agenda nor how their leadership will ensure success in this agenda according to these principles. Their attempts to weave together popular concepts in development such as ‘partnerships’, ‘coherence’, ‘sustainability’ and ‘leaving no one behind’ become meaningless tick boxes and at times contradictory because of a lack of consistency or conviction on which values they will adopt to drive this agenda forward. Our attention on the selection of the #NextSG should not be on the selection process because as impartial and outdated as it is, it still provides some guidelines to work from. Our attention over the remaining period of the selection process should be on each candidate’s vision of leadership for this agenda and scrutinising whether they have the value systems and ideas to deliver these goals according to the principles the world has worked tirelessly to define.

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