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Attending the Historic Sustainable Development Summit at the United Nations Headquarters

At at a number of youth events, anti-apartheid struggle icon Ahmed Kathrada always emphasizes that youth should not take our freedom/democracy for granted. On that note, it is only fitting that I always start my write-ups with appreciation of the opportunities open to young South Africans today.

The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) which inherently shaped the world (globally, nationally and locally) was largely formulated behind closed doors in the year 2000. The MDGs influenced policies, programmes, practices at a local level and even research. The MDGs expire this year and the world has moved towards adopting the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The SDGs were recently adopted by approximately 170 nations at the United Nations (UN) headquarters this year.

As the Future Leader for Healthcare at the European Union (EU) Development Days 2015 in Brussels, I was privileged to be in a panel discussion alongside the 69th president of the United Nations (UN) General Assembly Mr Sam Kutessa. Subsequent to the Development Days, Mr Kutessa extended an invitation to a few of the Future Leaders to attend the historic adoption of the SDGs in New York (25th- 27th September 2015). The MDGs shaped development as we understand it today. To be invited as a youth representative for the country was indeed an honour. Not only has South Africa changed, but so has the world, the SDG Summit was largely consultative in comparison to the adoption of the MDGs in the year 2000. While it was extremely exciting to listen to world leaders including Pope Frances and meet the UN Youth Envoys Ahmed Ahlendawi and Nobel Prize winner Malala Yousafzai, the world still has a long way to go in truly ensuring ‘youth participation’ in such forums. Young individuals were not given the platform to voice their concerns or raise areas of debate around the SDGs, perhaps in 2030 more youth and vulnerable populations (e.g. refugees/ persons with disabilities) should feature prominently alongside world leaders.

A view of the UN Headquarters as Pope Francis speaks. Photo: Shakira Choonara

The MDGs made no mention of inclusivity, it was refreshing to see that the SDGs primarily focuses on inclusivity, for example issues concerning Persons with Disabilities were high on the agenda. The euphoria surrounding the event was notable, many felt that the MDGs had been achieved and the world was starting a new chapter of development. In actual fact, I must disagree with the many world leaders who said this; while progress is notable, the reality is that the problems still remain and having 17 new goals won’t make a difference unless it is actually implemented. The major dilemma facing governments around the world will have to think through carefully which goals to focus on and the implications thereof. At the Summit it was interesting to see that some goals linked to climate change and gender inequality took precedence over goals such as healthcare. In my view, there are three additional goals should have been adopted explicitly and not fall under Goal 16, namely:

  1. Reduce corruption.

  2. Foster good leadership.

  3. Achieve unity/ social cohesiveness.

A view of the UN Headquarters as Pope Francis speaks. Photo: Shakira Choonara

Resources will be critical to achieving the SDGs and curbing corruption is certainly one way of financing the SDGs. Moreover, as I mentioned during a Vision 2035 brainstorming session at the EU Policy Lab earlier this year, it is about time that we have they type of leaders like Uncle Kathy who truly serve citizens. Lastly, the third goal I would have recommended as a young leader would move beyond peace to ‘social cohesiveness’, the world is severely disintegrated and there is no sense of unity among different populations or countries. Moving forward these three goals are not explicitly listed as SDGs, though they are possibly the most important and we as youth will have to address them in order to ensure progress and meaningful development by the year 2030.

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