The Building Blocks of Sustainable Development

by George Rosenfeld

Last month, over 700 delegates from 72 countries convened in New York for the UN Youth Assembly. The focus was on young people's role in implementing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the UN's long-term plan for tackling such global issues as poverty, inequality and climate change. Despite inevitably varied backgrounds, delegates were united in their unanimous appreciation of the importance of the SDGs and the role of youth in their achievement.

The two-day conference was a great success, with renowned speakers and engaging delegates all keen to share their experiences and passions. But on returning from the Youth Assembly, I would like to remark upon three observations which I believe must be addressed in order to accelerate the progress which our planet requires.

1. Education is the first step onto the ladder of engagement
In the past, the phrase 'youth engagement' could often have seemed oxymoronic. No longer. More and more, people are starting to realise that it makes sense for us to have a say in the world which we will inherit. The problem, however, is that young people's interest in issues on such a vast scale is often formed too late. Indeed, while anyone between 16 (my age) and 28 was invited to apply for the Youth Assembly, very few of the attendees were still at school.

I think that part of this, especially in more developed countries where extreme poverty isn't so visible an issue, is down to the education system. So often, as is the case in England, children are passed through primary school with a minimal (if any) focus on poverty. We are taught that water is H2O before learning that over 600 million people don't have access to it. We are well-versed in Shakespeare before learning that over 700 million people can't read. Even before we go to secondary school, we have been educated based on a distorted view of modern priorities. To create a generation of teenagers aspiring to fix the world's problems, education must be the first thing we look at.

2. A bigger picture greater than the sum of its individual parts
In the run-up to the finalising of the SDGs, everyone wanted to get a word in. It's understandable - everyone had their own 'favourite issue' and wanted to see it emphasised strongly in this vital document. In many ways, this was a very healthy state of affairs - with people discussing all these issues, awareness was spread for each of them. But now the goals have been decided, this attitude must change, lest we start pitting global problems against each other.

At the Youth Assembly, it was unsurprising that every delegate, including me, was particularly passionate about one or two of the goals. Indeed, it is this issue-specific focus from which an overall desire for global improvement stems. It is undeniable, however, that there is no single goal which isn't implicitly linked to another. I agreed entirely with Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, when he said "The SDGs are an indivisible tapestry of priorities for collective action." By way of an example, Goal 6 (water and sanitation) is closely connected with goals on poverty, hunger, health, education, gender equality, good jobs, wealth inequality and sustainable cities. Need I go on? The point is that whilst individual goals provide a focus to inspire and engage people, such a narrow viewpoint risks bypassing the inherent interdependence of the SDGs, thereby potentially jeopardising their ultimate success.

3. Rich countries must roll their sleeves up
My final observation was that at the Youth Assembly, there was a shocking underrepresentation of Europeans. Admittedly, I didn't have a chance to speak to everyone, but I met more delegates from Afghanistan than the whole of Europe. Whilst this clearly may have been an isolated example, it exposes a broader pattern - people from richer countries tend to 'take action' less. It only takes a brief glance at history to see that those who have experienced greater hardship have had a greater influence - take Mandela, Malala and Gandhi as examples.

This long-standing trend will be highlighted now more than ever if we fail to address the imbalance. The SDGs' prequel (Millennium Development Goals) placed a higher emphasis on the main role of rich countries being to fund the changes, whereas the SDGs require a far more integrated approach, with all countries playing an active role in the physical implementation of these changes.

For generations, anti-internationalists have been arguing that rich countries support the poorer ones too much, saying that 'charity starts at home.' But the time has come when we can no longer fight 'each for their own'. Technology has shrunken the planet down to the size of a smartphone, and just in time too. We have reached crossroads in the future of our civilisation - as the UN Envoy on Youth said: "We are the first generation which can end extreme poverty and the last which can end climate change." The time to act is now and we need to work together. If charity ever did start at home, it's time to step outside the front door.

This post is a part of a series produced by The Huffington Post in partnership with Friendship Ambassadors Foundation following the 2016 Youth Assembly at the United Nations held on February 17-18, 2016. The winter session tackled the role of youth in the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. To see all posts in the series, click here.

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