The United Nations: Reflecting the World, Reflecting Ourselves
an address to the World Goodwill Seminar, UN Headquarters, Geneva. 28 October, 2016
Any process to implement an idea is a complex one. How do we get from thought to action? There isn’t actually that much time left before 2030. How do we ensure effective implementation of the 2030 Agenda or the Sustainable Development Goals? It is commendable that these Goals have been formulated, and this is an example of the recognition of our global interconnectedness as one humanity. It is not an easy task to implement something like this, but we can do it by creating a vertical alignment between the thoughts, the words, and the actions of individuals as well as governments. We also need a horizontal and focused alignment between individual citizens’ efforts, national governments, and the United Nations. This is a task for every member of the human family, and for all responsible national governments. The United Nations is uniquely qualified as the organization leading the way for the SDG implementation and inspiring humanity. We have the thoughts and the words already in the form of the published 2030 Agenda – we just need to make sure that the proper actions follow, aligned with the thoughts and words. What roles do individual citizens, governments and the UN itself have in an effective implementation?
I worked as an internal management consultant at United Nations Headquarters in New York 10 years ago. My small unit’s mandate was to help UN departments operate more efficiently in the organizational and financial sense, given their mandates. It was a tremendous opportunity to get to know the organization, although it has taken me many years to really understand the nature of the work that I did, and how to manage the organizational challenges and find solutions to them. I must admit I encountered frustration daily at the beginning of my work at the UN. It was usually the implementation of otherwise well-designed projects that did not quite succeed, or not fast enough. With time, I realized that this simply reflected the world we live in: often individuals as well as governments have narrowly and rather selfishly defined agendas, frequently alongside more holistic aspirations based on global goodwill for humanity as a whole. Sometimes both types of motivations can be present at the same time, one weaker, the other one stronger. Which one wins out? The answer is: the side that we consciously strengthen. Every human being has a responsibility now to strengthen the ability and willingness to practice problem solving from a holistic, unselfish perspective, regardless of the economic and geographic position of the individual in life. National governments, at their level, also have a similar responsibility since they have the ability to make the SDGs actually happen through their policies.
When talking about implementing the SDGs, we focus mostly on governments, individuals and the civil sector, but corporations are very important as well. Corporations also have a responsibility to act more in the interest of the global whole in a sustainable way rather than serve the narrow purpose of increasing shareholder value to a limited number of individuals. But is there an incentive to make this happen now? Probably not yet, although we are slowly getting there. Skilled corporate leaders with goodwill and a global vision will not be enough to change the current focus, unfortunately: we need an economic system that rewards a sustainable resource allocation, and we don’t have it yet. Instead, we have a global economic system that rewards only growth at any cost. I would flag this as a priority to create this New Economy as fast as we can. Often corporations have more resources at their disposal to create change than some national governments. However change is coming faster than we think: a decade ago when I was in business school it was considered a revolutionary assignment when one of my professors asked us in class to write a paper on how to run a corporation for the benefit of all stakeholders involved. This included suppliers, employees, investors, consumers, and the local community. By now with the rise of social entrepreneurship, there are strong business minds that think about this every day and establish companies that they do run for the benefit of all stakeholders. I think this is also a useful analogy for the world: we need to run our world for the benefit of all of humanity, regardless of roles and functions fulfilled by nations.
Some people might debate this point, but I think the United Nations fully lives up to its potential of being a forum where different nations can discuss their issues with each other. When issues are fought out through discussions, with words, they are much less likely to be fought with weapons, resulting in the loss of human lives, although the latter still happens. But how can the UN lead the way for the implementation of the 2030 Agenda most effectively? Should it? The UN of today is the UN of governments, primarily: often governments view it as a place to grab more political and economic influence on the world stage, at the expense of other nations. They need to all understand that this is not a zero sum game. Instead the UN provides a forum where we can all start to think differently for the sake of humanity. Again, we have both perspectives present at the same time: the UN as a place of international cooperation, or the UN as a place of fighting for pieces of a zero-sum, limited pie? I hope that my former colleagues at the UN can really strengthen the former and help the organization hold that line. The truth is that by cooperating with others and focusing for the benefits for all, we can change the outcomes, so it is really never a zero sum game. This is true on the individual, national, and global levels.
It is very important to set the expectations clearly: the UN doesn’t exist to directly fix countries’ problems. Actually, at first glance those problems are amplified when one takes a look at the organization, because they are out in the open for everyone to see. I attribute my initial frustration as a newcomer staff member to the UN partly to this. I remember thinking: why can’t we just rework budgets, reassign roles and make things happen, the way we would in any other public or private organization? The truth is, real change can only happen bottom up in a sustainable manner, never top down. This is messy by definition because it includes the complex process of consensus building, and this of course somewhat slows down implementation. However we need the UN leading: the UN is the only worldwide organization with the mandate and the ability to really effectively lead change processes for the world. It can speed up the bottom-up change processes by putting issues in focus, sharing information, and educating others. 21st century technologies are very effective tools for this – the other side of the coin is that they can spread hate and lies just as easily. Again, it is up to us: we choose what information we would like to share with others.
The real significance of the SDGs is that this is a chance to enact bottom-up, sustainable change – we already have consensus about the goals in thought. This is the beauty of this moment: by having a mental consensus about the SDGs, and by having every country in agreement, we have a good chance of making it happen, and this change will not be premature – therefore it will be sustainable and can have a lasting impact.
If the UN reflects the world the way it is today, by definition individuals need to exhibit certain traits in their everyday lives for the UN to function better and more effective. Maybe this is the way to start real UN reform? We actually need to reform the way we act as individuals first before we demand it from others. However, there has to be a parallel with governments: we as individuals can and should demand change in behavior but I believe only after we implement change as individuals first. Change in individual behavior is the real foundation to any lasting change in the world. As Gandhi said: “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.” It is very important to make conscious choices about things we control as individual citizens. But individual change is not enough, it is only the first step: a necessary but not sufficient condition to ensure further progress and the successful implementation of the SDGs.
It is worth pondering the following questions for us individually as global citizens:
What is my motivation? Am I working for the good of humanity in the holistic sense, no matter what my position in life? Am I showing goodwill to others on a practical level? Or am I working to procure as many material possessions, or influence for myself as possible?
Do I try to achieve change by coercing others and competing, or cooperating? Do I act in the spirit of unity rather than fragmentation, looking at issues from the perspectives of all involved?
What does sharing mean on the practical level? Do we all have an obligation to share what we have with others? To what extent? Do I consciously think about what I need as an individual, and how much of it, for myself? Do I honestly believe that all my fellow human beings are entitled to economic security?
Do I have a good idea about what skills I possess that can be useful for the world? Can I take a detached look at myself to evaluate this? I think the hallmark of the era we live in is that goodwill alone is not enough to be effective, neither by individuals nor by nations. We need skills in action to deliver outcomes, in addition to goodwill. A detached attitude that examines outcomes is essential, and we would all benefit from cultivating it, as would humanity as a whole. When implementing the SDGs, it will be very important during the national reviews to ask the question: is it working? What results are we seeing?
Another important question is accountability. Do I hold myself as well as my government accountable? Do I complete what I set out to do? When I did not do something, what was the reason? How did it impact others?
I also would like to mention the role of fear in our lives as individual citizens. Often fear keeps us from changing for the better. This is true of individuals to varying degrees, but it is true of governments even more. There is certain inertia in large organizations. Established politicians are rarely natural change agents. Fear can often keep us from making the right choice. We fear losing what we already have, and having to deal with the unknown. Even if we mentally understand that the change is better, emotionally we find it hard to commit to the change. This is very natural, but do we really need fear? Isn’t it holding us back? Aren’t we making ourselves prisoners if we allow fear to dominate our decision making? At the same time, we have to recognize that fear is natural. There are often very strong psychological reasons for why we feel comfortable primarily with people like ourselves, for example, or within our own culture. Yet we have to overcome fear by becoming aware of the factors that create it. Responsible governments and opinion makers should help people manage their fears, not stoke them and exploit them. Could we run change management courses for citizens, the way organizations run these for their employees? This could be a wonderful task for the education sector.
The opposite feeling to fear is actually love: the kind of love that comes from the recognition that we as human species are one, and every human being shares this trait in common with every other human being on Earth, regardless of skin color or native language or culture. Can we give love a chance as opposed to fear in our daily lives as well as in political decision making as global citizens? We have a unique time now to let our voices be heard and put pressure on governments to enact policies in the spirit of the SDGs. Public opinion is alive and well, but managing it requires careful thought.
Nations can ponder the same questions as individuals. All nations have a responsibility to ensure a sustainable future of humanity as a whole. Public opinion, individual citizens’ efforts and the global civil sector should aid this recognition process. With the proliferation and the strengthening of the civil sector worldwide, the need for coordination also grows. Timely and appropriate communication among those involved becomes very important. The UN can remain as the coordinating anchor, but this is essentially a bottom-up process.
I would like to mention the role of education – a key area for the successful implementation of the SDGs. Eradicating poverty, and a sustainable future for our planet, without appropriately educating future generations is not possible. Education is the key variable that can directly lead to peace. Sustainable peace is only possible when human beings realize deep down how to conduct appropriate human relations with each other. It is not possible to legislate peace. It is also not appropriate to view peace as solely the product of negotiations. Peace is a mindset, and an approach to action. A prerequisite for lasting peace is the recognition of the fundamental oneness of humanity and the equality of all human beings. Education can and should deliver this recognition by all. This will allow much more effective problem solving by individual citizens as well as governments in the future, practically speaking.
I have been working in the international education field for the past seven years, advocating for access to university and global student mobility. We have seen tremendous advances in education over the past several decades worldwide. It is important to remember that countries’ starting positions were vastly different, in some countries the focus in recent decades has been on eradicating illiteracy, in some others on expanding access to university. It is the progress from the starting position itself that matters. The proliferation of technology in the 21st century as well as the increasing ease of travel could allow education to drastically change.
Yet education on the national level is not changing as fast as it should: often national governments treat this area in the most conservative way, in order to keep a tight monopoly on creating appropriate national citizens. Often we hear about the focus being on creating productive, employable citizens – hence the focus on things like Pisa and other results of subject-specific competitions. This completely misses the point.
Education is the key to unlock individual potential. In the spirit of our interconnected world, education should be increasingly interdisciplinary, global, and it should include multiple perspectives, everywhere in the world. This is already happening. One piece of evidence is the double-digit annual increase over the past few years in the number of international schools teaching some sort of international curriculum. Another piece of evidence is the explosion in the number of International Baccalaureate (IB) schools worldwide. These schools teach a global curriculum. We also see demand growing for bi-lingual education. Because governments are relatively slow to accommodate these perspectives in their national curriculum, often for-profit or not-for-profit school providers fill the void. Global student mobility has been on the rise since the 1990’s, and despite some setbacks, it continues to increase, especially at university level. More and more students cross their national boundaries at least for some educational experience in another country. This helps strengthen the identity of future generations as global citizens, so these programs are very important to keep and expand if we want to have citizens all over the world to have the understanding of why we need the SDGs implemented, and focus on a just and sustainable world beyond SDG implementation.
One great example I would like to note here is the bilingual option of the French Baccalauréat. The program is based on bilateral agreements with other nations. The structure of the program is like this: France and the partner nation essentially “borrow” each other’s perspectives and language for subjects like history, geography, and literature. In the French-German program called the AbiBac, French students learn about German history in German, and German students learn French history in French. The program is available in about 70 schools in France, and roughly the same number of schools in Germany. Similar bi-national programs exist with other nations, including one with the United States. This kind of program is a great way to teach different perspectives early on. Teaching children in their early years that others can be right, and we all have our perspectives, is essential.
Another really forward-looking educational example is LEAF Academy, a new, not-for-profit secondary boarding school that just opened in Bratislava, Slovakia. The school’s mission focuses on ethics, excellence, entrepreneurial leadership and the civic engagement in one’s own community. There is a character and self-discovery thread woven into the international curriculum. The school focuses on the Central European region, drawing most of their students from countries from that region. A core part of the curriculum is a Central European Studies Program for all: students will learn Central European history from the perspectives of the different nations in the region. Given the historical issues of the region with ethnic problems over centuries, this is a great initiative and for sure it will help create citizens understanding and implementing right human relations in the region.
There has been a large increase in recent years in supplementary global educational programs offered by non-profit organizations. This is a welcome development and I hope it continues. Technology allows schools worldwide to utilize these programs. One great example from my work in international education is the Canadian organization WE.org, a provider of service learning programs. They have recently partnered with the College Board, the provider of the Advanced Placement courses in American high schools. Students in select courses can do a year-long service learning project. They apply classroom skills to real-world challenges. Students are expected to complete one local and one global project. This allows students to focus on tackling a challenge bottom-up in their own community as well as learn about global interconnectedness. This is a very effective combination, and exactly what the world needs. There is also an explicit focus on skills to be learned and project outcomes, so students learn practical skills-in action and also practice accountability. The sheer potential scale of this program is worth noting: potentially this impacts the more than 2 million students who took Advanced Placement courses in about 20,000 schools in the United States and in more than 120 other countries last year.
This is what WE.org says about themselves on their website: “We are shameless idealists who believe that there is a version of our highest selves that comes from living a life of daily legacies”. This sentence has so much: a conscious choice to apply our higher selves, and the choices that this implies; the willingness to be driven by ideals, and to implement something daily to leave an impact. A great example for us all – to practice with persistence and a sense of humor.