Seamus Jeffreson

Seamus Jeffreson

CONCORD Director

Article written by Seamus Jeffreson, CONCORD Director.

For the second consecutive year, world leaders and civil society representatives gathered in New York for the High Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development. Two years after the adoption of Agenda 2030, where do we stand on the road to “Eradicating poverty and promoting prosperity in a changing world,” making sure to leave no one behind?

The Forum has become a major global political event. It is also a real challenge: will we find the words to agree on the need for institutions and civil society to work hand in hand to solve global emergencies such as growing inequalities or climate change? Everyone here agrees the Sustainable Development Goals are the way to go, but do we agree on the means to implement them and reach our target?

Two years down the road, where do we stand?

In 2017, the global output, that is the global quantity of economic production, is estimated to reach $127 trillion. Divided into the number of human beings that populate our planet, this means an average of $17,000 per each man, woman and child. Yet, startling challenges persist.

Despite the extraordinary wealth in the world, 1 billion people still struggle to survive every day.

We have arrived at a period of unprecedented and stunning inequality. ¹

Jeffrey Sachs

Senior UN advisor

Money that went to finance war and conflict could easily fund sustainable development for every person on the planet. Tax havens, in places like the Cayman Islands and the Virgin Islands, hosted almost $20 trillion in a system that, “in front of our eyes”, allowed billionaires to avoid and evade all responsibility.
That system was actually created by governments, especially the richest ones. Jeffrey Sachs

Senior UN advisor

Inequality is a political choice. Not a fatality.

Which adjustments for the better?

The CONCORD delegation² first stopped at the EU Delegation and met with Joao Vale de Almeida, EU Ambassador to the UN, and Antonio Parenti, Minister Counsellor in Economics, Trade and Development. Their offices are located on the same block as the Chrysler Building, which was built between 1928 and 1930. It was the tallest building in the world for a year, before the Empire State Building surpassed it in May 1931. 

Margaret Bourke-White

Nonetheless, it is still the world’s tallest steel-supported brick building, built with no less than 3,826,000 manually laid bricks. Another astonishing fact is that in spite of the velocity at which it was built, no workers died during the construction.
Things are not going as fast as what we would like. I meet with Member State Permanent representations once a week, and even though this is often overlooked by Brussels, negotiating at 28 is very efficient. There might be a handful of cases a year in which we do not reach an agreement. Joao Vale de Almeida

EU Ambassador to the UN

As for international dialogue, the Ambassador regularly meets with the African Union and G77. So although why are we still slow in shifting our policies?
We miss mechanisms that follow-up on the progress made, which is also due to the great fragmentations within the UN system. Change for the better will require mechanical adjustments. Yet although the EU is at the avant-garde of the whole implementation process, the political situation in the USA is not helpful. Joao Vale de Almeida

EU Ambassador to the UN

Change for the better will require conceptual adjustments, carried by the support of all involved.

Connecting Agenda 2030 with social activism globally

And how to get everyone actively involved slowly became the question I was looking to answer. As civil society representatives, our role is to make sure citizens’ concerns reach the ears of our governments. So how do we reconnect worrying global trends with citizens’ concerns, and together, act?

On Sunday, many of us gathered at the UN Foundation for a discussion on civil society’s response to global trends. Over 40 African, Asian, European, Latin America, Pacific and North American civil society representatives taking part in the HLPF joined the debate. Among them were also US civic activists like Latchmi Gopal from Demos, New York City, Jesse Chen, CIVICUS Board member and Ron Bautista, running for Mayor of Hoboken. The discussion encompassed a range of political, social, economic, environmental and human rights concerns, but rapidly, participants connected the issues together and dug into the truth of the matter. If change requires institutional support, in many if not most cases, the institutional shift is provoked by citizens’ demands.

We must not underestimate the power of protest” underlined Gopal. Drawing from experience of the ‘Great get together’ honouring the memory of murdered MP Jo Cox, a UK colleague spoke about the importance of organised civil society ‘stepping out of the way’ when appropriate and allowing spontaneous community organising to take place, supporting authentic movements and grassroots campaigns. At the same time, participants exchanged on the supportive role CSOs could play vis a vis grassroots movements. This is more important than ever at a time of growing perceptions amongst ordinary people that the social contract between them and their governments is broken.

Protest in Bangladesh

An Opportunity to write a new Social Contract for Humanity

After a thoughtful week-end, I walked over to the UN Headquarters to listen to the Opening Session on Monday morning. The UN building was erected on the grounds of the Turtle bay. Almost all sea turtles are today endangered species, their greatest predator being mankind. Walking through the concourse into the building, I couldn’t stop thinking how we need to go from words to action, now.

Antonio Guterres was elected UN Secretary General at the beginning of the year and has set ambitions high. Coming from the UN High Commission for Refugees, which he led for 10 years, migration is at the heart of his understanding of global issues.


Mega-trends are interacting with each other, while climate change has become a main accelerator of many other challenges, forcing people to leave their homes worldwide.³ Following the 2008 economic crisis, global economy is improving but areas of fragility are also increasing. They are responsible for many of the conflicts of today, contribute to the global threat of terrorism.

Nevertheless, those linkages should not be a pretext to move resources from development to security, but rather there should be a better understanding of the centrality of development and full recognition that sustainable and inclusive development is in fact a major factor for the prevention of conflict, as well as natural disasters.

Antonio Guterres

UN Secretary General

Echoing CSO colleagues, Guterres underlined the loss of confidence and trust between people and government. How can we reverse this trend and bring back a positive discourse that will engage all towards sustainable development? We know we need to make a number of institutional and procedural changes, but shouldn’t we first be turning Agenda 2030 into a political rather than technical document citizens’ can take a hold of? Civil society around the table agreed to this, and believe the SDGs even have the potential of becoming the new “social contract for humanity.”

Akin William van Allen when he built the Chrysler Building, we must act fast. But if we want our construction to last, we need to lay a brick at a time and solidify the architecture thanks to an overarching strategy. We must include all and make sure no one is left behind, and it is “only by working together that leaders will be able to rebuild the trust to ensure the fair globalization that the world so desperately needs.”4


  1. Extracts from Jeffrey D. Sachs’ Keynote address at 17 July Opening Session. Read more…
  2. Johannes Trimmel, CONCORD Europe President, and Sami Asali from Coordination Sud
  3. Extracts from A. Guterres address at 14 July Opening Session. Read more…
  4. Ibid. above.