Rt Hon Helen Clark: Keynote Speech at Karolinska Institute, Stockholm, on “Inspiring Action on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development: Universities as Key Partners and Actors”. 30 March 2019.

With Ole Petter Ottersen, Rector of Karolinska Institute, Stockholm, and Sir Michael Marmot, Director of Institute of Health Equity, University College London in Stockholm, 30 March 2019.

I was privileged to be asked to give a keynote address at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm at a major conference on “Reinventing Higher Education: Inspired by the Sustainable Development Goals”. Universities can play major roles in supporting societies to advance inclusive and sustainable development. The text of my speech follows.

Inspiring Action on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development: universities as key actors and partners.”

Right Honourable Helen Clark

 Patron, The Helen Clark Foundation

Keynote Speech at Conference on “Rethinking Higher Education Inspired by the Sustainable Development Goals”.

Karolinska Institute, Saturday 30 March 2019, Stockholm, Sweden.

Thank you for the invitation to address this important conference on rethinking higher education inspired by the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The SDGs are a bold and visionary agenda. They inspire us to rethink not only education, but also the way in which we live, work, produce, and consume. Implementing the 2030 Agenda of which they are part requires society-wide transformation:

  • It requires thinking and acting outside the silos in which decisions have traditionally been taken.
  • It requires being highly conscious of the links between economic, social, and environmental policies and of the nature of our governance.

Inspiring current and future generations to think and act for sustainable development and equipping them with the knowledge to do so is a vital task for today’s educators – and for us all.

It is therefore very encouraging that major and prestigious institutions like the Karolinska Institute, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, the University of Gothenburg and others in Sweden are stepping up to this challenge. The Swedish Government is already a leader internationally in advocacy for sustainable development, but advancing sustainable development requires society-wide action and support.

The challenge….

We live in an age of turmoil and uncertainty. Decision-makers need to be able address the complex and interlinked challenges which face our world. Citizens need the skills to operate within that world. Educators have a significant role to play in preparing current and future generations to navigate a future where volatility is the new normal. The pace of change is very fast. This argues against the traditional siloed approaches to education. It calls for more cross-disciplinary curricula and research.

As the publicity for this conference notes, “human activity is pushing the world towards its very limits”. That matters both for the environment and for us as human beings dependent on its bounty. The landmark Report of the Rockefeller Foundation- Lancet Commission on Planetary Health in 2015found that continuing environmental degradation also threatens to reverse the health gains achieved over the past century.

If, collectively, we continue to career towards exceeding more planetary boundaries, then on a worst-case scenario, which is not improbable without dramatic change in how we “develop”, improvements in human development overall will slow to a crawl, and there may well be regression in some regions. Modelling to that effect was done for the 2011 UNDP Human Development Report on Sustainability and Equity. The “grow now, clean up later” approach which has so often characterised development is simply untenable.

The Rockefeller-Lancet Report uses the ringing phrase that “we have been mortgaging the health of future generations to realise economic and development gains in the present”. The result is that we have had dramatic adverse effects on the very ecosystems which sustain life on Earth – and which also have great intrinsic value.

So, development, as we have known it, has been seriously out of balance. The longer we travel that same road, the more we will undermine the human development gains, including in health, which we had taken for granted. That road takes us not towards less health inequity – it expands health inequities.

But my message today is one of hope: it doesn’t have to be that way. Critical to making a change of course is thought leadership like that which has led to the convening of this conference on reinventing education so it can help create a sustainable future.

My years at the United Nations Development Programme were dominated, first, by the race to achieve as many of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) as possible, and, as they neared their end point, by the design phase of the SDGs and encouraging wide input into that.

Agreement on the SDGs was reached in 2015, a landmark year for global agendas which also saw the Paris Climate Agreement, the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, and the Addis Ababa Action Agenda on Financing for Development adopted.

Since then, however the appetite for reaching agreement and driving action at the multilateral level has diminished. Recommitment to the agendas we have is urgent.

Consider for a moment the need for climate action which is so integral to making progress on the SDGs. The World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) just released its State of the Global Climate in 2018 report which paints a sadly familiar dire picture of where our planet is headed. Greta Thunberg, teenage climate activist, was right when she told leaders meeting at Davos in January that “our house is on fire” and that this demands action.

Among the many implications are those for food production – which is so fundamental to human life and health.  We see more regular, very serious drought conditions in, for example, the Sahel and the Horn of Africa. I was recently in Afghanistan where provinces in the north and west have been suffering their worst drought in decades. That displaced more than a quarter of a million people into tent cities around towns in Herat and Badghis provinces alone. This very serious situation seems to have gone largely under the international radar.

When such extreme weather events are combined with other severe stresses like conflict, there can be a severe risk of famine. Let’s decode that – it means that people may literally starve to death. I saw severely malnourished children in a clinic serving a tent encampment of internally displaced people on the outskirts of Herat in March. Afghanistan’s communities have been pushed to the limits by decades of conflict; the severe drought has exacerbated conditions for those living on the margins. As livestock die and food supplies in the villages run out, people trek to the towns and cities in search of relief.

As our weather worsens, we will see more climate-induced migration from the areas most exposed to drought, storms, and rising sea levels. The World Bank last year forecast that such migration could total 2.8 per cent of the population of Sub Saharan Africa, South Asia, and Latin America – some 143 million people – and that doesn’t include the exposed populations of East and South East Asia. Much of that migration will be internal, but for atoll nations with no high ground, that is not an option.

Yet, climate change is only one of the identified planetary boundaries about which we need to be concerned. Research from the Stockholm Resilience Centre suggests that we have already exceeded two of the identified boundaries – biospheric integrity and nitrogen and phosphorous loading, and have passed the safe operating space of land system change as well as of climate change. Thus, we have indeed “mortgaged our future” – and that has significant implications for human health and wellbeing.

Here in Stockholm, there is huge expertise across the fields of environment and health. That helps to position Sweden well in the quest to find solutions to the many linked challenges we face. These must be addressed holistically.

This is not a new call. As a young Health Minister exactly three decades ago, I was inspired by the Ottawa Charter for Health Promotion of 1986. Building on the Almaty Declaration on Primary Health Care of 1978, it spelled out that the fundamental conditions and resources for health were peace, shelter, education, food, income, a stable ecosystem, sustainable resources, and social justice and equity. Before that, the 1972 UN Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm is credited with putting damage to the environment on the global political agenda and acknowledging the high price nature was paying for “development”.

Now, the 2030 Agenda challenges us once again to think holistically and to consider how the decisions we make in one area will impact on others. If we want to ensure the future health and well-being of people and our planet, then we must address wide-ranging determinants from poverty, marginalisation, and discrimination to the aggressive marketing and trade of unhealthy substances and  the consequences of sedentary lifestyles; and to climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution of air, land, and water.

Solutions can be found to all these challenges – indeed many exist already, and we must invest in them by gathering the evidence, designing and implementing good public policy, and by supporting the most vulnerable countries and populations to build their capacity for action for sustainable development.

We also need political will – and we need widespread public awareness of both the challenges and what each of us and those who govern us at all levels need to do. We need civil society and private sector leadership – there is a lot of it already, but all need to be on board.

Late last year I was at a presentation by the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change. Their latest report says that we have until 2030 to make the changes necessary to keep global warming to a maximum rise of 1.5 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels. The IPCC was clear that this is feasible in geophysical, technological, and economic terms.

If that is so – then what is the problem? It has to lie in the political and governance spheres. Leaders at every level must make the case for action, capacities to take action must be developed, and the funding for that must be found. For the poorest countries, there must be international solidarity – many are badly exposed to major adverse climate events which they have played no part in causing. They need support to adapt to the consequences and to put their development on a sustainable trajectory.

In September when world leaders gather at the United Nations General Assembly, there will be reviews of progress on the SDGs and the Paris Climate Agreement. The unvarnished truth is that progress is not tracking well in critical areas. On current trends, for example, we would reach 2030 with hundreds of millions of people still deeply impoverished and hungry – when the SDGs targets called for eradication of both. The 2030 Agenda exhorts us to leave no one behind – right now as a global community we are far from living up to that.

Put simply, it isn’t enough to achieve the SDGs in Sweden, New Zealand, and other OECD countries – and even achieving them there will require courageous political leadership and society-wide buy in. We need global action also – focused on meeting the needs of the 1.8 billion people living in fragile contexts who, without international solidarity, will not see the 2030 Agenda deliver for them.

The role of educators and universities….

Let me make five points:

1. SDG 4 on education urges that “all learners acquire the knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development, including, among others, through education for sustainable development and sustainable lifestyles, human rights, gender equality, promotion of a culture of peace and non-violence, global citizenship and an appreciation of cultural diversity and of culture’s contribution to sustainable development”.

That speaks to the breadth of the 2030 Agenda – not least to SDG 16 which calls for the building of peaceful and inclusive societies which provide access to justice to all, and which have effective accountable and inclusive institutions. I see a role for universities in building the human capacities to deliver such societies, as well as in building the professional and technical capacities needed to drive the transformation to sustainable development.

2. A major strength of universities is their capacity for cross- disciplinary research and teaching which can tackle the complex interactions between economies, societies, and the environment.

Applying a planetary health lens, for example, is an exciting way of looking at how human beings and the earth’s ecosystems can both flourish. Research on the links between the two can be a powerful contribution to achieving the SDGs, as is research across how we can exist more sustainably in general. The challenge will be for universities to find ways to bring research and teaching across disciplines together to chart the way for sustainable development to be achieved.

3. Flowing from the research contribution of universities is the role which they can play in support of evidence-based policy-making. While this is clearly not in vogue everywhere, nor across all fields, my impression from working with governments of all kinds around the world over eight years at the United Nations Development Programme is that most want to be able to make decisions which are likely to get the results they desire, and are hungry for the information they need to make those decisions. Universities are a major source of knowledge, and should be seen as key actors in informing decision-making for sustainable development.

4. Central to the 2030 Agenda is the concept of accountability – progress on the Agenda should be monitored and reported on. Here, too, I see universities playing a role, by contributing to the development of national progress reports, national indicators, measurement, and evaluation. This contribution can be made through official processes, independent publications, and/or in support of civil society and other efforts. The objective overall is to keep countries to the commitments they made when agreeing to the 2030 Agenda. It is noteworthy that many countries have lined up to present their progress reports to the UN’s High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF) which convenes each July in New York; this indicates ongoing interest in the Agenda.

So far, many of the country presentations appear to have been largely about process. Now they need to be about action. Countries need to heed the words of UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres who said, with respect to the Climate Summit, that when leaders come to New York they should some with a plan, not a speech. The same applies to the SDG High Level Event the same week.

5. The role of advocacy: Universities enjoy high status in their communities and countries. They are generally respected for their role in educating future generations, for their research and expertise, and for their overall contribution to society. That makes universities powerful advocates when they choose to use their voice.

The UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network was launched by the previous Secretary-General to mobilise global scientific and technological expertise in support of the SDGs. Many universities have agreed to contribute to the SDGs through their research and education roles, and by having inclusive and environmentally sustainable campuses and programmes. The ongoing voice of the universities in advocating for implementation of the new global agenda which works for people and planet will be invaluable.

In conclusion:

Achieving the SDGs will require very big partnerships across  economy and society at the local, national, and global levels. Educators and universities are an indispensable part of those partnerships.

When the SDGs were being designed, the academic community was involved in the consultations. Now that we have the SDGs, and not least because they constitute a complex, cross-sectoral, and cross-disciplinary agenda, the input of academics and researchers continues to be needed to inform implementation, monitoring, evaluation, and advocacy.

As well, through both South-South and North-South Co-operation, universities can support each other to build capacity for contributing to sustainable development, sharing resources, analysing data, and creating and imparting knowledge.

The challenges our world faces are great – and they can seem daunting. Yet the solutions to them lie in the full implementation of the 2030 Agenda.

Each of us and our communities can contribute to building a better world. Critical to making that difference is the role of education as a driver of inclusive and sustainable development. The impacts of education will be felt far beyond measures of student achievement. By empowering citizens and countries with the knowledge and capacities required, we can achieve the vision of the 2030 Agenda of a world where no one is left behind and where we achieve human development progress within the boundaries of nature.

Hopes are high for implementation of the new global agenda, notwithstanding the many obstacles in its way. It is therefore very important that universities are on board with, and are full participants in, the national, regional, and global processes which will drive progress. Individually and collectively, the prestige, resources, and voice of universities can make a major difference for people and planet.


  1. Hello Helen,
    I had the honor and pleasure of interviewing you back in 2001 when you were Prime Minister! Your leadership was notable and mentioned in a book I authored and later sent to you, Leading Coherently. I have a new book out and mention you again. I’d love to send you some material about it. How may I contact you?
    Nancy S. Blair, PhD
    Professor Emerita, Leadership Studies
    Cardinal Stritch University
    Milwaukee, Wi 53217

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Good Day Hon Helen Clark,

    Thank you for these Wonderful and timely speech that should be addressed or shared with Universities around the globe, especially in Nigeria where the aim of higher education is gradually being lost due to misconceptions. The circumstances surrounding these misconceptions are on the increase.

    “It requires being highly conscious of the links between economic, social, and environmental policies and of the nature of our governance”

    In reference to the above statement drawn from your speech, based on your knowledge and apart from the Universities,
    what are the general links between economic, social, and environmental policies?

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.