Rt Hon Helen Clark: Keynote Address to New Zealand Sustainable Development Goals Summit: “The International Context and New Zealand’s Leadership Role”. Auckland University, 2 September 2019

With volunteers at New Zealand SDGs Summit at Auckland University, 2 September 2019.

The second New Zealand Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) Summit was held today at Auckland University. I gave a keynote address at the beginning of the first panel on “The International Context and New Zealand’s Leadership Role”. In short, the sustainable development agenda faces a lot of challenges globally. This year’s summits at the United Nations General Assembly in September need to galvanise momentum across the SDGs and climate action if the bold targets to which the international community committed in 2015 are to be met. The text of my speech is below.

 Right Honourable Helen Clark

Keynote address at

New Zealand Sustainable Development Goals Summit in panel on

“The International Context and New Zealand’s Leadership Role”

Auckland, New Zealand, 2 September 2019.

Many thanks for inviting me to participate in this conference and to make opening remarks in this session on “The International Context of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and New Zealand’s Leadership Role”.

My remarks will focus on the international context, but let me note at the outset that the SDGs are a universal agenda, and that the expectation when they were agreed by world leaders in 2015 was that sincere efforts would be made to implement them.

The development of the SDGs was mandated by the Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in 2012, around three years in to my time as UNDP Administrator. From then on, a significant amount of time was devoted by UNDP and by me personally into support for the design of the SDGs and for their early implementation. UNDP worked with other UN agencies to support close to 100 national consultations, a number of global thematic consultations, and a major online survey on the SDGs agenda to ensure widespread input into and knowledge of it.

The year the Goals were adopted, 2015, was in retrospect a high-water mark for global development agendas. It was the year of the Paris Climate Agreement, of the new disaster risk reduction framework agreed in Sendai, Japan, and of the Addis Ababa Action on financing for development. One more major agreement followed in 2016 – the New Urban Agenda calling for safe, inclusive, resilient, and sustainable cities which was adopted at Habitat III in Quito Ecuador.

But, since that time, major political change in key capitals has not been conducive to progress across the agendas. Given that climate change represents one of the greatest challenges to achieving the SDGs, it is of major significance when the world’s largest economy and only superpower gives notice of its intention to withdraw from the landmark global agreement reached in Paris, and when a Brazilian President encourages the expansion of farming into the Amazon rain forest.

At the end of this month, government leaders from around the world will convene in New York for a series of summits – including on the SDGs and on climate. The UN Secretary-General has already said of the climate summit, that the leaders should each come with a plan, not with a speech. The same could be said of what they will say at the SDGs summit.

There is growing concern at the lack of traction on achieving many of the SDG targets at the global level. For example, on

  • Poverty eradication – the goal is eradicationby 2030, but credible forecasts now suggest that those still living in extreme poverty by that date could number up to 475 million, or around six per cent of the global population.
  • Hunger eradication – the numbers of hungry people have been rising in recent years, and stand at over 820 million people – or around one in every nine people on earth.
  • Education: the target is to have every 6-17-year old able to have twelve years education by 2020. On current trends, one in six will not achieve that.

The list could go on – and to it must be added the woeful state of biodiversity and the climate ecosystem, which in turn exacerbates the vulnerabilities of the world’s poorest.

As well, the level of forced displacement caused by war and conflict is at record levels – standing at over seventy million. On worst case scenarios for climate change, which may well be realistic, the World Bank estimates that another 143 million people in sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and Latin America could be displaced – and that’s not counting the vulnerable in South and South East Asia.

These significant challenges to sustainable development at the global level need a concerted response, with a focus on the most vulnerable. It is all the more concerning therefore that the latest OECD figures on official development assistance (ODA) show a decline overall of 2.7 per cent from 2017 to 2018, with aid to Africa falling by four per cent. The climate finance promised by developed countries is falling well short of where it should be – that matters enormously for both adaptation and mitigation.

The SDGs are a bold and visionary agenda which, if implemented, would bring about transformational change. But currently the world is a long way from seeing that happen. International solidarity continues to be very important for the poorest countries – indeed it will be essential if poverty and hunger are to be banished by 2030 and if other basic human development goals in the SDGs agenda are to be reached.

And, those goals can’t be met if the environment continues to be pillaged. Last week the head of the secretariat for the UN Convention on Biodiversity expressed concern that we are moving towards tipping points which could produce “cascading collapses of natural ecosystems”.   A UN report in May warned that a million species are on the verge of extinction. Pledges on climate action as of late last year put the world on track for three degrees warming by the end of the century – far above the 1.5 degrees aspiration of the Paris Agreement. This has serious implications for countries rich and poor, including ours.

At the UN summits in New York later next month, world leaders do have the opportunity to face up to these challenges and determine to make a course correction. More development support for the poorest and more climate action across the board would be a good start.

Can New Zealand lead on this? Yes, it can – at home and abroad. It has already stepped up – off a low base – on development assistance, and the Government has agreed on its framework for climate change policy aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions and building climate resilience. The Zero Carbon Bill is before Parliament – ideally it needs cross-party support to spare New Zealand from the “stop-go” approach it has had to climate action over more than two decades.

Overall, New Zealand’s strategies and policy approaches currently are not inconsistent with what is needed to make progress on the Sustainable Development Goals, but it has not formally adopted an SDG strategy and targets as the recent People’s Report prepared by civil society organisations points out. New Zealand leadership on the SDGs would be enhanced by moving to embrace a formal strategy with targets and a commitment to monitoring and accountability, in line with the approach of many other countries around the world.

I hope that today’s discussions will help define how New Zealand can move forward on the SDGs and thereby contribute to the global momentum and action which is so badly needed.


  1. The presentations were very informative. That reality is that some countries especially those in the developing countries are having too many things affecting their economies. I think 17 goals are too many in a 10year period. The assumption was that all countries will be on the same level and having the same priority. I am interested in developing or understanding the rubric used by nations in measuring the fulfilment of these SDGs. I would like to go and carry research in those countries in Africa and determine their preparedness on set milestones.


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