In late September, the United Nations approved a package of 17 new goals designed to create a more equitable and sustainable world. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) call for decisive action to reduce poverty and hunger, promote economic growth and equality, and combat climate change.

Manuel Sager, director-general of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), spoke to faculty and students at Duke University’s School of Law on Monday, Oct. 5, to expound on the SDGs and what they aim to accomplish. Sager was introduced by Phyllis Pomerantz, professor of the practice at the Duke Center for International Development (DCID), which co-sponsored the event with the Law School.

Since 1990, Sager said, extreme poverty has been cut in half worldwide, as have maternal and child deaths. Ninety percent of children now have access to basic education, and 2.3 billion more people have clean drinking water.

But, Sager asked, “If things are so good, why are they so bad?”

More than 2.8 billion people still live on less than $2 a day, and economic inequality continues to grow. The 85 richest people in the world, Sager said, now have more assets combined than the poorer half of the world’s population.

The SDGs, he said, will take a more holistic approach to addressing these global problems. They will build on the progress made by their predecessors, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which were adopted in 2000.  

“We can’t tackle humanity’s challenges in silos,” Sager said. “We have to approach them from all different angles at the same time.”

To make this happen, the SDC works directly with governments of developing countries to help them mobilize their resources and create sustainable solutions.

In the past, development agencies would move in with shovels and pickaxes, dig a well, and consider it a victory for development, Sager said. “Now we try to help our partner countries influence the whole system by improving governance, attracting investment and creating a stable legal framework.”

One of the SDC’s main areas of focus, he said, is providing vocational training to improve job prospects, reduce inequality and prevent violence and radicalization among youth in developing economies. Although it initially met with resistance, Sager said he is confident that the initiative will gain momentum as it begins to show results.

“We have to build success stories,” he said. “Only if you have the statistics and the testimonials that it actually works can you build programs and change mindsets.”   

A major unanswered question remains about the SDGs: how to pay for them, Sager said. “Over the next 10 years, we’ll need $100 billion in climate finance. It’s still anybody’s guess where this huge investment will come from.”

Despite the high cost, as well as the challenges of monitoring outcomes, Sager said the SDGs are worth the effort.

“It is very important that we express our solidarity as global citizens with people less fortunate than we are.”

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