Is it the best of times or the worst of times for sustainable development?

Manuel Sager, director-general of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), posed this question to a group of students and faculty during an informal roundtable discussion on the Sustainable Development Goals on Tuesday, Oct. 4.

The answer is more complex than it initially seems, said Sager, who formerly served as ambassador of Switzerland to the United States. In an area like water, for example, the situation is getting better in some ways and worse in others.

The number of people lacking access to clean drinking water was cut in half between 1990 and 2010. At the same time, he said, two-thirds of the world will be under water stress by 2025, creating huge potential for conflict.

Despite the conflicting news, there is a compelling reason to be optimistic about development. “If you’re gloomy about the future,” he said, “The more likely you are to throw up your hands.”

A ‘comprehensive approach’ to development

The main criticism of the Millennium Development Goals, developed and adopted by the United Nations in 2000, was that they focused too much on social issues to the exclusion of economic and ecological issues.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), adopted in September of last year, were designed to take all issues into account. The multi-dimensional nature of the problems we are facing today made a “comprehensive approach” necessary, Sager said.

“We won’t resolve these issues if we think only like biologists, or architects, or physicians, or physicists, or engineers,” he said. “We have to think outside the silos.”

He used the fight with malaria as an example. While many think of it as an issue of controlling mosquitoes and providing vaccinations, it is much more complicated.

“If the state can’t provide health insurance, people won’t be able to afford their medication or get compensation when they miss work, and that also has economic impact,” he said. “There are also cultural barriers to being vaccinated.”  

Everyone’s responsibility

The responsibility for achieving the SDGs extends not only across areas of specialization, but also to both developed and developing nations. Developed countries have to decrease their tremendous global energy footprint while investing in development efforts in poorer countries.

At the same time, developing countries are accountable for fighting corruption, improving governance and making sure the regulatory environment exists for a robust private sector, he said.

“Without foreign direct investment and a healthy and vibrant private sector, nothing will happen,” he said.

Sager attended a development conference last year that included representatives from more than 600 global companies. He was encouraged by the fact that the private sector is engaged.

“They recognized that [sustainable development] is not only an ethical imperative, but that it also makes business sense,” he said.

Sager also stressed the role of academia, where many of the most innovative ideas for achieving the SDGs will originate.

Finally, he called on everyone to support the SDGs in the decisions they make as consumers, shareholders and voters. We forget the dimension of our own global footprint, he said. Many of us do not realize that producing enough food for a four-member family in the United States takes more than 6,000 gallons of water.

“We’re all called upon to do our share,” he said.

Self-interest vs. solidarity

The Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation invests $2.5 billion a year to advance the SDGs in 21 countries and regions around the world, Sager said. It looks for areas where its investments can have the most impact, including vocational education, basic health and rural development.

In his role, Sager works to persuade lawmakers to support the SDC, using both self-interest and solidarity as arguments for supporting sustainable development efforts worldwide. One disturbing trend, he said, is that he finds himself emphasizing self-interest more and more often.

“We all have an interest in strong markets and stable countries,” he said. “But at the same time it would be a mistake to ignore that there is a moral imperative involved.”

The problem with emphasizing self-interest above all else is that it makes sustainable development “negotiable,” Sager said. “All of a sudden, you start to balance all these competing interests, and you begin to ask why we should send this money to foreign countries.”

He encouraged everyone at the discussion to recognize both the moral imperative and the inter-connected, multi-dimensional nature of the problems facing the world today.

“You are the future leaders,” he said. “If you don’t think about these issues in a complex way, no one else will.”

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