Michael Gerber on the Sustainable Development Goals
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Michael Gerber on the Sustainable Development Goals

Michael Gerber is advocating sustainable development as a special ambassador to the Swiss Confederation. In this interview, he speaks about the new global agenda in his field.

As Special Envoy to the Swiss Confederation, you have experienced how, after three intense years, the 193 nations of the UN adopted the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in September of this year. Is your work now done?

Basically, the biggest part of my assignment from the Swiss Federal Council was fulfilled when the new goals were adopted. For Switzerland, it is now important that we guide implementation of these new goals at the national level and monitor the process within the UN. For that purpose, there are plans to extend my assignment a little longer. I expect to help launch the processes accompanying the implementation, coordinate them, and represent Switzerland at the international level until mid-2016. Then that work will be integrated into the federal structure, where various offices will assume responsibility for execution.

Where do you see the main difference between the recently adopted SDGs and the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that were passed in 2000 and expire in 2015?

The new list of goals reaches further than the MDGs ever did. The Sustainable Development Goals represent a completely new agenda that incorporates a fair balance of the three dimensions (economic, social, and environmental) of sustainable development. What the MDGs could not accomplish will now be continued with even more ambition and hopefully achieved. One example is lowering infant and maternal mortality rates. However, their most important aspect is universality. The new goals apply to every nation and are intended to be implemented according to each nation's capacity. The MDGs were purely a UN agenda, primarily designed by the North for the South, in order to advance social development.

To which of the sustainability goals has the Swiss government dedicated itself for the next fifteen years with respect to Switzerland?

What's clear is that all of the goals apply to Switzerland because the agenda is universal. However, there are some goals that have been tailored to industrialized nations, for instance, SDG 12 on ensuring sustainable consumption and production patterns. Yet even sustainable cities and human settlements and access to sustainable and modern energy are issues that we need to tackle as an industrialized nation. Switzerland, however, has yet to issue a statement of interpretation since these processes will not begin until next year. For the time being, the Federal Council's strategy on sustainable development for 2016 to 2019 is being renewed. The implementation of the 2030 Agenda, however, exceeds the Federal Council's strategy. A detailed program for putting it into practice cannot be expected before 2017/2018.

How do you view the role of the private sector, especially the banking sector, in accomplishing these ambitious goals?

The private sector was directly involved in the process of creating the SDGs, and it did a very good job. When it comes to execution, it is extremely important for all players to do their part. As you know, this traditional means of collaboration makes only a small but significant contribution to the implementation of the 2030 Agenda. Especially when we talk about executing it in industrialized nations, there is no development aid, so the investment has to be made in some other way. The private sector is the main driver of development worldwide. For example, nine out of every ten jobs in developing countries today are created by the private sector. The banking sector, too, offers tremendous potential. In 2013, the volume of sustainable financial investments in Switzerland reached 57 billion francs after climbing steadily since 2005. The area of public-private partnerships also shows the potential for growth when it comes to spending in sectors relevant to the SDGs. By sharing and correctly assessing the risks, those investments can encourage increased financial commitments in countries of the southern hemisphere.

Where do you currently see the biggest challenge in the collaboration and partnership between governments, the private sector, researchers, and NGOs in relation to sustainable development over the next 15 years?

I don't see any hazard in those kinds of partnerships as long as people are willing to adapt and put forth an effort. Again and again, there are projects that fail or have effects other than the one desired. Either way, negative impact on the populace should be avoided – for instance, by taking a do-no-harm approach. As long as people learn from those kinds of undertakings, our programs will become more and more effective. That is why I see huge potential in these multi-stakeholder partnerships.

Nine out of every ten jobs in developing countries today are created by the private sector.

Michael Gerber

How do you respond to the criticism that individual goals are contradictory and may compete with one another?

One key aspect of this new agenda is that the goals are very closely intertwined. So, there are indeed various goals that appear more than once in similar form. Departing from the silo approach taken by the MDGs with their individual, independent objectives, the SDGs are designed as an integrated agenda. If progress is made on one goal, it always has a positive effect on other goals as well. However, the same holds true for negative impact. If only little progress is made on any particular goal, then that may also slow progress in a different area. In addition, at first glance there seem to be some contradictions: for example, the aspiration to feed more and more people and build infrastructure while at the same time emitting fewer and fewer greenhouse gases. However, different studies have revealed that more sustainable development is possible in both cases. For instance, the food situation can be improved simply by cutting down on food waste. One goal does not necessarily exclude the other, but some areas certainly do present great challenges.

Are you confident that the global community will try to implement the 2030 Agenda despite the current crises?

Overall, I am confident. You know, there have always been crises. The current refugee crisis, the likes of which have not been seen in Europe since World War II, is causing pessimism. Compare that with Africa, where there have never been as many democracies and so few conflicts as there are today. If you look at the world as a whole, you can say that the conditions have never been as ripe as they are now for making progress in the area of sustainable development.

What will the world have to look like in 2030 for you to say the SDGs have been implemented successfully?

The SDGs are so ambitious that we probably won't achieve all 17 goals completely, even though I am firmly convinced that it would be possible. However, there are factors, such as crises and conflicts, that are very difficult to overcome. Reality will show that the agenda is probably too ambitious, but I firmly believe that we need to set ambitious goals in order for them to have an effect, and so that people will make a significant commitment toward achieving as much as possible. Personally, I believe that the agenda is mainly intended to cause us to change course and move toward sustainable development. The picture of a sustainable world, such as the one laid out by Switzerland in its long-term vision for 2050 – eliminating extreme poverty in all its forms while being careful not to exceed the Earth's capacity, promote peace and an inclusive society, and fulfill human rights obligations – will take more than 15 years to be fully implemented. The SDGs have now put us on that path.