The head of the United Nations’ training and research division is optimistic about the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and to what extent countries will comply with them. EURACTIV’s partner El País – Planeta Futuro reports.
Nikhil Seth has been executive director of the UN Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR) since 2015.
He spoke with El País – Planeta Futuro’s Alejandra Agudo.
Why is it important that political leaders receive training regarding the SDGs and climate change?
Agenda 2030 is a big shift in the way we look at development. I think it’s the first time all the UN countries have adopted an action plan that is so ambitious. But in order to implement it, all the principles that have been signed up to have to be understood and applied. Without political leadership the agenda will lose momentum. Maintaining commitment is essential to making it a reality.
Politicians are expected to make decisions that improve the lives of people, why do they need training then?
Evidence and science are essential in order to take action. How do you acquire evidence? How do we explain to legislators the impact that decisions can have on non-related factors? They need to be trained and need to be able to understand how science interacts with politics, because evidence is crucial before action is taken, and how the relationships between different subjects are important.
What’s the big lesson that political leaders should take on board regarding sustainable development and climate change?
I think that all leaders, not just political ones, but also academics, businessmen, scientists and researchers, need to understand that the aspirations of human beings, their fears, concerns and hopes, are all related to the economy, engineering, sociology, environment, laws, building a peaceful society… Unless this is understood, they will continue to make isolated decisions, regardless of how these issues relate to each other. How do we eradicate poverty? How do we get young people into work and make sure infrastructure is sustainable? How do we protect our marine ecosystems and the air we breathe? How these all fit together is the essence of sustainable development. A noted philosopher and economist from my country, Amartya Sen, has pinpointed the education of girls as the best way to head off problems and work towards fulfilling several other objectives.
How do we provide that kind of training?
We have training and courses, as well as many other programmes, that are not necessarily just for political leaders but for officials, the police, the army, environment and labour ministers… We especially focus on training people to train others themselves, so that we multiply the impact of these trainings in other countries. This helps to change minds and attitudes.
Which countries are looking for help?
According to our latest information, 70 of the most poorest countries, in Africa, as well as other countries that are emerging from conflict and many which are still embroiled in it, have sought our help in adding the SDGs to their national plans, in order to come to agreements with actors that are involved with development or creating statistic-based systems that aid progress monitoring. Even some of the most advanced countries have similar problems, for example, adapting their current laws to the goals. We see that when it comes to youth employment and other universal problems, not limited to just poorer countries. We have got public platforms like UN Climate Change Learning and other programmes that are specifically tailored to countries and their needs.
There is also training in diplomacy. Have lessons been learned?
We conduct two types of diplomatic training. One is basic, in that it helps people improve their speaking, report writing and law drafting skills, as well as strengthening negotiating techniques. We also provide specialised courses on more technical subjects, like intellectual property and certain health issues.
And does it work?
It works well. All diplomats that have attended our courses say they have helped them a lot when they operate in the multilateral world of diplomacy. They give them the knowledge needed in order to better defend national positions.
UNITAR also gives special course in promoting female leadership. Why aren’t we listening to women, necessitating these courses?
There are a lot of social prejudices that we carry around with us. It’s our historical baggage and getting over it is not easy. We need to work to change mentalities regarding the role of women and girls.
How is Donald Trump, who is a climate change denier and has shown no interest in working towards the sustainable goals, going to affect things?
Individuals are important but there are many actors with diverging opinions at a multilateral level. I lived in the US for 26 years and I know how complex it is. Awareness takes time. We will have to wait and see.
But it’s a strong message: if the US president doesn’t care about climate change so why should other leaders?
We’ve heard from China and India’s leaders, for example, particularly in renewable energy, not just because of price competitiveness, but because of energy security. China’s president voiced his concerns at the World Economic Forum about climate change and the development goals. I think there is hope. Our main problems, disease, drought, refugees, know no borders, so we need a collective effort.