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Climate displaced people in Somalia at a watering hole

Photo: Brian Otieno / DER SPIEGEL

In 17, the United Nations agreed on a total of 2015 Sustainable Development Goals. By 2030, extreme poverty and hunger should be ended, child mortality should be significantly reduced and the proportion of women in parliaments and companies should be increased. Now it's half-time. At the end of September, the UN wants to take stock of the situation at a major summit. It is already clear that many things have gotten worse, not better. Achim Steiner, head of the UN Development Programme, reveals how the world can perhaps still be saved.

MIRROR: In a recent interim report by the UN Secretariat on the Sustainable Development Goals, it says: "We must sound the alarm bells!" Why?

Steiner: We live in a time when a lot of things are not going according to plan. The setbacks from the corona pandemic may already be forgotten in the richer countries, but the shock waves are still clearly felt in the poorer countries. In addition, there is the war in Ukraine, which is leading to rising food prices worldwide. The number of people living in extreme poverty, famines, armed conflicts, the economic conditions, all this has deteriorated drastically. Many of the goals we have set ourselves will not be achieved by 2030. This is now becoming apparent.

MIRROR: After 2015, things seemed to be looking up; in the meantime, even hunger was considered almost defeated. That's over.

Steiner: You have to look at it in a more differentiated way. In fact, we live in a time of enormous setbacks. But the glass is still half full. What the world has experienced in the last three to four years could not be planned in any way. No one really believed that within a few weeks we would be confronted with a global pandemic that would hit the entire global economy so radically. Climate change is advancing faster and faster. On the other hand, we are also witnessing a trend towards more and more investments in renewable energies. We have made further progress towards this goal than many could have imagined a few years ago.

SPIEGEL: Protests are already taking place in several countries, partly because of the rise in food prices. Is there a threat of an unstable world?

Steiner: This danger not only exists, it is increasingly becoming a reality. The SDGs were born precisely out of the consideration that a world in which poverty and inequality increase and opportunities disappear creates tension and political polarization. In extreme cases, we see countries in crisis. Let's look again at the example of Sri Lanka: the country became insolvent last year, there were riots and, in the end, the collapse of the government.

Nearly 60 developing countries are currently on the verge of defaulting on their debts. National budgets are no longer in a position to invest in social security systems and, for example, to counter the effects of climate change. Cuts must be made everywhere. That can't go well. Our security also depends on helping poor countries.

MIRROR: Again and again, the United Nations calls for more money from the Global North to support poorer countries. So far, the appeals have not really had much effect.

Steiner: It is disappointing how much countries focus on their own problems, ignoring the fact that they cannot stabilize their economies in isolation from five billion people in developing countries. That is why the UN Secretary-General has presented a stimulus plan for the development goals. It is not just about traditional development cooperation, but also about concessional loans and a package of incentives for the private sector. This should lead to more capital flowing into the developing countries and ultimately an economic upswing can succeed there.

MIRROR: Many highly indebted countries are calling for debt relief. Do you support this demand?

Steiner: So far, the creditors have not been able to bring themselves to do so sufficiently. This is a missed opportunity. This creates crises, which ultimately leads to growing flows of refugees, political unrest and extremism. Today, the world hasa total wealthof about 450 trillion US dollars. This is an almost unimaginable sum. And it means that the resources are absolutely sufficient. The latest estimate assumes a need of three trillion US dollars per year to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.

MIRROR: So the short-sighted stinginess of the Global North is throwing the world into disarray?

Steiner: I wouldn't adopt this term as my own, but we see a lack of understanding in the industrialized countries of why it is necessary to act with a different horizon in a crisis situation like today's. I sometimes wonder why we are so oblivious to history. Germany and Europe were only able to recover after the Second World War because there was a Marshall Plan. But the richest countries in the world currently spend an average of just 0.36 percent of their gross domestic product on development cooperation; and some even use this share to finance the costs of refugee accommodation in their own country. We act neither wisely nor consistently, and thus lose confidence in the Global South.

MIRROR: At the same time, political self-confidence is increasing in many African countries. You don't want to sit at the cat table anymore, you want to be an equal. What does this mean for Europe?

Steiner: In recent years, we in Europe have always understood Africa as a continent of development cooperation and not as a future economic partner. And this is against the backdrop of the fact that up to two billion people will live on the African continent by the middle of this century. That is, the economy of European countries is also inevitably associated with the economic development of Africa.

On the African continent, people feel misunderstood and experience how international politics is conducted with very different standards. If war breaks out in Europe, a great deal of money will be mobilised within a few months. But for international development, we are not in a position to do so for many years, and it is always said that the money is not there. This, of course, has led many in Africa to ask themselves: Where do we actually stand in our relationship with Europe? The continent is looking for new partners, on the one hand because the countries want to overcome old dependencies, but also because new investments are urgently needed.

MIRROR: What does this mean for Europe?

Steiner: In the United States and Europe, there is a great deal of concern with relations with China, and in some cases they overlook the importance of Africa in this context as well. Especially on a continent like Africa, it would be a big mistake to compete between systems. One should not try to pull countries to one side or outdo each other. In Africa, we need investment from Europe as well as from the USA, China and, increasingly, India.

MIRROR: The BRICS countries have just expanded, and they now also operate their own development bank, in competition with the World Bank, so to speak. How do you see this development?

Steiner: I see that as a positive thing. For years, the industrialized countries have been demanding that the large developing countries, the so-called "emerging economies", participate more in international cooperation. Of course, this always happens against a political background should come as no surprise to anyone. For some, the concept of the Brics nations is a threat at first. I would rather see it as an opportunity.

MIRROR: But autocratic states such as Saudi Arabia, Iran or Ethiopia are also to be added, in which human rights are disregarded. Is it really possible to rely on good cooperation?

Steiner: In fact, the cooperation already exists today. And if you want to deal with crises, wars and climate change globally, you shouldn't start with exclusion. The question is whether dialogue and cooperation will make progress on human rights more realistic.

MIRROR: There is also criticism of the development goals. It would place too much emphasis on economic growth. This is not compatible with sustainability.

Steiner: I can't understand that. In some countries, we first have to ensure basic services: food, access to electricity. These basic needs are reflected in the development goals. In addition, there are ambitious plans on topics such as climate change, biodiversity and air quality. In the end, many things are intertwined: you can't fight hunger if you don't create jobs. You can't promote health if you don't fight pollution.

MIRROR: So the previous targets will remain the same until 2030, even if they can hardly be met?

Steiner: The consensus of most countries is that they continue to identify with the goals. The world doesn't have anything better right now to bring us together. We are currently working on a rescue plan for the development goals. The Heads of State and Government must now urgently address the issue of financing. In the preparatory negotiations for the upcoming summit, this issue was not even remotely resolved.

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