When US Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau opened the Bretton Woods Conference almost eighty years ago, he reminded delegates that failures of international cooperation had led to the Great Depression, social division, and ultimately war. “Prosperity, like peace, is indivisible,” he said.

That message speaks across the ages. We are again facing extraordinary global challenges that can be met only through international cooperation. Large swaths of the developing world are being excluded from global prosperity. Extreme poverty is rising.

Hard-won gains in health, education, and nutrition are under threat. Already obscene economic inequalities between and within countries are widening due to the Covid-19 pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The window of opportunity for averting a climate catastrophe is about to slam shut.

It may rightly be asserted then, that the start of the “Decade of Action” to achieve the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) has been marked by the start of an unprecedented period of overlapping crises. Against this grim backdrop, international cooperation for SDGs recovery has gained new urgency.

This renewed urgency was taken up by the first in-person meeting of the High-Level Political Forum (HLPF) in three years which reviewed five SDGs in particular: SDGs 4 (quality education), 5 (gender equality), 14 (life below water), 15 (life on land), and 17 (partnerships for the Goals).

The consideration of the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic across all SDGs and the integrated, indivisible, and interlinked nature of the Goals became an important underlying theme throughout the meeting.

Building Back Better

Eradicating poverty, combating climate change, and recovering from the Covid-19 pandemic are defining challenges of our time. They test the international community’s resolve to drive forward the 2030 Agenda to achieve the SDGs.

These challenges require increased solidarity, bold multilateral action, and strengthened partnerships to “build back better” by creating more sustainable, resilient, and inclusive societies.

As morning newspapers during the two-week conference were filled with stories about the Russian war in Ukraine, rollbacks in women’s rights, unprecedented heat waves, and the fall of three governments, countries were called on to prioritize action to form a blueprint of global recovery.

They were to ensure equitable vaccine access, tackle food and environmental security, and increase social protection for women among others.

The meeting’s first week also painted a sobering picture of progress across the five SDGs. On education, (SDG 4) countries reported significantly increased inequalities among learners due to the pandemic.

Similarly, on gender equality (SDG 5), many countries reported a worsening socio-economic situation for women, as well as increases in gender-based violence.

On SDG 15 (life on land) countries regretted “the missed opportunity” that more attention has not been paid to the need to transform the human-animal-environment interface.

Nevertheless, a cautious note of optimism emerged on SDG 14 (life below water), as delegates pointed to recent decisions to end plastic pollution.

Perhaps the most extraordinary feat of the conference was the “maturing” of the Voluntary National Review (VNR) process with many reviews offering an informative picture of countries’ circumstances.

Countries presented “a more honest” review of their SDG progress, moving away from the “country showcases” that characterized earlier VNR presentations, toward a more thorough assessment of successes and shortcomings.

 Extraordinary Times, Extraordinary Actions

It must be noted that progress moves at the speed of trust. With face-to-face interactions becoming more frequent now such as during HLPF 2022 the opportunities to build collective action will increase. In fact, HLPF 2022 was a testament to the fact that states can rally in the face of extraordinary times.

Yet, with most of the SDGs far from being achieved, and only eight years left to meet the global targets, how do we keep the commitments made at these conferences?

If anything needs to be taken back home from HLPF 2022, it is that we can find our way to achieving the SDGs in extraordinary times. Despite the cynicism, confusion, and obstructionist politics surrounding efforts to fight poverty, inequality, and environmental degradation, a breakthrough is possible.

Many of the world’s countries may appear unresponsive, but that can change. Ideas count. They can affect public policy far more profoundly and rapidly than detractors can imagine.

The SDGs represent a huge opportunity to rethink our approach to achieving prosperity globally. To do this, we need to start looking beyond crude measurements like GDP per capita which tell us little or nothing about people’s quality of life and their ability to flourish as individuals and communities.

As Morgenthau said, “the peoples of the Earth are inseparably linked by a deep underlying community of purpose.” Reading Morgenthau’s speech today is a jolting reminder of how a generation of political leaders sought to remake the world. More than that, it finds its contemporary relevance in underscoring that we can realize the SDGs even in extraordinary times.


*The writer is a senior year student of International Relations at Kinnaird College.