Dec. 01 2015

Sustainable Development Is Everyone's Business

Ambassador Hahn Choong-Hee of South Korea joins students in a discussion of the UN Sustainable Development Goals

For Ambassador Hahn Choong-Hee, deputy permanent representative of the Republic of Korea to the United Nations, the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs, have something for everyone.

Speaking at a student-led talk organized by the Department of Population and Family Health at the Mailman School, Ambassador Hahn explained that unlike their predecessors, the Millennium Development Goals, the SDGs contain far-reaching objectives for health, safety, and human rights, to which even developed nations like South Korea and the United States must devote energy and resources. Ambassador Hahn, who was part of SDG negotiations, explained that the process to agree on the goals was also more inclusive of non-governmental organizations and civil society groups, each who added their own agendas. This kind of collaboration is just as important going forward. “This is not just an agenda for government,” said Hahn. “Everyone should be aware of and contribute to this process.”

“People should be first and foremost,” Hahn said. Like the U.S. Constitution, the UN charter, begins with the words, “we the people,” signaling a premium on human rights, justice, and above all, human dignity. Driven by the slogan, “leave no one behind,” Hahn explained that the SDGs work to protect vulnerable groups like women, children, people with disabilities, and refugees, always incorporating a humanistic perspective into development strategies. 

Confronting the Ambassador’s point directly, one student asked if it is fair that the SDGs ask all countries to achieve the same set of goals, no matter if they are a small, rich country like Finland or a large, developing country like India. “Each society has its unique history and experience of development,” Hahn answered, adding, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. “Each country should develop its own ways to achieve those goals as much as possible based on their specific national circumstances and context.”

Another controversial example is North Korea. While the country is a signatory to the SDGs, it scores very low on human rights and international cooperation. Will that change? Hahn hopes so, though there is no enforcement mechanism. Instead, the goals are seen to incentivize themselves through dividends from higher living standards to better health. Speaking of all countries, he said, “If they cannot reach those goals and targets, they cannot enjoy the benefits.”

Global Citizenship Needed

Just as all sectors were invited to participate in shaping the SDGs, the success of the goals requires continued participation from all quarters. Bringing everyone to the table means some rethinking of traditional roles, Hahn said. Governments are used to leading the process, while the private sector seeks to be socially responsible but is driven by the profit motive. Non-governmental organizations are often ready with criticism but without substantive solutions. And more often than not, academia has stayed on the sidelines.

But increasingly, universities are broadening their mission to an active role on issues of economic and social development. Hahn pointed to the UN’s Global University Network for Innovation, or UNAI (United Nations Academic Impact), which counts 1,000 members who work toward social goals like helping developing countries build capacities under the rubric of “intellectual social responsibility.” Beginning in kindergarten, Hahn said, schools need to teach the idea of global citizenship, which encompasses human dignity, global issues like climate change or violent extremism and the responsibility to live together peacefully and help people in need.

Students too should make their voices heard. “This agenda will eventually affect your life in terms of economic growth, social justice, and inequality—all important economic, social, and environmental issues,” Hahn said. “It becomes your agenda.”

Not surprisingly, some Mailman students are already deeply engaged.

Doctoral student Santi Kusumaningrum, who moderated the discussion, was present at meetings in Indonesia and New York that led to the SDGs. Representing her organization, the Center on Child Protection at the University of Indonesia, Kusumaningrum successfully advocated for justice, good governance, and the availability of a legal identity documents. “That was a very strong message from the government and civil society,” said Kusumaningrum, “and [the targets] made it through to the UN process and are now included in the document.”