Experts Discuss: What to Expect at the UN General Assembly in 2023

By Megan Rabbitt on August 18, 2023

UN Secretary-General António Guterres is pictured on his way to the opening of the UN Climate Action Summit in September 2019. This year, the UN Chief will convene the Climate Ambition Summit during the 78th Session of the UN General Assembly, a political milestone for climate action. Photo: UN Photo/Ariana Lindquist

The UN General Assembly is back — and bigger than ever. Not that it went anywhere. But after three years of virtual and hybrid convenings, along with a heavy dose of uncertainty during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, there’s soaring expectancy for the most important date on the UN’s calendar.

As the 78th session of the UN General Assembly (UNGA) approaches, anticipation for the annual event is higher than it has been in years.

Kate Dodson, Vice President for Global Health Strategy at the UN Foundation, chalks it up to the “sheer size” of UNGA this year, which she calls both “a symptom and a consequence of the moment we’re in.”

Drawing people to UNGA this year is the all-important SDG Summit. Held just once every four years, this year’s Summit marks the halfway point to the 2030 deadline for implementing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Also dominating the agenda: the UN Secretary-General’s no-nonsense Climate Ambition Summit and not one but three high-level meetings on health.

We brought together leaders at the UN Foundation to consider the staggering stakes for UNGA 78: Kate, along with Caroline Kleinfox, Director of U.S. SDG Policy Planning; David Steven, Senior Fellow on the Future of Multilateralism; Harshani Dharmadasa, Senior Director, Global Partnerships and Initiatives; Inés Yábar, Lead Next Generation Fellow; Julie Kofoed, Senior Director for Sustainable Development Initiatives; Michelle Milford Morse, Vice President for Girls and Women Strategy; and Pete Ogden, Vice President for Climate and Environment.

Halftime for the Sustainable Development Goals

The whistle has blown: It’s halftime on the SDGs. And according to Harshani Dharmadasa, the SDG Summit provides “a unique moment for the UN to look back as well as forward, to take stock of how far we’ve come and how much more we can — and must — achieve in the next seven years.”

David Steven: The SDG Summit is absolutely essential. I’ve often said that SDG Summits are like the Olympics of the SDGs, this big event that happens only once every four years. But unless we can use this moment to drive the second half of the 2030 Agenda with a real focus on ambition and delivery, then we will begin to see momentum dwindle for the SDGs.

Michelle Milford Morse: I love sports. And I love the idea that we’re all about to go into the locker room at halftime on the SDGs. And we’re down and we’re losing, and, yes, we feel a little demoralized. But we’ve got to get back on the field, and we need to imagine winning this game. And so what do we need to say to each other at this Summit in order to get back on the field in the right frame of mind and ready to win? I’m energized because there will be sparks of that in September; there will be things that compel us to lace up our shoes, hydrate, and get ready to win. I love the SDGs, and I’m not going to give up on them, and I’m looking for other people who feel the same.

Julie Kofoed: I want to see Member States actually commit to make real progress on the SDGs. At this point, seven years in, we don’t need to see lofty commitments to the SDGs as a whole. We did that already in 2015, when everyone first agreed to the SDGs. The real question now is, what are they going to do to actually implement them?

I thought it was so interesting when the Secretary-General said in an address at the beginning of the year that he expects Member States to come to the Summit with clear benchmarks and commitments. By bringing in the idea of benchmarks, he was taking a page from the climate playbook, since countries are expected to ratchet up their climate commitments at regular intervals under the Paris Agreement. Applying that model to the SDGs is a new approach, and one that he doubled down on a few months later. I hope Member States have been listening and will show up with very concrete benchmarks and national action plans. Countries like Finland and Germany have used action plans to make progress on the SDGs, but I’d like to see more Member States take this on.

Caroline Kleinfox: I think we see a lot of really inspiring creativity and innovation happening around the SDGs at the local level. That’s certainly true in the U.S., where I focus my work. By taking up the SDGs, non-state actors can drive progress forward even when leadership at the national level is lacking.

Turning Climate Ambition Into Climate Action

Delivering on the SDGs will demand big, bold climate action. But while the countdown to 2030 is on for the SDGs, time is running out to avoid climate catastrophe.

With an average elevation of less than two meters above sea level, the South Pacific nation of Tuvalu is extremely vulnerable to the adverse impacts of climate change. Rising sea levels and extreme weather events are inundating low-lying areas while coastal erosion wreaks havoc on the western side of the islands in particular. Photo: Asian Development Bank

Pete Ogden: I’ll be watching to see whether leaders use the SDG Summit as an opportunity to stitch together the climate-related SDGs with the rest of the framework. They are integrally related — one is not going to succeed without the other — so it will be interesting to see how leaders address that in the commitments they make.

I’m also eager to see if Member States, like China, make substantial new climate commitments. Heads of State sometimes use the platform that the General Assembly provides to make their big climate commitment for the year. It says a lot about the significance of UNGA that they don’t hold those announcements for the annual COP [UN Climate Change Conference] or G20 summits, or for any other moment on the diplomatic calendar.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres will also hold a Climate Ambition Summit to accelerate action by leaders — and not just government leaders, but also by the private sector and other non-state actors. It will create a political moment to empower who the Secretary-General calls the “first movers and doers,” those who are truly demonstrating what it means to be 1.5°C-aligned, to deliver climate finance, to enhance climate resilience, and more.

It’s going to be informative, also, to see exactly where and how opportunities are being seized, and also where the most work remains to be done. On the latter, this moment will ratchet up the pressure on those who have made commitments that they are not living up to yet. Accountability has been a huge focus for the Secretary-General — and one that sets the bar high for what needs to happen not just at his Summit but at the end of the year at COP 28, and beyond.

We’re Already Struggling to Remember What COVID-19 Taught Us

“Pandemics are hard teachers,” as Kate Dodson puts it. Unless we want to see history repeat itself, political leaders need to remember — and apply — the hard-learned lessons of COVID-19.

Shazia Aziz helps her six-year-old daughter, Zahira Aziz, sanitize her hands during the COVID-19 lockdown in Pakistan. Photo: Rahim Mirza/Asian Development Bank

Kate Dodson: There are three health-related high-level meetings happening during UNGA, on pandemic preparedness, universal health coverage, and tuberculosis. In any given year, that would be an unprecedented number of high-level meetings, but during this especially crowded year, it’s all the more significant.

Just three years after COVID-19 brought the world to its knees, political attention was waning when it came to correcting some of the failings in both global cooperation and national responses and preparedness that we saw during the pandemic. So over 130 Member States came together to request a high-level meeting on pandemic preparedness to make sure it stays on the top of the political agenda. Heads of State now have an opportunity at UNGA to make new commitments to enhance national preparedness and response capacities, including at the subnational and community levels.

David: When we look ahead to what will happen next year and in the years that follow, we have to get better at preventing and responding to emergencies — whether health threats like COVID-19, or threats to peace and security, or environmental disasters. Because if the international system keeps being hit by emergencies and disasters, it can’t think about the medium- and long-term agenda in an effective way.

Kate: One of the biggest things the last three-and-a-half years taught us is how essential it is to have resilient health systems that can continue to deliver care while withstanding shocks. So we’re seeing a deeper level of appreciation for universal health coverage, and more widespread recognition that it is unequivocally essential to deliver on the promise of SDG 3: good health and well-being for all. And across all of the SDGs for that matter.

Preparing for Future Generations, Now

“The SDGs are the most effective and powerful investment we can make in the future,” explains David. It’s why the SDG Summit is already setting the stage for the Summit of the Future in 2024.

Young people rally in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 2022 to celebrate Earth Day and push for policies that advance climate justice from government at the local, state, and national levels. Photo: Mark Dixon

Inés Yábar: The UN is starting to talk about intergenerational cooperation more and more, and it is really investing in young people. I’m excited about what that means for the future of multilateralism.

Harshani Dharmadasa: It’s crazy because when you look across different generations and whether they believe in multilateralism or global cooperation, the biggest champions are young people. They get the necessity of working together to solve shared problems. So it’s exciting to see the UN thinking about its future by investing in its base, which is young people.

Caroline: I’ve also been really excited to see more examples of intergenerational action on the SDGs, specifically. We’ll be highlighting a great example from Hawaii at our annual event on the sidelines of UNGA this year. A few ninth grade students are even coming to speak alongside partners, including the Governor of Hawaii, about the work they’ve been doing to integrate the SDGs into the state’s sustainability goals. They’re demonstrating the intergenerational power and opportunity of the 2030 Agenda.

David: Already, we’re beginning to think toward the Summit of the Future, which will take place during UNGA in 2024. It’s an opportunity to think about the 8 billion people worldwide who are currently alive, as well as the next 8 billion who will follow. And this year’s SDG Summit provides a critical bridge to 2024: Delivering the SDGs in countries with young and growing populations is the most effective and powerful investment we can make in the future.

Julie: I would really like to see Member States commit to some sort of long-term vision during this year’s ministerial meeting on the Summit of the Future. It could be, for example, similar to Agenda 21, which set long-term goals for the planet at the 1992 Earth Summit in Brazil. I’m really looking to see that sort of long term-ism emerge.

David: Yes, we have to be thinking about how we can build an international system that can help Member States think, plan, and act for the future. Because the countries that have the greatest proportion of future generations tend to have the least capacity for long-term thinking and planning. And it will take collective action through the international system to move away from our current system where older, richer elites, mostly in the Global North, dominate the political agenda at the expense of both young people in the Global South and generations who have yet to be born across the world.

Inés: I also want to see less focus on what is said during speeches by those who already have power, and more on what’s actually being done on the ground. Because I see young people all over the world who are taking action on climate change or on gender equality, even though they may not realize how their work supports the larger SDG framework. And even though they are not necessarily in the spaces where decisions are being made, they are leading in their local contexts. There’s value in recognizing that.

Equity in Focus at UNGA 78

Whether it’s the SDGs, climate action, or global health, equity is emerging at the center of all conversations surrounding UNGA 78. But to really leave no one behind, leaders need to walk the talk.

A joint UN program is empowering Indigenous women living in Guatemala’s Polochic Valley, increasing their skills, access to credit, and awareness of their rights. Rural women participants are feeding their families, growing their businesses and saving more money than ever before. The program represents the pursuit of Leave No One Behind — the central, transformative promise of the SDGs, and a commitment to end discrimination and exclusion of marginalized and underrepresented groups. Photo: Ryan Brown/UN Women

Kate: There has been a lot of talk about equity surrounding UNGA this year, and rightly so. Our partners in the Global South are looking to correct the systemic and structural imbalances that allow players in the Global North to disproportionately influence the international system.

Pete: It almost goes without saying that inequity is at the heart of our climate challenge; the people who are already suffering the most are the ones who contributed the least to climate change. There has been continual frustration and pressure to right this wrong, and to make good on all of the promises that the international community has broken. There will be a tangible opportunity at both the SDG Summit and the Climate Ambition Summit to start demonstrating commitment to making good on those promises.

Michelle: You pay for what you care about. It is no good to have a policy or a program that is completely unfunded. So I need to see conversations around finance grounded in equity and opportunity.

David: Conversations around equity very easily become a lot of rhetoric that doesn’t end up leading to any real change. To fix that, we need more diverse leadership. Just look at how Mia Mottley, the Prime Minister of Barbados, was able to reignite the finance debate and bring forward the Bridgetown Initiative. We also need to invest in equity. This is a question of both where more money is going to come from and where the investable opportunities are — where are the smart buys that are really going to drive change.

Michelle: I need to see governments of all kinds unlock real resources for their gender equality programs, which by the way acts as rocket fuel for everything else we care about — from health to climate to economic growth, and more. And not only is gender equality severely underfunded, it’s also too often overlooked.

Right now, I’m in the same place that I often am in early August, which is looking at the priorities and schedule of events for UNGA and asking myself: Where are the women leaders? Where’s the focus on gender equality? Last year, only 12% of the speakers in the general debate were women. That’s pitiful. And it means we’re leaving the perspectives and needs of too many people unseen, unheard, and not taken seriously enough. I want Heads of State and Government at the podium in the General Assembly Hall to forcefully, without apology, say that the rights and the futures of half our human family matters — a lot. That girls and women and all their diversity are free to enjoy their rights. And they’re free to have equal opportunity.

Caroline: Look, if this was easy, we wouldn’t need the SDGs. Because at the heart of achieving the SDGs is equity. True, actionable SDG pathways will always inherently seek to end inequity and find more equitable ways forward. At their best, the SDGs are a framing of hope.

Final Words: Why Does UNGA Matter?

UN Secretary-General António Guterres visits the Asa Wright Nature Centre — a nature resort and scientific research station located in the Arima Valley — in Trinidad and Tobago, a climate-vulnerable country in the Caribbean. Photo: UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

David: Everything in our lives is influenced by global forces these days, and UNGA is the only gathering that brings together leaders from governments and beyond to try and build a world that is less screwed up than the one we live in.

Julie: I would highlight the inclusive, networked, and effective multilateralism because UNGA is not just a place for Heads of States to stand on podiums and make speeches. There’s a place for all people to engage with UNGA, whether at the grassroots level or as individual citizens or the private sector. Everyone can get involved.

Michelle: I’m going to say: For the world we want. That’s what this is about. There’s no other reason to do this unless we believe that there’s a better world that we want and deserve to have, and we’re going to use moments like this to go get it.


Whether you will be in New York City or online, there are countless ways to get involved with UNGA. The UN Foundation’s UNGA Hub has the latest news, insights, and updates — plus details on events you don’t want to miss.