Secretary-General António Guterres addresses world leaders at the 77th UN General Assembly. Photo: Cia Pak / UN Photo
Revisit the moments, speeches, and calls to action that defined UNGA 77 — and go behind the main stages to meet the change-makers who made a difference.
UN Secretary-General António Guterres opened the General Debate of the 77th session of the UN General Assembly (UNGA) with a blunt assessment: “Our world is in peril — and paralyzed.”
From the podium at UN headquarters, he pleaded with heads of state and high-level officials representing nearly all 193 UN Member States to overcome the geopolitical tensions that are holding progress hostage.
Leaders echoed the Secretary-General’s appeal for more effective global cooperation. The overwhelming majority zeroed in on one of the biggest impediments to global cooperation, peace, and stability right now: the war in Ukraine.
Leaders did not hold back in forcefully condemning Russia’s invasion of its neighboring country, calling it an affront to the values and principles enshrined in the UN Charter and a devastating example of the interconnected and fragile nature of our planet’s food and fuel supplies. Speaking to the General Assembly by video from Ukraine, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy declared: “We are ready for peace. But true, honest and fair peace. That’s why the world is on our side.”
Strengthening the Multilateral System
From leaders’ speeches to side events, one refrain reverberated: It’s time to rethink multilateralism.
This means modernizing the international system to be more inclusive and responsive. “It is time for multilateralism to reflect the voice of the farmers, represent the hopes of villagers, champion the aspirations of pastoralists, defend the rights of fisherfolk, express the dreams of traders, respect the wishes of workers and, indeed, protect the welfare of all peoples of the Global South,” Kenya President William Samoei Ruto said during his speech before the General Assembly.
The UN Secretary-General’s Envoy on Youth, Jayathma Wickramanayake, reinforced this point, speaking at an UNGA preview hosted by Financial Times in partnership with the UN Foundation. “We cannot solve new problems with old solutions, or with the same people in the room,” she told the audience.
"We cannot solve new problems with old solutions, or with the same people in the room."
UN Secretary-General’s Envoy on Youth
Accelerating Progress on the 2030 Agenda
The countdown to the halfway point for the 2030 Development Agenda is on, and calls echoed throughout UNGA 77 for faster progress toward achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Right now no country is on track to achieve the 17 Goals by 2030, and we’re losing hard-won gains in health, food security, equality, and education as a result of COVID-19, conflict, and climate change. The “SDGs are issuing an SOS,” Mr. Guterres proclaimed.
Enter the SDG Stimulus. The Secretary-General called on the G20 last week to launch an initiative to scale up financing for developing economies that are burdened by the global debt crisis and whose financing available to meet the Global Goals is limited. Though the SDG Stimulus would be an interim measure, it would have the potential to boost momentum for the 2030 Agenda before it’s too late.
While much of the SDG conversation last week focused on international cooperation, some UNGA attendees turned their attention to one country in particular — the United States — to examine a growing national movement to bring the Goals home. During an event on American leadership in advancing the SDGs, the UN Foundation and Brookings Institution invited elected officials, community organizers, and corporate leaders to share their stories of local action toward global change.
Elizabeth Cousens, President and CEO of the UN Foundation, speaks at "American Leadership in Advancing the Sustainable Development Goals." Photo: Carbon Stories / UN Foundation
“We need to be clear about the challenges and be honest that advancing the Goals means departing from ‘business as usual,’” UN Foundation President and CEO Elizabeth Cousens said during the event, which also put the private sector’s efforts to embrace the SDGs in the spotlight.
Bolstering Climate Ambition Ahead of COP27
World leaders also referenced the climate crisis frequently, and forcefully, throughout UNGA this year. The Secretary-General set the tone for the week, calling it the “defining issue of our time” in his opening address, and unequivocally stating that it must be the top priority for every government and multilateral organization.
As if to underscore that point, UNGA 77 took place against a backdrop of climate catastrophes, from Pakistan’s devastating floods to drought and near-famine conditions in the Horn of Africa to the destruction caused by Hurricane Fiona in the Caribbean.
Pakistan Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif opened his General Debate statement by describing the recent floods in his country: “I have come here to explain firsthand the scale and magnitude of this climate catastrophe, which has pushed one-third of my country under water in a superstorm that no one has seen in living memory.”
Leaders of other climate-vulnerable countries, including those from Small Island Developing States, were vocal about the unbearable cost of the climate crisis. Prime Minister of Barbados Mia Mottley declared: “Any attempt to deny that the climate crisis has man-made origins is an attempt to delude ourselves and to admit that we want to be accomplices in the continuing death and loss.”
Prime Minister of Barbados Mia Amor Mottley presents her statement during the General Debate at the 77th Session of the UN General Assembly. Photo: Cia Pak / UN Photo
The return of in-person diplomacy at UNGA this year also presented opportunities for leaders to gather and push for bigger and bolder climate action. The Secretary-General convened heads of state for a climate roundtable to galvanize action ahead of COP27, which will take place in Egypt in just over a month.
Of note, Denmark announced during UNGA that it will pay other countries for “loss and damage” related to climate change. This was not only a remarkable demonstration of solidarity and climate leadership, it was also historic as Denmark was the first UN Member State to take such a step.
The Biden Administration also used the opportunity to convene world leaders on the margins of UNGA, hosting a Global Food Security Summit to push for a bigger collective response to the global food crisis in order to avert extreme hunger and even famine for hundreds of millions of people around the world. And the U.S. walked the talk, announcing over $2.9 billion in aid to address global food insecurity.
Outside New York, the Administration also hosted the Global Clean Energy Action Forum in Pittsburgh at the end of UNGA 77, shining a light on the unprecedented opportunity to accelerate the clean energy transition, which would help us meet our climate goals while also expanding economic opportunities and bolstering energy security.
World leaders gather at the 2022 Global Fund Replenishment Conference. Photo: The Global Fund/Tim Knox
Taking on AIDS, TB, and Malaria
Topping the global health agenda was the 7th Global Fund Replenishment Conference. Hosted by U.S. President Joe Biden on the sidelines of UNGA, the Conference was held to fund the next phase of the Global Fund’s work to end three of the world’s deadliest infectious diseases: AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria.
Heads of state from around the world attended what President Biden called “one of the largest global health fundraisers ever in all of history” to announce their country’s pledge toward the $18 billion target. The Conference ultimately raised $14.25 billion — a record for a multilateral health organization, but still short of the $18 billion needed to save 20 million lives in the year ahead.
"We have reason to celebrate. But the job is not yet done…This is the time to double down."
Dr. Donald Kaberuka
Global Fund Board Chair
With a call to action of “fight for what counts,” the effort to secure the resources it will take to end these diseases and build more equitable, resilient health systems is far from over. At the Conference, Dr. Donald Kaberuka, Chair of the Global Fund Board, stated: “The world has demonstrated that HIV, malaria and TB can be conquered by science, leadership and a critical mass of resources. We have reason to celebrate. But the job is not yet done. … This is the time to double down.”
And there is still time. Donors have a few more weeks to step up in solidarity and pledge their support for the international partnership’s next cycle of work from 2023 to 2025.
Young People Led the Way at UNGA
Today, UNGA is so much more than speeches and heads of state. And much of the diplomatic work, creative problem-solving, and coalition-building happened outside the security zone — by young people being forced to deal with crises they did not create.
It was abundantly clear that they aren’t sitting on the sidelines waiting for change to happen. They’re creating change.
From revolutionizing education to radically reducing the planet’s use of fossil fuels, young people shook the table at UNGA, holding leaders accountable and speaking truth to power, including issuing a Youth Declaration on the right to learn.
Take Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani education activist and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, who spoke at the Transforming Education Summit about the fundamental importance of education to every Goal in the 2030 Agenda: “If you are serious about creating a safe, sustainable future for our children, then you must get serious about education,” she declared.
Or Gianna Lum, the founder of Albedo Climate Solutions who joined the Global Climate Strike in New York City and wasn’t afraid to tell it like it is when making the case for putting people above profit, explaining that “money is not going to matter if all the people … and all the biodiversity and animals on the planet are dead.”
People of all ages and backgrounds gathered for the Fridays for Future Climate Strike in New York on September 23, 2022. Photo: Carbon Stories / UN Foundation
Or Alliyah Logan, the founder of Cultivate Global Education who encouraged us to “dare to reimagine education globally” at Unlock the Future of Learning, an event hosted in part by the UN Foundation that brought together some of the largest youth-led and youth-focused organizations with champions of all types for dynamic discussions about education in the 21st century. This daylong event reached 800 million people across 6 continents.
No matter where they were at UNGA 77, young people made it abundantly clear: The planet can’t address its greatest challenges and fulfill its greatest potential unless young people are meaningfully included in the discussions and decisions that affect their lives and futures the most. Alice Mukashyaka, the UN Foundation’s Next Generation Fellow for Education, summed it up: “No action without us, the young people.”
The Push for Girls and Women to be Equal Everywhere — including at UNGA
The underrepresentation of women at the highest levels of government was on full display at UNGA again this year.
On the sidelines of UNGA 77, Michelle Milford Morse, our Vice President for Girls and Women Strategy, participated in the SDG Action Zone’s Achieving Gender Equality session, saying: “I want the first speaker at the General Assembly to be a woman head of state, and then I want a parade of women heads of state to follow her.” Unfortunately, we have a long way to go. Only 11% of speakers at this year’s General Debate were women. And of 193 UN Member states, just 28 are led by women.
But the continued lack of representation at the highest levels of power isn’t stopping women from being change-makers and blazing a trail toward a more equitable world for all. This was on full display as Michelle hosted a panel of working mothers to discuss equalizing domestic labor. At “Fair Play: Alleviating the Unpaid Care Burden to Advance Gender Equality,” the audience got a preview of a documentary highlighting the invisible, and unpaid, care work shouldered by billions of girls and women worldwide.
Fair Play screening and discussion at the Ford Foundation Center for Social Justice in New York, Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2022. Photo: Stuart Ramson / UN Foundation
For every voice raised at UNGA demanding gender equality, there was yet another reminder why the fight for girls’ and women’s rights is more crucial than ever: the growing protests in Iran and elsewhere over the death of Mahsa Amini; the girls and women from Puerto Rico to Pakistan bearing the brunt of climate change; the girls and women being abused and raped in Ukraine, South Sudan, and other conflict-torn countries. All of these heartbreaking realities underscore why girls and women must lead and be included wherever decisions about them are being made. Encouragingly, we heard louder and more urgent conversations at this year’s UNGA about the specific gender dimension of global challenges like climate change.
At an event hosted by the UN Foundation and Estee Lauder, American activist, poet, and UNICEF supporter Amanda Gorman told a packed audience how she writes from “the place of the wound” because “that’s where the light comes in.”
“We must go the distance, though this battle is hard and huge.”@TheAmandaGorman delivered a moving poem during today’s #SDGMoment, reminding us that we all hold the power to shape our fate.