What to Expect at UNGA 77

By Megan Rabbitt and Sueann Tannis on September 6, 2022

Young people gather in the United Nations General Assembly Hall during a UNA-USA Global Engagement Summit. Photo: UNA-USA / Stuart Ramson

The biggest moment on the diplomatic calendar is fast approaching. Here’s what experts across the UN Foundation will be watching for at this year’s UN General Assembly — and what’s at stake.

The 77th session of the UN General Assembly (UNGA 77) will bring together world leaders, civil society activists, private sector players, and young people from around the world for two weeks of speeches, summits, debate, and dialogue in New York City starting Sept. 13.

This year’s UNGA will take place against a backdrop of complex, interconnected crises. Conflict, climate change, and COVID-19 have exacerbated inequality, poverty, and hunger across the planet, particularly among the most vulnerable populations.

The need for global cooperation is more urgent than ever. The world is facing a stark choice: break down, or breakthrough.

As the UN Secretary-General put it in remarks to the General Assembly in August: “Business as usual will almost certainly guarantee a future of constant crises and devastating risks.”

Will global leaders seize this moment to make progress on some of our most intractable issues? Will they harness the power of collective action to overcome shared challenges? And will they recognize that just as these crises are linked, the solutions must be, too?

We asked our experts these questions and more. Here’s what they had to say about what to watch and what’s at stake at UNGA 77.

Saving our Planet

UNGA 77 comes at a critical moment for climate and the future of our planet. The consequences of a warming world have been impossible to ignore this summer, from devastating floods in Pakistan, to record-breaking heat waves across the U.S. and Europe. It’s clear: Time is running out to avoid catastrophic climate impacts.

The General Debate will be a key moment to watch, as world leaders deliver speeches that will lay out their government’s top priorities. “We very much expect and hope to see announcements around accelerated climate action, particularly from countries like China that have historically used this platform to make major climate announcements,” said Pete Ogden, the UN Foundation’s Vice President for Climate, Energy, and the Environment. But just as important, he added, will be whether leaders recognize the interconnectedness of climate to all of the other issues that will top the agenda, from peace and security to the global energy and food crises.

Hundreds of households were evacuated from the banks of the Niger River after a devastating flood. Displaced families frequently struggle to rebuild their lives after moving from fertile land to new arid locations. Photo: UNHCR / Colin Delfosse

In recent months, some of the biggest emitters have stepped up their climate commitments. That includes the United States, which just enacted the most consequential climate legislation in U.S. history. This sends a clear signal that the U.S. is serious about meeting its climate goals, which Pete called “an enormously positive piece of momentum carrying into this UNGA.”

And on the heels of UNGA, leaders will have the opportunity to turn words into concrete actions at the high-level clean energy ministerial convened by U.S. President Joe Biden on Sept. 22 and 23 in Pittsburgh. Pete described this as a chance for leaders to “walk the walk” and that together with UNGA, can kick-start the “end-of-the-year sprint” that will take us to the next UN Climate Change Conference (COP27) in the Egyptian city of Sharm el-Sheik in November.

Simply put, what leaders do — and do not — commit to at UNGA this year will have a profound effect on whether COP27 is successful later this fall.

Building a Healthier World for All

For three years now, COVID-19 has dominated conversations around UNGA, and this year, for the first time since 2019, UNGA will be held in person in New York City. This is a big deal. And according to our Vice President for Global Health Strategy Kate Dodson, the return of in-person diplomacy could lead to some unexpected alliances and, hopefully, diplomatic progress that might not have happened in a virtual setting.

But Kate was adamant that COVID-19 should still be top of mind as leaders gather in New York. “I think there’s a general sense that people want to put this pandemic behind us, but this pandemic is not done with us,” she said. “Omicron taught us that the next variant of concern is just around the corner, so we can’t afford to take our eyes off the ball.”

A man from Ukraine is tested for COVID-19 at the Blue Dot information and psycho-social support desk in the crisis centre at Sofia’s Central Railway Station in Bulgaria. Photo: UNHCR / Dobrin Kashavelov

At the same time, leaders must contend with the erosion of progress on other global health threats as a result of resources being diverted to COVID-19. Chief among them are three of the world’s leading infectious killers. Access to testing and treatment of HIV, tuberculosis, and malaria declined during the pandemic, coupled with a troubling rise in cases.

Leaders will have an historic opportunity to make what Kate called a “down payment” on a healthier future free of these deadly diseases through the replenishment of the Global Fund, an international partnership that has saved 44 million lives from HIV, TB, and malaria in the past two decades. Whether governments step up on Sept. 19 and pledge the $18 billion needed to save 20 million lives and build a healthier, more resilient and equitable world will make or break UNGA’s success from a global health perspective.

Equal Rights and Representation for Girls and Women

When asked what’s at stake for gender equality as leaders gather at UNGA this year, our Vice President for Girls and Women Strategy Michelle Milford Morse was quick to answer: “Everything.”

“I continue to be struck by an unwillingness or inability to connect the rights and oppression of about half the human population to its leading challenges, from the climate crisis to hunger, education, conflict, and poverty,” she said. “And at the same time, we keep denying women a spot at the table to address these challenges, which is not only wrong but foolish.”

Elected Women Representatives (EWRs) gather outside Middle School Harka in Muzzafarpur, Bihar, India to discuss community issues. Women's equal participation in governance and leadership roles is a step toward building stronger communities and improving reproductive health services at village, block, and district levels. Photo: Images of Empowerment / Paula Bronstein

In fact, 51 men addressed the UN General Assembly last year before a woman took to the podium. By the end of the week, just 13 women had represented their country on the world stage.

This appalling lack of gender parity at UNGA reflects the persistent and pervasive underrepresentation of women at the highest levels of government. Only 24 heads of state worldwide are women. At the current rate, gender equality in the highest positions of power won’t be reached for 130 years.

Will leaders acknowledge this reality? If Michelle had her way, “there would be no speech, no event, and no agreement related to any of our collective goals around peace and security, hunger, or education that did not make a clarion call for women as deciders and that asks us all to look squarely at what these crises inflict on girls and women.”

She concluded: “We need more political leaders to state with clarity that sexism and misogyny are on the march and winning. Autocrats fear women’s rights. We are losing. It’s time to saddle up.”

The 2030 Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

Hard-won gains on the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have been reversed by COVID-19 and conflict. In fact, the Secretary-General called on Member States recently “to rescue the SDGs before it is too late.”

As we approach the halfway point to the 2030 deadline, we asked our Senior Director for Sustainable Development Initiatives Julie Garfieldt Kofoed which SDGs need the most urgent attention. Her response? All of them.

Given the interrelated nature of the SDG framework, progress on any one Goal can impact progress on another. In fact, Julie reminded us that because the 2030 Agenda is a human-rights based agenda, any work done to advance human rights will spark progress across all 17 Goals. The same is true conversely, she pointed out: If human rights are not front and center, we will not be able to achieve any of the SDGs.

But where do we go from here? How do we get the SDGs back on track?

A UNICEF representative visited the Afghan girls robotic team and witnessed their dedication, commitment, and entrepreneurship amidst insurmountable odds. Photo: UNICEF / Frank Dejongh

Julie zeroed in on two issues that are crosscutting and foundational to the success or failure of the entire 2030 Agenda: accountability and finance.

She explained: “When there’s no real accountability, leaders can paint a picture of progress — a glossy fairy tale — while the world around us remains on fire.”

At the same time, finance is essential to achieving any and every SDG. Harshani Dharmadasa, our Senior Director for Global Partnerships and Initiatives, pointed to quality education (SDG 4) as an example, asking: “How are we supposed to transform education without financing to support last-mile populations, or those young people who have already dropped out of school?” The simple truth is that conversations around financing are impossible to disentangle from conversations about delivering on the 2030 Agenda.

But even in the face of immense challenges, the SDGs will always remain worth fighting for. Because as Julie reminded us, at the core of the SDGs is a vision of the world we want. And one thing, she said, is clear: “We’re not heading toward the future we want at all.”

Future Generations

Young people under 30 make up nearly half the world’s population, and an estimated 10.9 billion people are expected to be born in this century.

And just as the 2030 Agenda is at risk, so, too, is the future of current and future generations. Young people are grappling with crises they did not cause: The consequences of COVID-19 are still reverberating around the world and are being compounded by conflict and climate catastrophes that are threatening to leave an entire generation behind.

In fact, COVID-19 wiped out 20 years of progress on education.

This chilling statistic is a driving force behind the Transforming Education Summit, which will be held during UNGA 77 as a major moment this year and will be complemented by the Unlock the Future of Learning Festival. The festival, organized by the UN Foundation and hosted by the Unlock Coalition, will bring together some of the world’s biggest youth-led and youth-focused organizations to explore how education can unlock progress for young people across the planet.

But to truly transform education, leaders must meaningfully include young people in the entirety of the process.

A young girl raises her hand during class at Yosiba Elementary School in Simporo, Papua Province, Indonesia. This school is part of an Early Grade Literacy Programme to improve the foundational learning skills of children in rural areas. Photo: UNICEF / Fauzan Ijazah

Young people deserve to be in the driver’s seat of their own lives. And as with everything, those who are most affected by a decision deserve to have a voice and a say in the decision-making process.

Inés Yábar, the UN Foundation’s Lead Next Generation Fellow, summed it up best: “It’s about humanity, right? It’s about representation.”

Looking Beyond UNGA

So what comes next? UNGA is the moment on the diplomatic calendar, but it is just one moment of many key summits and convenings to come, from COP27 in November to the SDG Summit in September 2023.

Inés made the point that we need to move away from thinking about progress in terms of “moments” on the calendar; we can’t afford to focus all of our energy and attention preparing for the next meeting while putting progress on pause until the next major “moment” arrives.

Because what really matters is what happens in the interim. It’s why she said she will be “paying the most attention to what happens beyond the speeches, after UNGA, as opposed to what the media will be reporting on, which will be a series of words rather than actions.”

Time will tell whether leaders will follow through on their commitments and turn their words into action, but one thing’s for certain: We cannot afford to lose hope that progress is possible and that we can still build the world we want.

Because even though the stakes have never been higher, Harshani made a concrete case for hope. She explained that as we approach UNGA this year, she feels “we’re getting to the end of a very, very dark tunnel” and that as we come out of it “we need leaders to present concrete solutions, ideas, and recommendations that instill a sense of hope. It’s the best way to defeat fatalism, because without hope and inspiration, even the best solutions are hard to implement.”