“When inequalities remain widespread and a pandemic touches us all, I very much welcome this opportunity to speak with you as we try to unite as a single human family in overcoming these challenges,” said Amina Mohammed, the deputy secretary-general of the United Nations (UN).
Mohammed delivered these opening remarks during this year’s third Vice-Chancellor’s Open Lecture, which was held virtually by the University of Cape Town (UCT) on Wednesday, 14 October.
She told the audience that the COVID-19 pandemic has “opened the eyes of the world” to inequalities and many other injustices. But at the same time, it has also opened the door towards a better future and is an opportunity for the world to start doing things differently – in ways that benefit all people.
“We can use the recovery from the pandemic as a springboard to change course.”
“We can use the recovery from the pandemic as a springboard to change course, re-engineer our economies and create a more prosperous, equitable and sustainable world.”
Sustainable Development Goals
Mohammed’s lecture was titled “Decade of action for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs): So what?” The SDGs were adopted by all UN member states in 2015 and are a universal call to action to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure that all people enjoy peace and prosperity by 2030.
“The 17 goals are our blueprint for building a better world. So the goals can help to lead us out of the pandemic? Yes, they address the very fragilities and shortcomings that COVID-19 has exposed,” she said.
In its efforts towards achieving the SDGs, she said that South Africa has reported important gains in a few areas. This includes access to water, electricity, sanitation, education and healthcare. But persisting levels of inequality and ongoing violence against women and girls remain.
“Is it realistic to think that we can succeed? In South Africa and around the world, even before the pandemic, we were not moving quickly enough.”
Transformation is under way
Transformation is not just possible, Mohammed said – it’s already under way.
By harnessing the power of digital platforms and modernised financial systems and regulations, she said that countries are expanding at a scale never seen before.
“By phasing out expenses that no longer make sense, like fossil-fuel subsidies, countries are paving the way towards a renewable-energy future [with] millions of green jobs.”
So, what can we do?
She said that UCT’s Vision 2030 and the university’s commitment to address the challenges of the SDGs through teaching and learning, and research is a step in the right direction.
The UN has recognised that the role higher education institutions play around the world is “invaluable” and therefore formed the UN Academic Impact initiative to leverage the sector’s support. The initiative joins 1 500 higher education institutions in the world in a bid to advance intellectual and social responsibility.
She urged UCT to join.
Decade of Action
In January 2020 the UN embarked on the Decade of Action to help it achieve its SDGs by 2030. The focus is on poverty and inequality.
“Some 130 million people risk being pushed to the brink of starvation by the end of this year.”
“For the first time in decades, as a result of the pandemic, poverty is on the rise. Some 130 million people risk being pushed to the brink of starvation by the end of this year,” she said.
Mohammed stressed the fact that the UN is calling for the COVID-19 recovery to advance the world towards “a green transition” and to avoid bailing out “polluting industries”.
“How the world recovers from COVID-19 is a make-or-break moment for climate action, biodiversity and the health of our planet.”
More than that, addressing the scourge of gender-based violence is crucial to advancing the SDGs. She said that women’s rights movements globally have made remarkable progress in recent decades. But violence against women and girls remain widespread.
“Are you doing everything you can to end violence against women and girls? We need to do just that. We need all men to stand with women and girls so we may transform our world and relegate violence against women and girls to the pages of history.”
An integrated framework
She urged the audience to keep in mind that the SDGs are an integrated framework, and each goal reinforces another, which means progress in one area could help generate progress in other areas.
A number of pillars underpin these goals, which she highlighted as transparency; anti-corruption; finance; and partnerships beyond government that include the private sector, civil society and institutions of learning.
“I take those voices to heart. I take your hopes as my instruction.”
This year the UN celebrates its 75th anniversary, and Mohammed said that instead of celebrating the occasion, the organisation will use the time as an opportunity for conversation.
What has already emerged from conversations is a “portrait of a world both fearful and hopeful”. The priority for people around the world, she said, is improved access to basic services, which include healthcare, safe water and sanitation.
For South Africans in particular, access to healthcare, addressing inequalities and supporting those who are hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic is essential for the country’s road to recovery. Job creation and education were other long-term priorities that she highlighted.
“South Africans have [also] said that global cooperation is essential to tackling the challenges we face. I take those voices to heart. I take your hopes as my instruction.”
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The Vice-Chancellor’s Open Lecture series was established to enable anyone in the community, whether they are connected to the university or not, to have the benefit of hearing first-hand from academics, researchers and innovators from South Africa, but particularly from those around the world, who have distinguished themselves in their areas of expertise.
Attendance to the lectures is free of charge as the series is one of the ways that UCT seeks to give back to the Cape Town community.
There was no lecture in 2015.