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Halfway to the SDGs – Lessons from the South

Opening remarks - Vice-Chancellor Professor Stephen Toope 

(21st of June 2022, 09:15-09:30)


In 2015, the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals were adopted by all 193 member states of the UN. This represented an historic commitment to work toward a better future for all, whilst protecting our environment. The SDGs set out 17 integrated goals to be achieved by 2030. Together, they seek to tackle poverty, raise health standards, promote education and decent work ensuring no one is left behind, and simultaneously preserve our planet for future generations.

We are now halfway to the SDG deadline. This is an opportunity to reflect on global progress toward meeting the targets set by the SDGs, and actions needed to accelerate progress in the remaining period.

Much has changed around the world since I spoke at the inaugural conference of our Cambridge Global Challenges Strategic Research Initiative in November 2018. We have lived through a global pandemic which threatened lives and livelihoods, and a destabilisation of peace has adversely affected progress towards the SDGs. Across the university, every School and discipline has mobilised to address these global challenges

Global challenges call for global cooperation. Sustainable advances can only be achieved by building on the understanding and expertise of colleagues and collaborators in the countries of the Global South. This is why our University is privileged to work with partners in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia toward mutual cooperation and learning.

These are the motivations for this week’s conference, which I am pleased to open today. The conference organised by Cambridge Global Challenges, in partnership with Cambridge-Africa, Cambridge Zero, and the Youth and Work Commission, seeks to better understand and celebrate the value of knowledge from the Global South in achieving the SDGs.

We are proud to be hosting this event in Cambridge, and delighted to welcome guest speakers to share ideas on these important issues. We welcome in particular our keynote speakers: Professor Saleemul Huq, Director of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development; Professor Tassew Woldehanna, President of Addis Ababa University; and Dr. Nyovani Madise, the Director of Research for Sustainable Development Policies and Head of the Malawi office of the African Institute for Development Policy.

Although the SDGs address many themes, this conference focuses on three areas that have been at the heart of much of the University’s recent work in collaboration with partners in the Global South: Climate adaptation, Youth and Work, and COVID-19. These challenges cannot be viewed in isolation: they are interdisciplinary in nature and require cross-sectoral responses.

These themes are important as, on a global scale, none of the goals are on track to be met by 2030 on current trends,. While progress varies between countries, in some cases there has either been little advancement or even a move backwards compared with the situation when the goals were set out.

Notably, COVID-19 has not only induced a global public health emergency, but also had an adverse impact across all of the SDGs. As a result, many of the gains which had previously been made were halted or reversed in areas such as education, life expectancy, gender equality and youth employment. We must therefore redouble our efforts and rethink our approaches to rise to the challenge. This conference provides an opportunity to reflect on the myriad ways that the pandemic has impacted our advances toward the SDGs, and what needs to be done to tackle its adverse effects.

Climate change represents the greatest existential threat to the future of humanity, destabilising ecosystems, economies and peace on a global scale. Whether commitments to limit emissions made in the Paris Agreement are met, unfortunately it seems impossible to stop climate change, it is happening as we speak. Mitigation is now the name of the game to minimise global temperature increases and the resulting impact on every aspect of our lives. While we must act urgently to mitigate future change, we also need to adapt to what is now happening. Despite the Global North being responsible for the majority of emissions, it is the Global South which is suffering first and foremost from its severe effects. This can already be seen with record flooding in Bangladesh, Brazil and South Africa, and deadly heatwaves in India and Pakistan - events which will only become more frequent and acute as temperatures rise. We need to listen to experts in these nations.

In terms of youth and work, the World Bank estimates that 1 billion young people will enter the labour market in the next 10 years, but only 400 million of them are likely to find formal jobs. Nine in 10 of today's 1.8 billion young people live in low and lower middle income countries. Many of these young people are either in insecure, low paid work, or without work. As a result of the pandemic, living standards have dropped, with 120 million people pushed back into extreme poverty in 2020 and 255 million jobs have been lost. Effects have been particularly striking on young people, especially young women, who have also been hit by a reversal of gains in education, and increased risk of early marriage.

It is vital that we quickly redress these reversals and increase the rate of progress if we are to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030. It is only by working together, learning from each other and in particular valuing Southern knowledge, that this might be achieved. While the SDGs have 17 goals, this conference has only one: to learn lessons from the South for realising the SDGs by 2030.

As such, it is my privilege to welcome our speakers, experts in their fields who come from around the world to share their wisdom, providing global knowledge for global challenges.

Welcome to Cambridge Global Challenges

Cambridge Global Challenges is the Interdisciplinary Research Centre (IRC) of the University of Cambridge that aims to enhance the contribution of its research towards addressing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030, with a particular focus on the poorest half of the world’s population.


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