pianeta futuro sostenibile

The SDGs, people and the planet

Marina Ponti explains the changes and opportunities arising from the difficult times the whole world is experiencing, in order to envision a new kind of future.

by Davide Perillo
19 July 2021
15 min read
by Davide Perillo
19 July 2021
15 min read

“We’re at a turning point for people and the planet, as is said by the UN SDG Action Campaign. We have the opportunity to imagine a different future, to remake it. And we can do it together”. Marina Ponti, who hails from the Milan area and whose CV is split between NGOs and the UN, where she began working in 2001 after leaving Mani Tese, is the director of the SDG Action Campaign, a special initiative of the Secretary General of the United Nations which promotes the 17 Sustainable Development Goals of the 2030 Agenda.

With offices in Bonn, Germany, and a global outlook, the UN SDG Action Campaign is the ideal lookout to perform a check-up on the list of problems that the entire world has identified as priorities: from hunger to education, clean energy and responsible consumption. The climate, labour and gender equality are also part of this list. We codified these issues in 2015, and we gave ourselves 15 years to fix them. Or, at least, to make considerable headway in finding solutions. But now, where are we? What kind of impact has the devastating COVID pandemic had on the roadmap? 

“The pandemic has set us back on many fronts”, Ponti replies. “Take poverty. Not only has the number of people living in extreme hardship increased throughout the world, meaning those who at one time made up the middle class, but many of them, especially women, have lost their jobs. For many of those affected, there was no recourse to welfare mechanisms or social protections, because they worked in the informal economy. In addition to unemployment, fragile unemployment has increased as well, affecting those millions of people who have a job, but whose salaries are too low to maintain a decent standard of living, like paying for rent, health care, schooling for their children, etc. Then, there is of course also the pandemic. We’ve been talking about it for the past year and a half, but we’re now starting to see its impact on life expectancy, which has decreased everywhere, also because COVID-19 has affected the vulnerable and the elderly in particular. 

Q: Even younger people are suffering: the impact on education, for example, has been significant.

A: Yes, the pandemic has increased the number of early school leavers multifold. Distance learning has helped a lot, of course, but it has also increased inequalities: in many countries, a home computer or Internet access is not yet available to everyone. Many children ended up entering the labour market and being exploited. But closing schools also led to an increase in malnutrition.

Q: Why?

A: We don't generally realise it, but there are at least 380 million children in the world who depend on school canteens for food. If schools are closed, they skip meals. The fight against hunger, which was one of the SDGs that was yielding the most results, took a hit. Over time, the one billion people suffering from hunger had decreased to 800 million. Last year, it increased again. However, 2020 was also the year during which the Human Development Index, an indicator created by the UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) to measure the growth of countries, also fell for the first time. Next to income, it also measures variables such as life expectancy, schooling, and climate. In thirty years, it had always grown. 

Q: A heavy toll, then.

A: Yes. But as with every great crisis, there is also a great opportunity, because we have reached a turning point.

Q: How do you mean?

A: For the first time in a century, individuals, companies and the private sector all over the world has had to stop. The pandemic made them. And for the first time, both leaders and individuals were handed the opportunity to reimagine the future in some way. In recent history, since the second world war, we’ve never been up against a task like this: redesigning mobility, energy, labour or education. Now it’s affecting all parts of global society, to a different extent, obviously, but at the same time and with the same goals.

There is political space for public decision-makers to disentangle the problems we had before, which the pandemic has brought out into the open. They were previously hiding behind a veil. In a certain sense, many people were hiding behind an idea of “But things really aren’t all that bad, are they?” The pandemic lifted the veil, and made us see that this wasn’t actually the case. It revealed the many, deep inequalities inherent to the mechanisms of our society.

Q: Are we equipped to deal with such a radical change of pace?

A: I don't know. We'll see. What we do know is that for the first time, governments, and even the private sector, were equipped with resources that were unthinkable even a year ago, to transform certain ideas into reality. I’m talking about Europe, about the billions coming from the NRRP. Or Biden’s 2021 American Rescue Plan. We need them so that we can invest in renewables, the green transition, mobility, and social, gender and intergenerational equity. People have been talking about it forever, but now there’s actually the political space to do so, and there’s the money. Will everyone be able to seize these opportunities? We don't know. But this is where, to some extent, the individual plays a role –a role that falls to each of us. 

Q: But how?

A: The changes required by the 2030 Agenda are indispensable at all levels. Some must start from the top, from leaders. But individual action is also important. COVID-19 changed our perception of this as well. We at the UN SDG Action Campaign have always focused on individual action, on the gestures that each person can make to bring about change. People have always looked down on such actions, as though they weren’t a decisive factor: “Yes, of course, but they don’t mean anything...”. But, in these recent months, at least until the vaccine became available, we’ve all seen how the only possible strategy to contain the pandemic boiled down to individual action: social distancing, masks, quarantines. The pandemic has made people understand that they not only have a decisive impact on their own lives, but also on the environment around them. This triggered a mechanism of action and awareness. 

Q: Is this a first?

A: We’ve seen this before, actually, like in the cases of Fridays for Future or Black Lives Matter; movements that cannot be identified with the former civil society, but made up of young people with strong a energy and interest directed towards the future. People who not only want to be heard, but who, to a certain extent, want to take responsibility. There’s another important factor as well. In the past, young people could exercise this passion for social justice by committing themselves to a cause, or a non-profit organisation, but work remained separate.

Now, we see startups and business initiatives moving in this direction; they combine social and environmental impact with a lifestyle, consumption and a profession. We see it all over the world, even in Africa or other complicated contexts. There is a wave of active participation not only in the social sphere, but in the economic sphere as well. Now, these young people just need to get involved in politics. But the change has begun.

Q: Does this not somehow establish certain priorities within the SDGs themselves? If everything is underpinned by personal accountability, maybe the focus on certain goals should be highlighted. Education, for example, might be identified as more pressing...

A: This is a complex discussion. The 2030 Agenda already had two fundamental aspects when it was initially developed. One is universality: issues like climate change and the exploitation of women or poverty are no longer seen as a problem just in certain parts of the world. For the first time, we have a development agreement where all countries are equally implicated. The second aspect is the interlinkages between the issues: certain problems are intrinsically linked, and policies capable of stripping them down to their core issues are needed to address them. If one country, for example, sets ambitious goals for itself in terms of the green transition, but doesn't create a social safety net to compensate for the loss of certain jobs, invest in training, and so on, it risks making progress in terms of the environment, but leaving holes in society.

So, these two points –universality and the link between the various issues– were clear back in 2015, but no one really took them seriously. They’re at the forefront now. Like what we saw with a topic like climate change, universality has no borders; but the pandemic brought it further out into the open because it suddenly showed that we’re all vulnerable. The same goes for interlinkages. We already knew that we were living in complex societies, but now we have seen what kind of impact a virus can have, not only on physical and mental health, but also in terms of access to fair employment, the right to education, and mobility within one's own city and from country to country. It’s important to understand this complexity. 

Q: But simply understanding this complexity, and therefore the need for a broader vision, doesn’t necessarily mean having that vision. What do we need to develop it, to make it grow?

A: We really need leadership at all levels. But it’s not enough to have a leader and a vision if you then make policies that fail to speak to citizens. You may have made great choices, but if you failed to engage them, it will hurt you. The individual is important. They can vote, and therefore reward certain policies. They have the power to express their thoughts, to participate, and they want to understand better. Maybe I’m being optimistic, but I see that this demand from the bottom for sustainability, redistribution and so on, is there.Especially from young people.

The truth is that we are at a moment that is similar to seventy years ago, after the last world war –there was fear, poverty and many open wounds. But there was also hope. Now, the wounds are different than they were from the war. But we need hope for the future, for the possibility to rebuild and to use this moment to start over in a different way. It might not happen; it’s up to us. But our role is to spread this hope and give this strong message to everyone: the change we needed is now possible. 

Q: How has your work changed in the last few months?

A: Initially, our task was to publicise the 2030 Agenda, create a consensus around its goals. Now, it’s also to help people understand how important this moment is; to push the young and the not-so-young to change, and to demand that other actors do the same. What’s more is that we want to stand by the leaders doing the right thing, to help them feel less alone. Help to have their role recognised. 

Q: In March, you organised the fifth SDG Global Festival, which consisted of two days of talks, meetings and online events with 300 speakers from around the world. What was the result?

A: It was brilliant. We were aiming to bring together everyone who wanted to get involved, so that they could inspire each other, gain courage, show that there is a large and active community mobilising for the SDGs and the 2030 Agenda. We are not alone; on the contrary, there are many of us and the community is growing every day, with contributions from the most diverse segments and sectors of society: the art world, the private sector, international organisations, entrepreneurs, and even large companies like Eni. Everyone is calling for more social and environmental justice. For us, the Festival confirmed that the 2030 Agenda, which perhaps in 2015 seemed like a dream, is now actually the closest we can get to meeting people’s everyday needs.

Q: Can you give us some examples of initiatives that have impressed you? 

A: The Festival has a competition called the SDG Action Awards. We reward high-impact entrepreneurs, activists and campaigns in the communities they come from, but also on a global level as well. I’ll give you three examples from that. One is from last year, but it was very important: A White Dress Doesn’t Cover The Rape, which is an initiative from Lebanon. There was a law there that prevented the punishment of rapists if they then married the victim. Well, that campaign, which was so creative and powerful, caused such an uproar that it led to the law being changed.

In Lebanon, rape is now a criminal offence. This year, one of the winners included an American documentary called Fight Forever Chemicals. It became one campaign’s tool against pollution, which, in this case as well, led to a significant change in the relevant legislation. We also gave an award to Nigeria’s Publish Not To Pay, an initiative that is becoming popular throughout the countries of Africa. It uses social media to track public funding and fight corruption. I could keep going. 

Q: In all of this turmoil, what role can an energy company like Eni have?  

A: Everyone needs to do their part, and a company like Eni has a huge role to play. First and foremost, and this is obvious, in the field of decarbonisation and conversion to more environmentally friendly practices. Eni has already started down this path. I know it has worthy projects and an important long-term plan. And it is only right for it to be looking ahead. Every reconversion project has trade offs, and they should be well understood and studied. But for actors who are so big, who have so many communications channels, in addition to developing long-term strategies they can also have a large impact in promoting certain proactive behaviours and a certain sensitivity, not only with its customers, but throughout the entire production chain.

From partners to suppliers, naturally including its own employees as well. It’s important for them to use their tools (from social media to bills) not only to tell the story of the company or give details about its consumption, but also to explain this path of cultural, as well as productive, conversion. Not only to aid in the transition, but especially to actively contribute to the mobilisation of the greatest possible number of individuals and groups. Because it’s a path that each individual must undertake, but they must do so together with others.

The author: Davide Perillo

Journalist, he currently deals with sustainability, social issues and Third Sector. He was director of Tracce magazine for 13 years. He is a member of the editorial staff of the Rimini Meeting (an international event for which he has managed numerous meetings), he was editor-in-chief of Sette, a magazine of Corriere della Sera newspaper and covered the economy section for L'Europeo. He has a degree in Philosophy and a master's degree in Journalism.