I didn’t expect to kick off my annual trek back to the United Nations, where I worked from 2000-2006, by attending a memorial service for former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who died unexpectedly on August 18.
It was Kofi’s strong leadership and vision that drove the United Nations to adopt the Millennium Development Goals in 2000, a commitment from our leaders to tackle the world’s worst injustices and inequalities.
What was especially remarkable, is that before 2000, global health and equity were almost completely absent from conversations at UN General Assembly (UNGA) each year in New York. In the 1990s, international support for development was waning, with security and economics dominating the agenda.
The MDGs sparked a sea change in conversations and priorities among world leaders.
The power of the MDGs was that they set timebound, tangible goals which the world could rally around, and their legacy is that we now know what’s possible with public support and political will. The legacy of the MDGs is that UNGA is now the pre-eminent moment every year to confront the toughest issues in the ongoing fight against poverty and inequity, to rededicate ourselves to a healthier world, and to highlight progress.
This next set of global goals, the UN Sustainable Development Goals, were adopted in 2015 and are even more ambitious. At the Gates Foundation, our tentpole moment in the margins of UNGA is our second annual Goalkeepers event, which we’ll host on September 26. The event is meant to accelerate progress towards the SDGs by building awareness, ensuring accountability, and inspiring action. We have learned that to do this, we have to cast a spotlight on the amazing progress that’s been accomplished against poverty and inequity, and leverage our trusted brand to get people to pay attention to the data that proves it.
This year, the Goalkeepers event and accompanying data report focus on the growing youth population in Africa. We know that if countries invest in their young people, they will unlock productivity and innovation, cut poverty, and generate further prosperity. But if we ignore young people’s potential, we risk jeopardizing the progress that has been made on gender equity, political stability, health outcomes, and economic prosperity. The stories that will be shared are meant to inspire today’s leaders – and the next generation – to make these important investments.
The Goalkeepers event is one of dozens being hosted that week outside the UN walls. While it’s hard to rise above the political and media frenzy that surrounds UNGA, the opportunity is just too high to not try.
Our foundation delegation will also be attending dozens of events hosted by our partners, and we are busy scheduling private meetings with delegations from around the world to drive specific bodies of work forward. For example, Bill Gates has been invited by the President of the General Assembly to speak at an unprecedented High-Level Meeting within the formal UN agenda on Ending Tuberculosis, where he will join Heads of State calling for strengthened action and investments to save millions of lives.
We’ll also lead conversations on the next steps in polio eradication with the leaders of the last remaining endemic countries. And we will work to solidify commitments to the Global Financing Facility (GFF), a multi-donor trust fund designed to close the financing gap on women and children’s health. This year’s UNGA is particularly timely, as it falls six weeks before a replenishment event that the foundation will co-host with the World Bank and the Governments of Norway and Burkina Faso to support the GFF’s continued expansion.
The range of challenges that will be discussed at UNGA is formidable, but every year, I’m struck by the rapid pace at which that progress can happen when commitment and resources come together.
Take the GFF for instance – this innovative financing model, which was first announced at the 2014 UN General Assembly by World Bank Group President Jim Kim at an event with Melinda Gates and then Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon, among other world leaders, is helping countries develop and implement their own plans to build and sustainably finance the health systems they need to improve the lives of their citizens.
By focusing on new ways of doing things, and continuing to drive data-based decisions that show what’s working, what we don’t know, and where we must build on progress, I’m confident that the prosperous, healthy world that Kofi Annan envisioned – and that he convinced us all was possible, will someday be a reality.