Owing to the universal and indivisible nature of the 2030 Agenda, as well as to the realisation that its goals can only be achieved through a whole-of-society and whole-of-government effort, leadership and capacity development initiatives for senior UN officials as well as for civil servants must be rethought.

In light of the demand for solutions that are nationally-led and nationally-owned and contextualized at the local level, the role of governments at national and sub-national level is key for implementing the sustainable development goals and achieving transformative change. Local communities and stakeholders know individual and collective needs and capacities best, and are therefore critical in piloting and implementing the global agenda. They are policy-makers, catalysts of change, and the level of government best-placed to link the global goals with local communities. At the same time national and international approaches are key to ensuring an overall coherent institutional set up and regulatory framework. The role of international, national and sub-national civil servants changes as they need to be better able to function in a complex network of actors, seeking coherent solutions across vertical levels and horizontal subject matter areas, encouraging top-down as well as bottom-up exchanges and mutual learning.

Contextualised solutions also demand the UN to adjust its ways of working and several reforms are underway in this regard. As outlined in UN Secretary-General António Guterres’ call for Repositioning the United Nations development system to deliver on the 2030 Agenda, as well as in subsequent documents, spelling out more concrete plans to manage the transition, this requires inter-alia 'a new generation of UN Country Teams that are tailored to the specific needs of each country,' where UN Resident Coordinators and all senior UN officials are enabled to become strong sustainable development advocates and contributors to national priorities. To accompany these changes, systematic and certified learning opportunities are needed to ensure a coherent learning path for UN staff across the board.


UN Resident Coordinators and all senior UN officials [must be] enabled to become strong sustainable development advocates and contributors to national priorities


Overall, training for senior representatives, whether at the UN or in government, can increase the level of support required for civil servants at operational levels to advance the principles of the agenda, fostering more coherent approaches and supporting multi-level and multi-stakeholder alliances.

Transformative learning - Learning for transformation

The 2030 Agenda calls for transformation. Ownership for a transformative agenda requires strong buy-in for the principles of the agenda at executive level. Transformation cannot be taught through classical ‘chalk and talk’ lectures. Approaches to leadership training and capacity development for senior UN leaders and civil servants must take diverse forms of education and training into account, combining formal training with non-formal and experiential formats, which encourage and incentivize life-long learning.


Transformation cannot be taught through classical ‘chalk and talk’ lectures.


While core substantive notions of the agenda can be transmitted through self-paced online courses, transformative change requires a diversity of formats to engage learners in a much deeper reflection about the relevance of the agenda and the consequences stemming from its principles for the individual, as well as for agency or department mandates. The “head, hand and heart” model of transformative learning theory connects elements of experiential learning with cognitive elements and theory, as well as approaches to the root causes and effects of policies aiming to foster comprehension through socio-emotional learning. Learning formats should cater to the different forms of human comprehension as described through the Kolb cycle of learning, which describes a four-stage learning process, catering to different individual learning preferences, through concrete experience, reflective observation, abstract conceptualization and active experimentation. To foster transformative learning, learners need enhanced spaces for knowledge exchanges and experience sharing, which value their own experience and contextual knowledge and foster dialogue about successful practices, as well as failures. These spaces can be online through platforms and discussion fora, as well as offline, providing safe spaces for exchange, which truly encourage risk taking and learning from what has, but also from what has NOT worked.


“Transformative change requires a diversity of [learning] formats.”


Leadership skills and capacity development for senior UN officials and civil servants must include hard core knowledge and skills, as well as an opportunity to share experiences and discuss attitudes and mind-sets. It needs to garner passion and compassion, reflection and self-reflection, ultimately turning international and national civil servants into civil agents for a sustainable future.

Teaching the ‘WHAT” and the “HOW”

SDG Training is not just about recipes for success. Above all it requires a focus on the wider narrative of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, explaining its vision and principles and introducing the value systems underpinning it, based on the five critical and inter-linked dimensions – or 5 P - of the 2030 Agenda: people, planet, prosperity, peace and partnership. Along with the focus on the narrative of sustainable development and the 5 P approach, substantive knowledge about the subject matter areas underlying the agenda needs to be imparted. Specific approaches to long-term sustainable development thinking need to be strengthened in areas such as foresight and scenario planning, stakeholder engagement and partnerships, as well as data literacy, results focused planning and programming.

Overall, it is important to address the wider leadership skills that are required at all levels of hierarchy to act as role models and leaders advancing a truly transformative agenda. UN Leadership in the context of the 2030 Agenda has been defined in the UN System Leadership Framework, which states that UN leadership must be self-applied, norm based, principled, inclusive, accountable, multi-dimensional, transformational and collaborative. The UN Secretary General has added a 9th principle in the context of Management reform stating that in addition UN Leadership, must be pragmatic and action-oriented, taking principled and practical action to deliver on mandates, balancing administrative and operational risks and erring on the side of action to prevent and address human suffering.

The Agenda’s principle of Leaving No One Behind calls for policy measures, which address concrete situations of vulnerability, while striving much more explicitly to increase resilience and responsiveness in order to pre-empt future vulnerability. This requires increased attention to a human rights-based approach and demands knowledge about instruments and data allowing to identify current and potential vulnerabilities.

An integrated approach to sustainable development also requires a systematic analysis of the capacities, knowledge and skills required to address a given development challenge, while identifying key allies required to anchor any solution in the long term and foster ownership for the approach taken. Analysing a development challenge through the lens of the 5 P, requires adopting a people-centred approach, identifying coherent responses, which consider all sustainable development dimensions in terms of synergies and trade-offs. Civil servants therefore need to be trained on approaches to stakeholder engagement and consensus building, increasing their capacity for political economy analysis and partnership building, as well as their understanding of policy coherence for sustainable development and the frameworks and tools available in this regard.

Thinking differently in order to act differently

Once international and national civil servants think differently, they will be able to act differently, applying the technical approaches required to deliver on the SDGs. New learning formats need to be true to the universal nature of the agenda. Job shadowing, virtual dialogue spaces, and joint development of new learning formats, bringing together people across entities and subject matter areas, open the door for exciting opportunities for knowledge sharing among countries and agencies, acknowledging that innovative practices and transformative approaches can be found across the globe.

Sustainable development learning must open senior UN leaders and civil servants to a fundamental reflection about societal values and the role they play individually and as part of a collective to driving them forward. Ultimately, none of the learning formats discussed will deliver final answers as to the right approaches to sustainable development. By definition, a transformative and contextualised agenda cannot be based on pre-existing technical tools. The importance of leadership and capacity development for UN actors therefore does not reside in providing the right answers – it rather emphasizes the need for all actors to ask the right questions.


“The importance of leadership and capacity development for UN actors therefore does not reside in providing the right answers – it rather emphasizes the need for all actors to ask the right questions.”


Find out more about UNSSC’s UN Country Teams (UNCT) Leadership Skills Course: Leveraging UN Country Teams for the 2030 Agenda by watching the video here.


Read more on UNSSC’s offerings on SDG training for civil servants here. For all course offerings on Sustainable Development and Leadership see here.


UNSSC is the learning organization of the United Nations system, headquartered in Turin, Italy. The organization designs and delivers learning programmes for UN staff and their partners. The Knowledge Centre for Sustainable Development in Bonn has been established by UNSSC to respond to the learning, training, and knowledge management needs of UN Staff and UN partners in the context of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Paris Climate Change Agreement. Among other training formats, the Knowledge Centre runs a UN Country Team Leadership course as well as various customized training and learning formats for UN staff and governments in order to accelerate the transformative changes required to implement the global plan of action for people, planet, and prosperity.



United Nations, Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for sustainable development, A/RES/70/1.

United Nations, Shifting the management paradigm in the United Nations: ensuring a better future for all, Report of the Secretary-General, A/72/492.

United Nations system leadership framework, CEB/2017/1.

Singleton, Julie, Head, Heart and Hands Model for transformative learning: place as context for changing sustainability values, Freedonia Montgomery, TX, Journal of Sustainability Education Vol. 9, 2015.

Kolb, David A., & Fry, Ronald E., Toward an applied theory of experiential learning. MIT Alfred P. Sloan School of Management. In: Cooper, Cary, (ed.) Theories of group processes, New York, 1974.