Past events put our global systems and sense of humanity to test. Continuous learning in the areas of leadership, knowledge, and partnerships will be even more crucial if we are to prepare for future crises and make a sustainable future a reality.

In a recent call to action, the UN Sustainable Development Group (UN SDG) called for a global response that must match the scale of the crisis as no country will be able to exit COVID-19 alone. The UN SDG also called for all of us to learn from this pandemic, build back together, and strengthen our commitment to implement the 2030 Agenda and the 17 Sustainable Development Goals to better respond to future crises.

Urgency to Act

With COVID-19’s triple hit to health, education, and income, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) warned that global human development could decline this year for the first time since 1990, which can reverse the progress made in development in the past decades.  

“Had we been further advanced in meeting the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, we could better face this challenge – with stronger health systems, fewer people living in extreme poverty, less gender inequality, a healthier natural environment, and more resilient societies.” – Shared Responsibility, Global Solidarity: Responding to the socio-economic impacts of COVID-19

The Urgency to Learn for a Sustainable Future

We must seize this crisis to do things differently by thinking differently, behaving differently, and acting differently for a sustainable future. We can prioritize three areas of learning and knowledge sharing to support building back together and create more sustainable, resilient, and inclusive societies: leadership, knowledge, and partnership.

1.  Leadership

One strong message that emerges from recent issues—from the novel coronavirus, natural calamities, and unrest—is the need for all actors to rise to the urgent task of addressing the complexity of issues at hand in an integrated manner. Collaborative leadership is key as no single entity or person has all the information needed. Leaders need to rely on different resources, trust the capabilities of experts, groups, and communities, and engage other leaders and the public in their efforts to overcome the challenges we are facing.

Complex, non-linear, dynamic challenges in situations of insufficient resources, and incomplete information require impactful, purposeful, and agile leaders who can stay in the development path towards achieving a sustainable future.  As we recover better and build back together, it is important that leaders learn together, build trust, and reduce the fragmentation in their field.

It is not an impossible task and there are a couple of examples we learned at UNSSC.

UNSSC’s approach to promoting learning among leaders for sustainable development

Prioritize building teams. With a new generation of UN country teams emerging to provide tailored system-wide expertise to address country needs and priorities, it is crucial to establish team cohesiveness and trust. For example, leaders from UN country teams (UNCT) in Egypt and in Jordan gathered in Bonn to strengthen their collective leadership compact  and harness specific country-contextual opportunities.

Foster coherence through inter-agency learning. Several heads of UN entities at country level also took part in two editions of leadership courses for UN country teams to effectively support countries to achieve the SDGs by 2030. These courses provided a learning environment where leaders can discuss and learn from each other on making good the UN value-added to governments seeking to accelerate SDG implementation.

Promote regional learning. Collaborative learning can also take place at the regional level among leaders, as exemplified in the course on country-leadership for health and well-being for the WHO Regional Office for the Eastern Mediterranean. This tailored course aimed at exploring leadership challenges from the perspective of positioning public health issues in light of their interdependencies with issues residing beyond and outside health systems. This requires leaders to consider new approaches to the way they communicate, advocate and develop partnerships. Sustainable Development leaders must be able to think in systems to identify and collectively address issues beyond their own area of expertise. 

2.  Knowledge

To increase the resilience of societies and stay on the path to achieving the 2030 Agenda, all stakeholders must share a common understanding of the interlinkages and interdependencies of the dimensions of sustainable development and the SDGs. Learning for the 2030 Agenda must focus on a whole-of-society approach, with learning experiences aimed at enabling the UN system and all relevant actors to internalize the five dimensions of sustainable development—people, planet, prosperity, partnership, and peace or the 5P’s.

What can participants learn from UNSSC’s online courses?

Participants learn the foundations of sustainable development and how to adopt an integrated approach to the 2030 Agenda and SDGs. They also learn how money lost to corruption could have helped eradicate hunger, end malaria and improve education; various actions to take to fight climate change; that circular economy demands not just a change in our current systems of production but also an interrogation of our increasingly consumerist value systems; that increasing vertical and horizontal policy coherence can help promote synergies and manage trade-offs in the context of the 2030 Agenda; and that achieving sustainable development also requires effective engagement with the private sector. Our experience highlights that learning becomes richer in a multi-stakeholder and multi-disciplinary setting.

In the past months, UNSSC has seen an upsurge in registrations in the online courses (currently 3,200 registrations, showing 100% to 500% increase per course) from individuals working in the UN, governments, civil society, academia, and the private sector.  In fact, for the first time since the establishment of the UNSSC Knowledge Centre for Sustainable Development, we will be welcoming more than 600 participants from different countries and sectors on June 15 in two of our online courses. UNSSC has also seen an upsurge in the completion rate of online courses, which surpassed 70% in a recent online course (completion rate ranges from 50 -81%). More importantly, it is imperative for people to apply what they learn to achieve results.

3.  Partnership

With global emergencies affecting health, climate and environment, and peace, full-scale global solidarity and cooperation are needed more than ever.  With the demand for resources greater than normal and with impacts of such complex issues affecting us all, building partnerships and strengthening cooperation are central in a whole-of-society approach.

Learning and building new skills on partnerships and cooperation will be more important, for example, in the roll-out of the Cooperation Framework between the UN and countries as well as financing for sustainable development. The role of regional commissions is becoming even more critical in learning and knowledge management. It is within this context that the UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (UN ESCWA) leads joint programmes on learning, training, and knowledge management to accelerate SDG learning and training for the Arab region.

An effective response to sustainable development challenges needs to be multi-dimensional, coordinated, swift, and decisive. All need to play their part in the response as no single country can do this alone. At the UNSSC, we are constantly exploring and reflecting on emerging learning needs and ways to address them. We stand ready to tailor offerings that speak to the issues, skills, and behaviors that are required for individuals and organizations to build back better, together.


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The opinions expressed in our blog posts are solely those of the authors. They do not reflect the opinions or views of UNSSC, the United Nations or its members.