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UNGA Week highlights opportunities and challenges for Agenda 2030

Data to End Hunger, Climate Week at TERI, and sustainable investment at CCSI

Last week was a whirlwind of activity here in New York. From the events surrounding the UN General Assembly, Climate Week, and Global Goals Week, leaders of governments, enterprise, and civil society came together to call attention to a range of global challenges and opportunities that persist in late 2018.

As the director of OPM’s United States office, last week was a great opportunity to see what the world was saying on topics we care deeply about.  While it’s not exactly possible to attend all that UNGA and the surrounding events have to offer, I wanted to share some of the key takeaways from a range of events that I was able to participate in.

Though the events were quite disparate, there were some key themes across the board:

  • Achieving the sustainable development goals (SDGs) is going to take much more than official development assistance (ODA) has to offer; the financing gap is in the trillions, and each of the panels touched on this theme in different ways.
  • This means those trying to achieve Agenda 2030 have to embrace collaboration with the private sector. While the need to collaborate was a given across events, there were questions raised around what best practice looks like in this sphere, and what we/governments should be mindful of before signing on the dotted line. While some sessions focused on the positive opportunities for leveraging private sector engagement for development, others showed how bad investment has a net negative affect on development goals.
  • Networking sometimes gets a bad press, but these events have re-emphasised how important it is for achieving a range of SDGs – whether that is networking data or networking people. In a globalised world, we cannot work in siloes, and certainly not with poor data; networking gives us strength in numbers.
  • There continues to be a need for good, smart, rapid response data to inform decision making. (Interestingly, the political barriers to this technical solution were not widely discussed.)
  • Potentially transformative breakthroughs only come with taking real risks. It seems that institutions with mandates to de-risk investment aren’t being risky enough to get the job done, certainly in the climate space.

Data to End Hunger

This event, hosted by the Governments of Kenya and Ghana (alongside others including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation [BMGF]), looked at how data could be used towards attaining SDG 2, ‘Zero Hunger’.

  • Data is personal: as The Moth storytellers pointed out in a podcast recorded during the event, behind ‘data’ (in this case, agricultural data) there is a whole range of beneficiaries for whom the information can mean life and death; profit or losing everything. José Graziano Da Silva, head of the FAO reminded us that every one of those going hungry has a story and a personal history.
  • The numbers are staggering: there are more than 820 million people undernourished internationally, and many in need of ‘breaking the grass ceiling’ as one presenter called it. Better data can lead to better agricultural outcomes and more targeted agricultural policymaking. Roger Voorhies, of the BMGF, pointed out that in today’s system ‘all lives have equal value, but not equal opportunity’.
  • Technology can help: the tech revolution should be able to make the generation and analysis of data more efficient and affordable, if leveraged appropriately. Representatives of the Government of Ghana raised the issue – acknowledging the importance of data, but asking the question of how to balance this with something immediate and tangible for citizens who are facing hunger now.
  • Agricultural transformation needs good data: no country has come out of poverty in an inclusive way without agricultural transformation – but only two out of 54 countries in sub-Saharan Africa have good data on agriculture, and up-to-date information is similarly lacking in many parts of Asia and Oceania (for instance, the last agricultural survey in Papua New Guinea took place in 1963).
  • 50 x 2030: one response to this dearth of data is 50 x 2030 which was launched at this event. The initiative is a partnership between BMGF, USAID, DFAT, BMZ, the World Bank, FAO, and various governments, and will regularly survey farming households in 50 low- and middle-income countries.

The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) event

To commemorate Climate Week, TERI held an event at the Climate Hub, the special session on 'Energy Transitions for Climate Resilience.' The event included some heavy hitters from India’s leading utilities and renewables companies alongside the like of Rachel Kyte, CEO of Sustainable Energy for All, and Remy Rioux, the head of the French development agency (AFD). The event was moderated by Dr Ajay Mathur, Director General of TERI – a force for energy transition in India in his own right.

Among the takeaways and observations were the following:

  • Price sensitivity is the biggest constraint to the expansion of the renewables sector in India. The opportunities are significant, with a heavy reliance on coal and the price of renewables dropping significantly. But, to scale investment, more needs to be done to keep the price down for end users, while ensuring a healthy return for the private sector.
  • The energy storage question: when the sun is out, solar is cheaper than coal in India - but sustainable use of solar requires efficient and cost effective storage. This remains a substantial barrier. The peak use of energy is after the sun has set, around 11pm. This is when air conditioning is turned on as people start to turn in for the night. A human-centred design approach is needed to tackle the mismatch between energy use patterns and accessibility of renewable energy – but how?
  • Getting renewables to meet consumers where they are: There are six times as many motorcycles as cars in India. Targeted innovation is needed to establish how to green a dynamic transport sector.
  • Getting risky: A theme that ties back to the renewables expansion challenge for India is access to capital. At present development banks are using the same language as commercial banks in terms of the bankability of projects. If development banks do not take a more aggressive stance on de-risking investments in the renewables space, the notion of climate financing will fail to create meaningful impact for sector expansion.

Event at Columbia Center on Sustainable Investment

CCSI’s 13th Annual Columbia International Investment Conference, ‘Rethinking International Investment Governance: Principles for the 21st Century’, drew an eclectic crowd of government officials from high-, middle-, and low-income countries, academics, and policy practitioners focused on making the most of the investment opportunity. The interests in the room were diverse, but some key themes emerged, regardless of participants’ starting point.

  • The big theme here was power dynamics – both in terms of power between foreign investors and the countries they invest in, as well as the power between wealthier states and poorer states in multilateral negotiations.
  • Investor State Dispute Settlement and the current FDI infrastructure more broadly isn’t working for the world’s poorest countries, and certainly not for the world’s poorest people. A paradigm shift is needed in thinking about investment and the opportunities it creates for a country and its development, but whether this should be incremental or a wholesale rethink was something that conference attendees were not in agreement on.
  • The WTO has long been a contentious institution in terms of the role it plays (or doesn’t) in ensuring low- and middle-income countries have the space to develop. Many presenters noted how rethinking this global trade architecture has the potential for change, but could also lead to adverse outcomes if these poorer country governments are out-negotiated on specific terms.