The world is now at the halfway point in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, and it has never been more important to accelerate the move from pledges to progress. In fact, in the 2022 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) Report, Secretary-General António Guterres cautioned that, with “cascading and interlinked global crises, the aspirations set out … are in jeopardy.” The SDG financing gap was estimated at $2.5 trillion before Covid-19, with additional needs of $1 trillion for Covid-19 spending in developing countries.
As heads of state gather in New York for the 77th session of the UN General Assembly (UNGA) this week, they face several urgent global challenges. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development – set forth when the 17 goals were adopted by UN member states in 2015 – remains a cohesive roadmap for action for the world. It establishes a common view of the urgent need to work together to improve the wellbeing of everyone, everywhere, and sustain our planet for the future. It also puts a spotlight on the role technology must play to create a more equitable world.
The 2030 Agenda recognized technology as a “means of implementation” for the SDGs, along with global partnerships that bring together “governments, civil society, the private sector, the United Nations system and other actors.” The Report of the UN Secretary-General’s High-Level Panel on Digital Cooperation stated: “Of the SDG’s 17 goals and 169 targets, not a single one is detached from the implications and potential of digital technology.” Technology can be a positive force in transforming our world and people’s lives when it is developed and used in trusted, responsible and inclusive ways.
Microsoft has been committed to the SDGs from the beginning and remains steadfast in our efforts to making them a reality. This is consistent with our history of supporting and advancing the UN charter in line with our mission: to empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more. We have engaged with UN agencies to help address virtually every SDG goal, including our work on connectivity, digital inclusion and humanitarian crises, and our participation in the UN Global Compact since 2006. Microsoft President Brad Smith reiterated the need for “partnering with governments, industries and civil society on the UN’s 17 SDGs” when he was appointed an SDG Advocate in 2021.
Our report Microsoft and the UN Sustainable Development Goals shares examples of how digital technology, innovation and partnerships are essential to advancing the SDGs. For example, we are partnering with UNICEF to further SDG 4 – “quality education” – via The Learning Passport, a digital platform created to address challenges in accessing quality education experienced by millions of children and youth in times of disruptions, such as war, crises and displacement. It is portable education, accessible online, offline and on mobile devices; the platform is now live in 26 countries. To support SDG 8 – “decent work and economic growth” – Microsoft launched a digital skilling initiative in June 2020 to lessen the impact of Covid-19 on workers worldwide; by the end of 2021, 42 million people have gained critical digital skills through the programs. We have also made bold commitments on SDG 13 – “climate action” – including working on the Carbon Call with ClimateWorks Foundation, UNEP and more than 20 other leading organizations to address the reliability and interoperability of carbon accounting for the planet.
But we must do more. Building on Microsoft’s 20-year history of working with the UN, a team was created in 2020 to deepen and expand the company’s commitment to the UN’s mission and its agencies, multilateral and regional institutions, development banks, governments, local communities and stakeholders. I am honored to have the opportunity to lead this team for Microsoft as Vice President of UN Affairs and International Organizations (UNIO). We aim to help address ongoing global challenges and advance the SDGs through responsible development, deployment and governance of digital technology. This UNIO team will focus on enabling realization of the SDGs and inclusive economic growth; encouraging evidence-based development of policy to facilitate digital transformation; and accelerating adoption of digital technologies in supporting the international systems and their missions.
The scale and complexity of the challenges the world faces today – pandemic recovery, food security and climate change – mandate that the world comes together in a multilateral effort to leverage our respective insights and derive innovative solutions. Throughout my career, I have engaged in multilateral work: from seeing Nelson Mandela, accompanied by Graca Machel, tell G7 finance ministers of the urgent need to act to support development in Africa in 2005, to my time as Dean of the Ambassadors at the OECD. I appreciate the value of multilateral processes – particularly when they are informed by multistakeholder insights that are driven by evidence and practical experience – and when they are centered on inclusive and sustainable economic development as clear outcomes.
Two issues are central in our work to help realize the SDGs: the critical importance of supporting progress in the least developed countries (LDCs), and the need to address issues at the intersection of technology and society.
The LDCs face unprecedented challenges from the Covid-19 pandemic: climate change, global recession, rising energy costs and food insecurity. At the same time, they need to drive inclusive, resilient and sustainable recovery and growth. Alongside the important role of official development assistance for LDCs, private sector investment will be essential for these countries. We are stepping up our commitments to work with the UN to help expand its private sector reach and to identify innovative solutions to the most pressing problems with our co-chairing of the 5th UN Conference on LDCs Private Sector Forum in 2023. In the leadup to the meetings in Doha, we have worked with companies across a variety of sectors to outline the main challenges facing LDCs in connectivity, blended finance, skilling, multistakeholder partnerships and good governance, and provide recommendations on what is needed to drive increased private sector investments to further progress in the SDGs. In close partnership with Microsoft Tech for Social Impact colleagues, we’ll continue to deepen our work on the empowerment of UN organizations for a fit-for-purpose use of technology to solve big societal problems and advance the SDGs, while increasing our focus on digital development of LDCs.
Ensuring that digital technology can be a resilient foundation for enabling the SDGs will require that critical issues at the intersection of technology and society are addressed. Industry needs to work with governments, civil society, the technical community and other stakeholders so that together, we can create a trustworthy digital foundation that can lead to inclusive economic opportunity and protect fundamental human rights – and enable a more environmentally sustainable future. This is an important undertaking for our team – offering the UN, international organizations and governments a perspective on the role of digital technology in realizing the SDGs, while helping to enable policy frameworks that will promote responsible development and facilitate adoption of such technologies systemically.
For example, Microsoft participated in the launch of the UN and World Bank’s Joint Call to Action on the need for further data investments in April 2022. We highlighted the work of our data scientists in addressing global challenges, including mitigating the impact of the pandemic, solving environmental challenges and supporting disaster responses and other humanitarian crises. We also shared lessons from our open data collaborations and best practices to help close the “data divide.” We will continue to work with the UN and World Bank on their efforts to strengthen data systems and to improve the capabilities and policies of countries and organizations globally to produce, share and consume high-quality data responsibly, thus helping governments to enable measurement and realization of the SDGs.
We know that there is a real opportunity for organizations and governments to use digital technology responsibly to do more with less, and to make more effective and accountable use of scarce resources while building a more resilient foundation for the future. Microsoft looks forward to contributing to Secretary-General Guterres’ “booster shot for the Sustainable Development Goals” as mentioned in the UN’s Our Common Agenda talks and working with the UN and other international organizations to continue building a resilient foundation for realizing the SDGs and for continuing the realization of pledges into progress.