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SDG Action Zone: People

22-24 September 2020 | Virtual

Highlights for Tuesday, 22 September 2020

Tackling societal inequalities and committing to transformative change that helps everyone—including minorities and marginalized people—were major themes on the first day of the SDG Action Zone. With sessions on issues ranging from how to address systemic inequalities to how to protect jobs and bridge the digital divide, speakers set out the challenges and potential solutions for achieving the “people” part of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The day concluded with forward-looking sessions on the future of leadership, society, and work. It ended with a passionate call for “parity” in order to create a healthy global society.

Opening Plenary - Nations United: Launching the Decade of Action

Plenary panel (clockwise from top left): Richard Curtis, Writer and Director; Jacquelline Fuller, Vice-President, Google and President,; Edward Ndopu, SDG Advocate; and Dia Mirza, UN Environment Programme Goodwill Ambassador

Setting the scene for the debates, author Nadira Hira challenged participants to critically explore the barriers to achieving the SDGs. She said the global health crisis provides a unique opportunity to focus on people, their relationship with “a planet in trouble,” and the types of partnerships that can recreate a greener and more sustainable future after COVID-19.

Writer and director Richard Curtis said this event should explore the “facts and solutions” behind each SDG, and challenged speakers to identify clear actions that will make the solutions a reality.

In a recorded speech delivered via video, UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina J. Mohammed argued for hope even in the bleakest moments, and urged the world to use the pandemic as a springboard out of the current unsustainable consumerist trajectory. She called for reinvigorating multilateralism and upscaling actions towards achieving the SDGs, including reimagining education, halving carbon dioxide emissions by 2030, and having zero tolerance for the abuse of women and children.

A trailer of the UN film on the Decade of Action was then shown. It reflected on the 75 years since the birth of the UN and highlighted the significant challenge we face today. Jacquelline Fuller, Google Vice President and President of, the company’s charitable arm, reported that the SDGs have motivated Google to set the target of operating fully with carbon free energy by 2030. This has challenged the company to be innovative and to share technology and artificial intelligence solutions with its partners.

  • Jacquelline Fuller

Dia Mirza, UN Environment Programme Goodwill Ambassador, reasoned that climate action will be the one goal to either prevent or unlock achieving the SDGs. Noting the COVID-19 pandemic’s global impact, she expressed the hope that it will catalyze a change in attitude and reduction of consumerism.

On the role of marginalized communities, humanitarian activist and SDG advocate Edward Ndopu suggested continuously shining the light on such groups and amplifying their voices. He said the SDGs are a powerful weapon to hold people accountable as the Goals are “not just some abstract policy instrument” but rather about “dignity and agency and allowing the world to breathe more freely.”

During his concluding remarks, Richard Curtis encouraged people to ensure their money is invested according to the SDGs, while Dia Mirza suggested finding one SDG that resonates with one’s own goals and acting on it every day. Edward Ndopu urged people to “step aside” and allow marginalized groups’ voices to be heard, and Jacquelline Fuller called on people to write emails to their CEOs to suggest ways in which their companies are uniquely positioned to help achieve the SDGs.

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Protecting Jobs: Decent Work Solutions for a Just Transition

Session panel (clockwise from top left): Moderator Vic Van Vuuren, International Labour Organization (ILO); Archana Soreng, Vladislav Kaim, and Nisreen Elsaim, Secretary-General’s Youth Advisory Group on Climate Change; Roberto Suárez Santos, Secretary-General, International Organisation of Employers (IOE); Sharan Burrow, General Secretary, International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC); Guy Ryder, Director-General, ILO; and Paloma Costa, Secretary-General’s Youth Advisory Group on Climate Change

Vic Van Vuuren, Director of Enterprises for the International Labour Organization (ILO), moderated this session, in which young people posed questions to labor and trade organization leaders about making a just transition for “decent work” and jobs in a world struck by COVID-19.

Co-moderator Archana Soreng, UN Secretary-General’s Youth Advisory Group on Climate Change, led the youth representatives in challenging the current economic paradigm. Vladislav Kaim, also of the UN Secretary-General’s Youth Advisory Group, highlighted the many structural barriers for young people to enter the employment market. He said few pathways exist for youth to secure green jobs, as there are a lack of social systems and contracting mechanisms in the green economy. He asked how ILO envision social contract reforms and policies that will broaden the scope for youth to participate.

Guy Ryder, ILO Director-General, said the pandemic has exposed all the inadequacies of current social protection arrangements, with half the world’s population having no social protection in the work place. He highlighted areas for reform, including implementing cash transfer programmes that are flexible and scalable; and complementing income support with labor policies to retrain people and health benefit packages.

Youth representative Nisreen Elsaim questioned how the employment market will refrain from repeating the same mistakes “if it starts where things ended in the beginning of the pandemic.” Sharan Burrow, General Secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), responded that the trade union movement “came from the people and is supposed to serve people,” especially at the grass roots level.

Youth representative Paloma Costa highlighted that Latin America’s indigenous people and young people have been suffering the most from the economic consequences of COVID-19. She asked how we can make space in the formal sector for the millions of young people who are currently working in the informal sector, which has been especially hard hit by COVID-19.

Roberto Suárez Santos, Secretary General of the International Organisation of Employers (IOE), suggested that saving and recovering the economy should be a priority, after which engagement with the green economy should take precedence. On the informal sector, he said a quick green recovery needs to focus on engaging this sector, thus ensuring a just transition and achieving a win-win solution for the labor market. This, he said, requires providing young people with the skills to adapt quickly, as well as strengthening the sustainability of social schemes.

During concluding remarks, Vladislav Kaim emphasized the importance of establishing “skilling” pathways as broadly as possible, so that “Generation COVID is not left behind.” Nisreen Elsaim called for urgent climate action in spite of COVID-19, while Paloma Costa warned against “saving the economy first.” She said it is crucial to put life and humanity’s collective welfare in the center of all discussions, and emphasized the need to direct real, sustainable initiatives onto a formal, green path.

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New Pathways: Under the Influence – Online Solutions to Real World Violence

Session panel (clockwise from top left): Amanda du-Pont, Actor, Model and Television Host; Siya Kolisi​, UN Global Advocate for Spotlight Initiative, and South Africa Rugby Team Captain; Cecilia Suárez, UN Global Advocate for Spotlight Initiative; Moderator Amber Whittington, YouTuber, Actor and Activist; Louis Cole, YouTuber and Filmmaker; Patricia Georgiou​, Head of Partnerships and Business Development at Google Jigsaw; and Karuna Nain, Director for Global Safety Policy at Facebook

Youtuber and activist Amber Whittington moderated this session, which focused on the role of social media in both aggravating and preventing violence against women and girls.

South African actor and television host Amanda du-Pont said violence is a part of women’s everyday lives in her country, suggesting “men are too comfortable with bullying.” She observed an increase in online violence during the pandemic, but also noted a positive trend among many people, including men, speaking up against this.

Filmmaker and Youtuber Louis Cole suggested the rise in domestic violence is caused by an absence of education for men on how to express their emotions, as well as COVID-19-related stress.

Cecilia Suárez, UN Global Advocate for Spotlight Initiative, underscored the need to include men in the conversation about online violence, ensure different role models for men, and improve education that prepares children to protect themselves from online pornography.

Siya Kolisi, UN Global Advocate for Spotlight Initiative and Captain of the South African National Rugby Team, shared how he advocates for gender equality both publicly and at home. He said police should be better equipped to receive reports on gender-based violence, noting this requires both more women working at police stations and dedicated training.

Patricia Georgiou, Head of Partnerships and Business Development at Jigsaw (Google’s incubator for tackling geopolitical challenges through technology) reported that over 85% of women with Internet access have either experienced or witnessed online violence. She also said women are 27 times more likely to be victims of cyber violence than men. She stressed the need to make the Internet a safe space, noting that online violence drives women out, which not only increases inequality but also negatively impacts the economy.

Karuna Nain, Director of Global Safety Policy at Facebook, described the company’s approach to addressing violence against women and girls. This includes: speaking to women’s organizations worldwide to understand how the platform can be used both positively and negatively; defining content-sharing policies based on these discussions; creating “product experiences” that include proactive content management and also allow for people to report abuse; and developing resources, such as directories of national helplines or WhatsApp-based helplines.

Amber Whittington closed the session stressing the need to create safe platforms, and “take care of each other and our women and girls.”

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The Future of Leadership: When Women Lead

Session panel (clockwise from top left): Silvana Koch-Mehrin, President & Founder of Women Political Leaders (WPL); Michelle Harrison, Global CEO, Public Division, Kantar; Oby Ezekwesili, Senior Economic Advisor for the Africa Economic Development Policy Initiative (AEDPI); Gabriela Cuevas Barron, President of the Inter-Parliamentary Union; Elena Candon, Delegate with Girl2Leader; and Atsushi Sunami, President of the The Sasakawa Peace Foundation

Silvana Koch-Mehrin, Women Political Leaders, moderated the session, which highlighted examples of how data, evidence and concrete examples of leadership can be used to get rid of harmful stereotypes and accelerate progress towards gender equality.

Michelle Harrison, Global CEO/Public Division Kantar, shared on the findings of the Reykjavik Index for Leadership, which measures perceptions of the suitability of women and men for leadership, highlighting that less than half of Group of Seven (G-7) countries’ populations are comfortable with a woman as a country or major business leader.

Oby Ezekwesili, Africa Economic Development Policy Initiative, highlighted gaps in data that could enable demonstrating the results of women’s leadership at different levels, and noted that, where there are results, these are often not showcased. She further called for investment in voter demographic data to empower female politicians to be more strategic about their electoral strategies.

Atsushi Sunami, The Sasakawa Peace Foundation, emphasized the importance of children being raised by both parents as a life experience and contributor to happiness. He said the pandemic provides an opportunity to find a “new normal” in sharing household work, especially in Asia where men typically work long hours at the office.

Elena Candon, student and delegate with Girl2Leader, identified ways in which youth today perceive gender equality promotion differently, noting her generation asks “why don’t more women” instead of “why can’t women.” She called for a shift in understanding of feminism from “women versus men” to “women and men versus sexism” to avoid issues being labelled as “women’s issues.”

Gabriela Cuevas Barron, Inter-Parliamentary Union, spoke of how a legislature open to women and young people enabled her to get elected into parliament at the age of 21. She lamented that in her country, Mexico, only 25% of seats are still held by women, calling for allowing women and men to compete in equal circumstances.

Koch-Mehrin identified among the takeaways from the session the importance of increasing access to policy for youth, data to change perceptions, and focusing on “what is in it for men.”

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Closing Session: The Power of Parity for a Healthy Society

Session panel (L-R) Moderator Nadira Hira, Master of Ceremony; Emma Theofelus, Deputy Information and Communication Technology Minister, Namibia; and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Former President of Liberia

Nadira Hira moderated the first day’s closing plenary that explored ways to accelerate progress towards a people-centered future. She suggested now is a pivotal moment to create a permanent shift in perceptions about women in leadership positions, stressing that the potential of half of the world’s population should not be left underutilized.

Reflecting on a question on why countries with women leaders have suffered six times fewer deaths from COVID-19, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Former President of Liberia and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s Presidential Center for Women and Development, identified qualities of women that enabled this, including empathy, as well as issues women tend to promote, including education, equality, justice, and equal opportunities.

On challenges facing women in reaching leadership roles, Emma Theofelus, Deputy Information and Communication Technology Minister, Namibia, underscored lack of trust as a barrier, questioning why societies trust women with raising children but not with leadership. She called for using examples of women who have “led well” to build this trust and for women to have confidence in themselves.

Sirleaf identified stereotypes of women as caregivers, teachers and nurses, and emphasized that these need to be challenged continuously despite recent advances. She also called for continued emphasis on parity for girls in education and for women to support each other and to claim leadership.

Regarding a vision on the way forward, Sirleaf drew attention to the 25th anniversary of the Fourth World Conference on Women (Beijing+25), suggesting the process could lead to concrete actions to empower women. Theofelus called on individuals to recognize and unlearn their biases and negative sentiments held against women that hinder women’s progress, and urged supporting young women in particular.

Hira closed the session highlighting the rich discussions throughout the day and noting the growing conversation on social media around the topics addressed in the proceedings.

The first day of the SDG Action Zone featured many presenters speaking passionately about ending societal inequalities and addressing the needs of minorities. The most pressing global concerns received attention, including topics such as education to refugees, reversing economic, gender and power inequalities to “supercharge” the SDGs. The role of women in leadership was discussed in several sessions, with Emma Theofelus, Deputy Information Communication and Technology Minister, Namibia, during the closing plenary, questioning why societies trust women with raising children but not with leadership.

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SDG Action Zone Resources

IISD/ENB Meeting Coverage

IISD Resources