Nardos Bekele-Thomas, Resident Coordinator of the United Nations (UN) and Resident Representative of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in South Africa delivered the Keynote Address at the 2019 Annual Meeting. For her full biography, please click here.

Molweni, Good Afternoon. Thank very much for inviting me, on behalf of the United Nations Development System in South Africa, to this very timely and relevant discussion.

Excellencies, Ladies and gentlemen, at the Annual Meeting of the Academic Council on the United Nations (ACUNS) of 1999 the late Secretary General of the United Nations Kofi Annan delivered a message on behalf of the United Nations. In his message he referred to ACUNS as “a vital part of our efforts to renew our thinking about the prospects and promise of the United Nations”.

In the same message he reflected that our collective energies in trying to resolve some of the world’s most complex issues must be rooted in real scholarship and hard thinking about the role of the United Nations. It is this hard thinking that must define new ways of making peace and ending wars, it is this appreciation for real scholarship that will infuse new thinking into our approaches of undertaking the process of development.

I have decided to use these extracts as part of my opening remarks because they remain as relevant today as they were twenty years ago, and perhaps represent the best articulation of the role of ACUNS in relation to the United Nations and the important role it plays in the ever-evolving work of the UN. So, as we continue with our work of trying to find solutions to the many and complex challenges of our world we can not do otherwise but to engage with those who have dedicated themselves to the process of generating new ideas and knowledge. Fortunately for those in the UN, ACUNS presents a platform that coordinates an otherwise uncoordinated and complex environment made up of academics spread across seven continents.

Our search to revolutionise the paths of development that have defined how we have managed the global economy over the past century will be influenced by what the late Secretary General referred to as real scholarship and hard thinking. In this regard, I think from whichever perspective you look at it the suggestion that “Without revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement” reflects the important nexus between theory and practice.

We are glad to welcome ACUNS to Africa, through South Africa, because this reflects a genuine attempt to integrate the voices of African scholars into the body of thought that is actively working to define these new pathways of development. Through this conference we certainly hope that the African experience on development can begin to take centre stage and deliver a true blend of perspectives that reflect the plurality of the human journey of development.

The partnership with the University of Stellenbosch is a well-considered one, taking into account the special place that the university holds in the higher education sector of the country and the continent. The university stands out as a leader in developing academic programmes that are concerned about the future we want to build from both an African and South African perspective. Our post-2015 agenda has largely been defined by the idea of building a development trajectory anchored on sustainable development, and the University’s programmes and work in Sustainable Development have done a lot to bring to the fore the idea of sustainability within the African development context. This is just but one example of the relevant curriculum design of the university within the context of our contemporary agenda of development. As the United Nations in South Africa we would like to extend our hand to the leadership of the University in strengthening our existing relations.

Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen, the theme for this year’s Annual Meeting “The UN and Africa: Progress Towards Achieving the SDGs,” presents the practitioner and academic communities with an important opportunity to reflect broadly on many aspects of Africa’s development. Importantly, we should use the opportunity to do more than just reflect on what has been done but proceed to provide concrete and evidence based proposals that can be used to enhance on-going efforts.

There is a myriad of issues that could be discussed under this broad theme of Africa and progress towards achieving the SDGs. For the purposes of this input, in consultation with the organising team we attempted to identify something that could be catalytical in the broad SDG implementation agenda and dedicate this time reflecting on that. After much engagement we settled on the topic, “Building partnerships for implementing the Sustainable Development Goals”. We have arrived at this topic because we really believe that getting this right could be a game changer for SDG implementation in the continent. We hope to use the opportunity to do some hard thinking about partnerships within the context of SDG implementation, challenging some commonly held framings but also providing very practical examples of what is being done with the view of enhancing and scaling up.

I have approached this input from both a theoretical and practical perspective. I think the nature of the conversation requires that we provide some theoretical grounding for some of the practical interventions we present, but also believe the audience and the context of the discussion would be enabled by some theoretical propositions.

Allow me, ladies and gentlemen, to spend some time on what some may consider a conceptual and unnecessary question. What do the Sustainable Development Goals represent? I think navigating through this somewhat easy and yet complex question will allow us to understand what “we are moving from” and “what we are moving to”. This is a critical step if we are to correctly understand the type of actions we need to take in the implementation of the SDGs and in the context of this discussion the type of partnerships we need to build to drive the implementation of the SDGs. For Africa, in particular, this question will also assist us to reveal not just the type of partnerships we should build but the very character of those partnerships.

The crux of my proposition is perhaps based on this latter question, the character of the partnerships we should seek to build as a continent. I hope that by the end of this lecture I would have arrived at a point where I would have demonstrated that we need to defy the models of partnerships that have hitherto defined Africa’s development. These are partnerships between Africa and the world, partnerships between African countries, partnerships within countries between Governments and citizens, private sector and civil society. This defiance of historical models of partnership must give birth to new models of partnerships based on mutual trust, benefit, respect and collaboration. With in the context of this, the unique contribution of the academic community will be to assist us do some hard thinking of how we will practically do this considering the diverse interests.

So back to the initial question. What do the SDGs represent? Allow me to summarise the answer in the following:

“The SDGs reflect an acknowledgement by global leaders and the global community at large that the path of development humanity has pursued over the past century has led to a number of undesirable outcomes. These outcomes can be summarised under the broad rubric of people, the economy and the planet. In this regard, many of the worlds people are living in poverty, with limited access to quality services deemed as critical for human progress, for example education and health. The global economy works for the few, with the distribution of wealth highly skewed towards a few resulting in unsustainable levels of income and wealth inequality. Lastly, our methods of wealth generation have had devastating environmental consequences”

For each of these elements there are accompanying statistics that demonstrate these undesirable outcomes, with endless research to back up the data.

Summarily our model of development has not worked, or maybe better nuanced to say that it has not worked for all. Additional to this, the SDG’s are an acknowledgement that previous efforts to radically change this path of development have not yielded as much success as we would have desired for many of the worlds citizens and countries.

I would argue ladies and gentlemen that this represents what “we are moving from”.

The SDGs are an attempt by the global community to define a new future and a radically different path of development for humanity than we have experienced over the past century. This requires us to redefine the way we have practiced the management of the economy and the undertaking of development. And this represents “what we are moving to”.

But understanding the “what we are moving from” by itself is not enough, because at the core of producing the undesirable outcomes we have defined above are the actions of individual and collective actors. The critical point is that at the centre of defining the future we want to build will be our ability to influence a rethink in how these actors see the future of the global economy, the future of mankind and how we partner and collaborate for the future we want.

The point is that the future we want to see, as envisaged by the SDGs, can only be realised by the collective actions of all actors. Simply translated through partnerships. So partnerships and collective action is at the heart of the transformative agenda we have defined for ourselves, and is not just a simple icon number 17 in a list of 17 SDG icons. It is at the heart of what we need to get right to create the change we want to see. Unfortunately, the ambition of the SDGs mean that it is collective action across sectors that will deliver the type of transformative change we desire. Not withstanding the importance of individual actions to create the necessary momentum for system wide change.

Earlier I had alluded to the need to consider the character of the partnerships that will deliver the type of change we desire in Africa. I premise this point on what I call the type of partnerships that have both disadvantaged and underdeveloped Africa. My proposition is that Africa has been a victim of unsustainable partnerships, both internal and external, which have largely contributed to its underdevelopment. These range from political and economic relations with the outside world mainly through colonialism, which were largely exploitative and extractive; secondly in terms of governance of both economies and political systems by the African elite; third in intra-African economic management; fourth in managing the role of citizens in democratic processes including civil society.

As we look to galvanise society behind this new vision presented by the SDGs we have established that partnerships are the basis of system-wide reform, and further established that we need to move away from the character of partnerships that have delivered the undesired social, economic and environmental outcomes. To advance development we must shift from partnerships premised on exploitation, suspicion, lack of respect and benefits that accrue to the privileged to a type of partnership model where there is mutual benefit, trust, respect etc.

This shift will mean different things in different spaces. For example it will have implications on how the developed world practices trade with Africa, how governments interface with the private sector in development, how the private sector sees its own role in development and makes its investment decisions, it will have implications on how African’s trade among themselves, it will have implications on how we practice democracy and good governance, on how we manage conflict and many more.

Ladies and gentlemen, the second key message that I would like to deal with today is the importance of citizens in the process of their own development. Historical models of development have unfortunately considered the process and act of development as external to the recipient, and to this effect the poor who are often beneficiaries of the many programmes and initiatives we undertake are seen merely as recipients of the final product. In this approach either the private sector and/or the government are considered to be the custodians of defining the path and models of development to be pursued. The limitations of this approach have long since been understood and attempts to define an alternative have led us to ideas such as people centred development and participatory development. These are indeed positive advances that appreciate the centrality of citizens in the process of development. Within the continuum of bringing people to the centre of being active participants in their own development there is a need to transcend into a higher level of citizen participation of people-driven development. My contention is that the anchoring of development among citizens and investing in these people-driven models will be important in the journey of implementing the SDGs.

Therefore, as we consider the key partnerships we need to build for the implementation of the SDGs I think the foundational one is the partnership with the people. If we are to talk ownership, the people must feel that this agenda is theirs and be the primary agents of its implementation. Missing this point, is a serious disadvantage for long term progress.

Please allow me to demonstrate this point with a very practical example. In 2016 the community of Vhuwani in the province of Limpopo here in South Africa engaged on prolonged protests against a decision of the Municipal Demarcations Board to incorporate them into a new municipality. The events linked to these protests are well known in South Africa but kindly allow me to share with those who may not be familiar with them.

Not withstanding the constitutional right to peaceful demonstration, the protests turned violent resulting in twenty-eight schools burnt in varying degrees, and vandalism of 50 schools.

The reconstruction of such schools was at the time estimated at a cost of about R720m.

Without doubt this had devastating impacts on the education of children in the area. Based on the Department of Basic Education’s briefings to the Portfolio

Committee, the protests affected approximately 52,827 learners from 102 schools in six education circuits in the area.

Without attempting to simplify a complex issue and arrive at simple conclusions, which would need much more interrogation with the support of the academic community, I do think that we can venture to suggest that one of the key issues that this crude example demonstrates is a lack of ownership by citizens on both the educational outcomes of their children and the actual process of delivering the infrastructure that support the attainment of such outcomes. At the heart of it is a non-existent partnership between the community and the providers of education on educational outcomes.

Having considered this terrible example and the devastating impact when communities are disengaged from processes and instruments that facilitate for their development, I would like to offer an example of the positive developmental impacts when we are able to harness the power of ordinary citizens.

I was in Benin as RC during the period 2008–2013. One of my main tasks was to coordinate humanitarian responses caused by the recurring flooding year after year in the Bondo and Zagnagnado areas as a result of the overflow from the Niger river and the rising sea level. It had become an annual tradition for the UN and the Government to launch a humanitarian appeal for donor support for the provision of food, medicine, clean water, tents, sanitary and dignity kits for women and girls, etc. In 2011 the communities of these two affected areas got together with us and decided to put an end to this agonizing state of affair. With our support, the community got organized contributed to their own development, mobilized additional resources from nationals living in the country and outside the country—sons and daughters of the land from within and outside—sat down with national Engineers and with the Support of a homegrown leading Sustainable Agriculture Centre called the Songhai, built dams for irrigation and fisheries, employing the energies of youth from the same region, trained some graduates of the Agriculture School to be farmers, trained Engineers to become entrepreneurs for the supplies of agro-based equipment, leased the land from the government and today these two areas have become the main supplier of fish and vegetables in the country and main exporters of fish to neighbouring Nigeria. Life has changed for the people in these areas. This is an example where Public-Private Partnerships (PPP) and Administration Business and Civil Society (ABC) Partnerships are replaced by an all-inclusive Academia, Administration, Business, Civil Society and Community partnerships (AABCC). But most importantly this example exemplifies how the ingenuity, will, and commitment of the people are critical ingredients in solving developmental challenges.

The two examples are an attempt to demonstrate the necessity to prioritise partnership with the people in the implementation of the SDGs, and the dire consequences for development if we do not do that such as in the Vhuwani case and what is possible when we do so as seen in the case of Benin.

Having dealt with the type and character of partnership that we need to define for the SDGs, I have proceeded to highlight the important role of ordinary citizens in the implementation of the SDGs and the negatives of failing to do this.

I would now like to turn my attention to a third element which I consider as vital for building a consensus for change. That is the will for change among society’s elite. The will is a function of a realisation by the elite groups of society that the path of development as currently practiced is not only unsustainable for those left behind but for society as a whole, and change is a necessary pre-condition for the continued survival of all.

The absence of the will to change may be a substantive impediment for transformation.

It is however worthwhile to note that change can occur outside of the political will of the elites, mainly through concerted pressure from those who are left behind. However, in most cases change that occurs where the will was absent leaves society in some form of conflict and is therefore undesirable because the conflict further denies the country the necessary conditions to drive development. It is in this context that we must call for a different kind of partnership between the political and economic elites and the people. We must continuously seek to build the consensus for change, and finding this consensus means we must be instruments of bringing people together. Particularly those who disagree.

An issue that will significantly influence the implementation of the current agenda is the way in which we solve problems of development, and how we drive innovation to deliver the SDGs.

To achieve a new quality of transformative partnerships called for in the SDGs we should be bold and innovative and always consider the SDG principle of leaving no behind in the process of convening, facilitating and delivering it.

An issue that I am personally passionate about that requires our collective reflection is the nexus between access to services and the quality of services people have access to. A lot has been done to ensure access to services for the poor. We have declared universal access to health and education and we have seen good progress globally on this. The challenge we face is the quality of these services which is often so poor that it undermines the very access to them. This means that as we work to broaden access we need to work on improving the quality of the services we provide. This is where I think the role of partnerships between the private and public sectors can create a fundamental shift. In this regard, the type of partnerships we must invest in should be to ensure quality basic services and attaining high standards of services to all, to give the freedom of choice of services to people, to expanding the space for young entrepreneurs in the social sectors, to professionalizing the public service and raising their standards.

As indicated in my opening remarks, ACUNS offers us a space to do some hard thinking on some of the very difficult questions that confront us as practitioners on a daily basis. Through this input it has been my intention to lift some of the issues that I think are critical for us to get right if we are going to adequately respond to this agenda over the next 11 years or so.

The underlying message that I leave the Annual Meeting with is that the appreciation we have all converged on that to achieve the SDGs we have to do things differently should equally extend to how we understand the partnerships necessary for to achieve the SDGs. The partnerships are not merely about financing the SDGs as we often summarise it, which is vital, but entail a real transformation of the values of human solidarity that should define those partnerships, the importance of bringing people to the centre of our models of development and forging genuine partnerships with them, the need for us to actively work to establish the will for change through on-going consensus building and lastly to innovate for development solutions.

I wish delegates to the annual meeting fruitful discussions for the next three days, and we look forward to engaging with the outcomes of the meeting with the intention of enhancing our own thinking on the very important topics you will be considering.

Finally, to the South African academic community present at this gathering. I would like to say to you, we are bound together by a commitment to contribute towards finding solutions that can support the people of this country improve their life experience and we extend a hand to you as the UN in South Africa to find better ways of coordinating among ourselves to achieve this. The Secretary General is continuously pushing the United Nations Development System reform agenda. All the 17 UN Agencies, resident in South Africa, are obliged to work as One in partnership with governments, communities, the business operators, civil society organizations etc… to meeting the 17 integrated SDGs. Today I extend my hand to all Learning and Research Institutions to join hands with us. The challenges are huge but not insurmountable if we avoid working in silos, and work together as ONE. The UN remains your trusted partner that can help to forge partnerships and platforms to co-create and co-own complex development solutions.

Enkosi, thank you very much.