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UN members face immense challenges meeting goals on hunger and gender equality


Each September, the United Nations General Assembly convenes, and one of the items on the agenda this year is addressing the U.N.'s so-called Sustainable Development Goals. There are 17 such goals, including ending hunger, ending poverty and promoting gender equality. This year marks the halfway point between 2015, when the U.N. member states adopted the goals, and 2030, when they are supposed to actually meet them. But things are moving slowly. Even U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres admitted earlier this year that the world's nations are, quote, "far off track from achieving them." One of the people keeping an eye on that progress is Mandeep Tiwana. He's in New York and is attending the General Assembly as the U.N. representative for the civic engagement organization CIVICUS. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

MANDEEP TIWANA: My pleasure to be here.

CHANG: Well, I want to start out - if you could just give us a brief description of what these 17 goals are.

TIWANA: So the 17 Sustainable Development Goals include promises on women's empowerment, education for girls but also on peace, justice and strong institutions, promises to tackle corruption as well as to create more sustainable environments around the world.

CHANG: All right. So we're talking about a wide-ranging and ambitious set of goals. I want to focus specifically on ending hunger because a recent U.N. report estimates that 735 million people faced hunger last year, and that number has gone up since 2019, so the problem's clearly getting worse. Let me ask you, how much do you think the war in Ukraine has affected progress on this front?

TIWANA: So hunger remains a huge global challenge, and the war in Ukraine definitely has created a greater crisis on hunger because Ukraine produces a lot of the world's food grains. It's also pushed up the prices of food and fuel around the world. So even if food is available, people don't have the money to buy their food.

CHANG: Right. Well, if this war ever does come to some sort of resolution, how much hope do you have that real progress will be made on alleviating hunger throughout the world?

TIWANA: I do believe that we can make progress, but for that, we're going to need leadership that is willing to call out dictators. It's leadership that is willing to challenge totalitarianism and leadership that is willing to lead by example and be bold and courageous.

CHANG: Well, on that topic of authoritarianism, since the U.S. withdrew from Afghanistan two years ago, the Taliban has banned girls from going to secondary school and severely limited the jobs available to women. So one of these other big sustainable development goals is gender equality. How does a country like Afghanistan move towards gender equality with the Taliban in power? I mean, can it?

TIWANA: The story of Afghanistan is actually a really tragic story of a terrorist regime basically controlling the government and seeking to act as a political actor that is somehow legitimate. So the international community has a lot more work to do here to ensure that there's conditions in the country where people's aspirations can be met, where the seeds of democracy, of people's voices to be heard, can be planted. As long as the Taliban is in power in that country, in Afghanistan, there's going to be very little progress.

CHANG: I need to ask, are there any bright spots for you? Are there any of these 17 goals that you think the world could actually achieve by this 2030 deadline?

TIWANA: Well, there are bright spots. So more people are connected nowadays together. Digital economies are flourishing around the world. And through internet connectivity, people can demand their rights, which I see as a bright spot.

CHANG: Well, during this U.N. General Assembly session, what will you personally be watching for to get a sense of how committed countries are to pushing forward on the Sustainable Development Goals?

TIWANA: Unfortunately, at the moment, in several countries around the world, we have dictatorial systems where people don't have an opportunity to demand their rights, and that leads to huge levels of inequality. That leads to networks of patronage and corruption. So what we're hoping is that the U.N.'s leadership will rise to the occasion, use their powers of moral persuasion to push forward a path that is more democratic, that is more equitable for the rest of the world.

CHANG: Mandeep Tiwana. He is the U.N. representative for the nonprofit civic engagement organization CIVICUS. Thank you so much, Mandeep.

TIWANA: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Jonaki Mehta is a producer for All Things Considered. Before ATC, she worked at Neon Hum Media where she produced a documentary series and talk show. Prior to that, Mehta was a producer at Member station KPCC and director/associate producer at Marketplace Morning Report, where she helped shape the morning's business news.
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.