Obama: “Development works”

President Obama addressed the closing session of the Summit to adopt the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development at the United Nations this afternoon, making a passionate plea for the world to come together and work to achieve the ambitious agenda of the newly-created Sustainable Development Goals, a blueprint meant to guide global development efforts over the next 15 years. UN Dispatch breaks down the main themes of his speech before the United Nations

“Development Works”

The tone of President Obama’s message was generally positive and optimistic. He referred to the great advances made in the past 15 years on meeting key development targets: slashing maternal mortality and global hunger rates, improving access to education for children, and the general decline of poverty. “More than one billion people have lifted themselves out of poverty,” the President said, “ the entire world can take pride in those achievements.”  “Let the skeptics and cynics take note—development works.”

But, he warned, “We understand our work is nowhere near done. We can take pride in what we have accomplished, but we cannot be complacent.” He asked that the world take into account the “lessons that we have learned, so that we can dramatically improve outcomes,” and said “We know how it works, we know how to do this.”

Dispelling the notion that development does not work, or is not effective, is a key area for leaders to actively engage in. Indeed, without the belief that development DOES work, that the world can come together to ensure that the basic needs of every human being on Earth are met, is essential for the long term success of the SDG agenda. Belief that investments in sustainable development can yield a return – human, social, financial – is fundamentally important for a robust, global commitment to translate into effective action.

Threats to Success

“Perhaps because it’s my seventh year speaking to the UNGA, I become more likely to speak my mind,” Obama said, “We will never achieve our goals if we don’t address the insidious threats to people’s lives. If we don’t take care of some other elements of development, we can’t meet [the SDG} goals.”

So what are the threats to sustainable development?

Bad governance

President Obama adopted a stern tone when talking about the importance of having governments and institutions be accountable to the people they are supposed to represent. He mentioned specifically the importance of addressing illegal, illicit financial flows which benefit the few at the expense of the many. “Governments have to embrace transparency and the rule of law,” Obama said, making it clear that he believes that sustainable development goals cannot be achieved in places where leaders and institutions deliver justice to some and not all.


“Every country has to grapple with this issue – even here in the United States,” Obama said, adding that while “the most powerful would like to keep things as they are, when poor children are more likely to be sick and die than children across town[… ] that holds all of us back.”

Old attitudes

Obama, husband and father to three strong women, made it clear that he believes denying rights and opportunity to women will delay the realization of the SDGs. He challenged the global community to not accept “tradition” as an “excuse” for the discriminatory treatment of women. “I don’t have patience for “we have our own way of doing things,”” Obama said, “I understand, we understand, that there is a long tradition in every society of discriminating against women, but that’s not an excuse for not taking a new path to ensure that everyone in society has opportunity.”

Lack of attention on Africa

“What I saw on a recent trip [to Africa] gave me hope” Obama said. Indeed, Africa is one of the fastest growing regions in the world, and with a growing population, so do the expectations for increased opportunity and growth and improved livelihoods. “Young Africans want business, trade not aid,”said Obama, and he called on the global community to join the United States in investing in Africa to help it realize its potential and achieve success.


“It’s no coincidence that half the people living in poverty live in places affected by chronic conflict and violence.” In a thinly-veiled reference to Syria, Obama said that there are humanitarian crises and refugees which we cannot ignore, that we must deliver the urgent aid that is needed right now, and that countries that can should do more to accommodate refugees. But, Obama added, “our efforts have to be matched by the hard work of diplomacy,” reminding countries that, in the context of sustainable development, difficult political decisions and positions must be taken in order to tackle the root causes of underdevelopment.

Climate change

“All of our countries will be affected by a changing climate, but the world’s poorest people will bear the heaviest burden. We will be seeing climate change refugees. This is a moral calling,” said Obama. With the important Paris meeting only two months away, there is a clear and important opportunity for the world to commit to an action plan around climate change. Contrasting with Indian Prime Minister Modi’s comments from a couple of days ago (“The principle of common but differentiated responsibilities is the bedrock of our enterprise for a sustainable world”), Obama said he wouldn’t accept the false choice between economic growth and effective action on climate change.

“This must be the work of the world”

“We suffer no illusions of the challenges ahead, but we have to commit ourselves to it. Our most basic bond, our common humanity, compels us to act,” Obama said. Indeed, in spite of the significant hurdles in the way of achieving sustainable development for all, it is essential for coalitions of partners to come together in bold new ways to help move the agenda forward. Already, for example, the UN Secretary General announced $25 billion in commitments over the next five years to address preventable deaths of women, children and adolescents, and ensure their health and well-being.

“This next chapter can’t fall to the old divides between developing and developed nations. All nations have work to do including in the US,” Obama added, “here in this country, we are still working every day on perfecting our union.”

In addition to committing the United States to the SDG agenda, Obama even hinted at what his post-presidency might look like when he said that he is “committing the US to achieving the SDGs, as long as I am President, and well after I’m done being president, I will keep fighting for jobs, healthcare that reduced inequality – even after I’m president. It’s work for all of us, not just governments and politicians.”

Obama finally exhorted all sectors of society – governments, business, charities, philanthropies, citizens – to come together to fulfill the promise of the SDGs.  “Our new development goals are ambitious, but they are achievable if we work together, if we meet our responsibilities to each other.”

“This must be the work of the world,” Obama said.