The SDG Challenge: Q&A with Graca Machel

One of the exciting things about the opening of the UN General Assembly in the wide variety of politicians, activists and civil society organizations it brings to New York every year. This year, one of those activists was Graça Machel, an international activist for women and children rights as well as the former first lady of Mozambique and South Africa. In a briefing following her appearance at the Social Good Summit, she talked about the launch of the SDGs and the challenges that lay ahead.

There has been a lot of talk this week around the launch of the SDGs. Some people say the goals are too broad and too big to succeed. What is your perspective?

I think there is good in it because anyone, whatever the perspective they come from, can find a space to take an issue from the agenda, participate in its implementation and take responsibility. The MDGs were thematic and mostly related to issues of poverty alone. But the world is not just about poverty. The world is much broader and there are many issues of concern to many of us. With this agenda, the SDGs, you are not going to have an excuse to say, “This does not talk to me.” Anyone can take a stake.

There is a danger of people not focusing. I chair the Partnership on Maternal, Neonatal, Infant and Child Mortality. We organize ourselves around this partnership that brings together more than 700 organizations from around the world. So we can focus on that. And if we manage to bring down – as we say, end preventable deaths of mothers, newborns and children – that is going to be a huge contribution. So you can choose the way you can focus and make a huge difference. We shouldn’t be worried that there are too many issues because inclusiveness requires that the goals be broad.

I was part of the panel that drafted the first proposal of the goals. We had twelve, ten of which were goals and two related to process – about implementation and accountability – which we did not have a framework of accountability for the MDGs. We felt it was important that we recommend that the implementation has to be taken in an inclusive way, as we have goals. We need to have an implementation plan, which we didn’t give ourselves time to do with the MDGs. The second thing is to have the framework of accountability. You are government, you are private sector, you are academia, you are media, you are civil society, even traditional religious leaders, everyone has to be taking that stake in a framework in which you can say “this is what I’m obliged to do,” and report back. And we believe if this accountability mechanism is put in place, than we will get to five, ten, fifteen years with a very clear picture of the progress made.

The SDGs come at a time when we are seeing a flattening in funding for HIV/AIDS in Africa. Given this, do you think the SDGs around health and HIV are achievable over the next 15 years?

Within the MDG framework, health is one of those ones that made less progress. For example, with HIV/AIDS, yes we say the cases have come down, in general terms. But if you disaggregate the data you realize, for instance, amongst adolescent girls the infections are increasing. They haven’t come down. So what we are told is that we shouldn’t have lump sums of analysis and conclusions. We have to go much deeper and disaggregate the information so we can understand where weaknesses are, where the gains are, and how we can address them. In terms of infections, it is not just with the adolescents. We haven’t done well with people who are moving from one place to another. We do not have a good record on that. Also, we have made good progress on treatment, having brought people into treatment, but we are not doing well in tracking and making sure that those who are in the system are taking medication. In some places, we are now having problems of resistance. So there are lots of challenges. This is why we call for accurate data because that is what will tell you where you are doing well, where you are not doing too well and where you have to improve.

Earlier this week you raised the issue of applying the SDGs to emergency and conflict situations, not just in the normal area of development. Why is this important?

Of the 59 million children who are out of school, 30 million are in situations of emergency. It is relatively easy to reach out to stable communities, but the SDGs say, “Leave no one behind.” They do not say only deal with those in stable situations and you can forget those who are in emergencies. And if we are really going to bring everyone then we need to learn how to provide services and opportunities even in situations of conflict.

I think we do have lessons in the past, which maybe we need to refine and we need to scale up. But the reality is it is a significant amount of people who are in refugee camps, who are IDPs, who are in situations of movements, which we simply have to learn how to reach out to them and provide services that they deserve.

And we learned of the totality of the humanitarian assistance which is given to people in emergencies. Only 2 per cent goes to education. So the good thing is we are beginning to look in depth in situations and to know what is happening in terms of food, health, education or other issues such as justice and gender based violence. We know that problems are not uniform. So when we prepare the package of humanitarian assistance, we have to take these issues in account. For example, there hasn’t been a good record of addressing gender violence in situations of emergency. So we need to simply understand that the package of humanitarian assistance has to be meeting material needs, meeting health needs, meeting needs of justice and protection and safety and security. All of this needs to be strengthened. I’m hoping, really, we are going to change the way we deal with humanitarian assistance because what I have learned from the time when I was much more involved with this, the changes that have taken place are still really small and not to the magnitude and scope of the problem.

With all the talk of the SDGs, do you think they are able to help bring about political consensus, such as a resolution to the conflict in Syria? How can they apply to the political problems we already see today?

That is a difficult questions because what is at stake in Syria, you will have some powers who believe it is a strategic interest. It has nothing to do with the people of Syria. Unfortunately, they are being sacrificed to those strategic interests. So when you ask what it will take to create he political will, it is the hard questions of saying “Are the strategic interests more important than human beings?”

You know when it started, it was hundreds of people being displaced. And then we saw them swelling into hundreds of thousands and now it is millions. They destroyed their country. But it looks like that is not even enough to heed them to say there is no justification to sacrifice people for strategic interests. So I can’t answer the question, this is what I am saying. I am not sitting in those positions because I am simply a grandmother. To me, those children count much more than whatever strategic interest there might be. So my view is completely different because we are sitting in completely different positions. And this is why, you and I, feel that politics is failing us as people. It is failing us. Because what is at stake is not us, it is something else out there. I’m from Mozambique, my country has been in conflict, I know the cost of war. That’s why my heart bleeds when I see those images of the people of Syria.