These Stories Will Drive the Agenda During UNGA78 | What to Watch at the 2023 United Nations General Assembly

UNGA78 is here! Hundreds of world leaders are gathered in New York for the opening of the 78th United Nations General Assembly. I’ve covered 18 of those 78 as a journalist, stretching back to 2005. I’d like to think this gives me a modicum of expertise on all things UNGA, so here are some of the key stories that will drive the agenda during what is known around the UN as “High Level Week.”

From Monday to Thursday this week, I will be covering these stories and more in a special daily Global Dispatches podcast series. Episodes will be availably around 4pm ET each day. Be sure to subscribe/follow Global Dispatches— World News That Matters to get those episodes as soon as they are released. 

Ukraine + The Black Sea Grain Initiative

UNGA78 will be the first time that Volodymyr Zelenskyy sets foot in United Nations since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. He is scheduled to deliver his General Assembly address on Tuesday, just a couple hours after President Biden. This is a prime speaking slot. The US President — as leader of the host country of the UN — typically holds a luncheon for world leaders following his UN address. This means that you can expect more than your average number of leaders to be at the UN on the Tuesday of UNGA, giving Zelenskyy the opportunity to meet face-to-face with other leaders before he heads to Washington D.C. later in the week. Russia, for its part, is given a late speaking slot on Friday — a consequence of the fact that Putin is not attending this year.

For Antonio Guterres, UNGA is an opportunity to try and revive the Black Sea Grain Initiative. The UN helped broker this deal in which Russia permitted the export of Ukrainian grain to Turkey, where it would be inspected then sent along to destinations in the Middle East and Africa. Russia unilaterally let that deal lapse in July — and subsequently began a war on food, bombing grain silos, ports, and setting fire to wheat fields.

Guterres has been testing the waters in recent weeks to see what sort of assurances Russia might demand in exchange for re-entering the grain deal. Last week, he announced that he will be holding a series of bi-lateral meetings with Zelenskyy, Erdogan and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to discuss reviving the Black Sea Grain Initiative. Do not expect any major breakthroughs during UNGA—Russia seems intransigent. But do expect this to be a major focus of Antonio Guterres throughout the week that may bear fruit down the road.

Rescuing the Sustainable Development Goals

The SDGs are suffering. 2023 marks the halfway point of the Sustainable Development Goals, and most of the them are off track. COVID had a particularly deleterious impact on the SDGs, which are due in 2030. Not only did progress stall during the pandemic, but many of the goals saw substantial reversals. One of they key focuses of UNGA this year is to reinvigorate progress on the SDGs.

To that end, there are several key meetings throughout the week—top among them an SDG Summit that kicks off High Level Week on Monday morning. The summit will bring together government, civil society and private sector leaders and we can expect to see new or renewed financial and political commitments. In his pre-UNGA press conference last week, Antonio Guterres expressed genuine optimism that this summit would be a catalyst for rescuing the Sustainable Development Goals. “I believe that next week there will be an important breakthrough in creating the conditions to rescue the Sustainable Development Goals.” Guterres said. “I am very hopeful that the SDG Summit will indeed represent a quantum leap in response to the dramatic failures we have witnessed until now in relation to the implementation of the SDGs. That will be my most important objective next week.”

The SDGs need all the help they can get, and this UNGA will be an important moment for building political will towards achieving the targets world leaders set for themselves in 2015.

Financing For Development 

A second key meeting directly related to the SDGs is a “High Level Dialogue on Financing for Development.” Don’t let the dry name fool you—this is one of the most important happenings at the UN this week. A meaningful outcome will determine progress on both the SDGs and Paris Climate Agreement.

Financing for Development refers to the suit of investments that are required for developing countries to meet the Sustainable Development Goals and uphold the Paris Climate goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees.  When both pacts were agreed in 2015, there was wide acknowledgement that wealthier countries would need to support poorer countries that wanted to develop their economies in sustainable ways. Unfortunately, the promises of financial support, concessional loans, debt forgiveness, and reforms at the World Bank and IMF have fallen short. There is now a huge gap— as much as $1 trillion a year — between what is required to achieved the SDGs and Paris goals and what is actually available to support sustainable development.

This meeting on Wednesday is one iteration of a broader process to hold wealthier countries accountable for their promises — and more generally unleash greater development assistance to poorer countries. Among other things, this will include a discussion around the “Bridgetown Initiative,” which is a set of proposals lead by Barbados Prime Minister Mia Motley to accelerate climate and development finance.  Much of the developing world and key players in the global north have coalesced around the Bridgetown Initiative, so there is real opportunity for progress. Also, the next round of the IMF and World Bank meetings is being held in Morocco in a couple of weeks, so the timing of the UN summit has added political potency around institutional reforms.

Three Global Health Meetings

UNGA78 is very much a global health focused affair. There are no fewer than three major health related high level meetings this week. On Wednesday, leaders will gather for the High Level Meeting on Pandemic Preparedness. For obvious reasons, pandemic preparedness in general — and COVID in particular — were key focuses of the last two UNGAs. The topic may have receded from headlines, but diplomats have been hard at work over the past two years to take some of the lessons learned from COVID and create a new agreement around international cooperation on pandemic preparedness and response. This meeting is intended to lay the groundwork for progress on that international agreement, which may be approved at the World Health Organization during the World Health Assembly next spring.

A second key meeting on Wednesday is around Universal Health Coverage. Officials see “UHC” as a clear pathway for progress on all the health related SDGs. And here, there was continuing progress until COVID. This meeting is intended to build on that past progress, and revive the prospect that the UHC goal to “achieve universal health coverage, including financial risk protection, access to quality essential health-care services and access to safe, effective, quality and affordable essential medicines and vaccines for all” will be met by the 2030 deadline.

The final major health event is a summit on Tuberculosis. TB is one of the world’s leading killers—despite being preventable and easily treated. COVID upended years of progress towards the SDG, which calls for a 90% reduction in the number of TB deaths and an 80% reduction in the TB incidence rate by 2030, compared to 2015 levels. Health advocates have high expectations that the “High Level Meeting on the Fight Against Tuberculosis” will result in political and financial commitments to meet that goal.

Climate Ambition Summit

Climate concerns will pervade all UNGA events, particularly in light of the record breaking heat this summer and devastating flooding last week in Libya. The climate centerpiece of UNGA78 will be the Secretary General’s Climate Ambition Summit on Wednesday. Antonio Guterres has long identified climate as his top priority as Secretary General and he is using his conventing power around a summit in which the price of admission are concrete climate commitments—so expect new announcements from both government leaders and the private sector at this event.

The climate ambition summit also comes just months before the next big UN climate conference — COP28 in the United Arab Emirates. This summit, and other events throughout New York this week, are intended to build momentum towards this next big moment in climate diplomacy.

I hope this was helpful! I will be sending updates about these events and much more throughout the week. Get our newsletter to receive updates.