Western leaders defend slow progress to end global inequality as UN summit starts

Western leaders have gone on a charm offensive on the opening day of the UN general assembly as they were forced to defend their record in meeting the organisation’s sustainable development goals (SDGs), and insist that the war in Ukraine had not distracted them from this commitment to end global inequality.

Related: Rifts over Ukraine disrupt UN summit on crises in the global south

At a special summit in New York amounting to a halfway stocktake on progress towards meeting the goals by the target date of 2030, all sides acknowledged there was little chance that the ambitious set of commitments set in 2015, including ending extreme poverty and safeguarding the environment, will be met on schedule.

A plea by the UN secretary general, António Guterres, for all sides to avoid recriminations about the cause of the failure and instead to use the two-day summit as a chance to make a global rescue plan was only partially met on the opening day. The list of 17 SDGs, which includes 169 specific targets, was first adopted at the UN sustainable development summit in September 2015, and most assessments say only 15% of the targets are on track.

The leaders adopted a 43-paragraph political declaration, brokered by Ireland and Qatar, that warned years of sustainable development gains were being reversed. It said: “Millions of people have fallen into poverty, hunger and malnutrition are becoming more prevalent, humanitarian needs are rising, and the impacts of climate change are more pronounced. This has led to increased inequality exacerbated by weakened international solidarity and a shortfall of trust to jointly overcome these crises.”

“Instead of leaving no one behind, we risk leaving the SDGs behind … the SDGs need a global rescue plan,” Guterres told the summit.

Guterres was able to see off a last-minute démarche – led by Russia and an alliance of only nine countries wanting to insert opposition to the use of unilateral sanctions into the declaration.

The UN said this month that there were 745 million more people either moderately or severely hungry in the world today than in 2015, and the world was far off track in its efforts to meet the ambitious goal to end hunger by 2030. The world was back at hunger levels not seen since 2005, and food prices remained higher in more countries than in the period 2015–19. On current progress it would also take 286 years to close the proposed gender gaps in legal protection and remove discriminatory laws.

The solutions laid out in the political declaration are broad, covering financing for developing countries including clear support for Guterres’s proposal for an SDG stimulus of at least $500bn annually, as well as a more effective debt-relief mechanism.

The declaration also calls for changing the business model of multilateral development banks to offer private finance at more affordable rates for developing countries, and endorses reform of the international finance architecture which Guterrres has labelled “outdated, dysfunctional and unfair”.

Dennis Francis, the UN general assembly president, speaking at the assembly in front of dark marble column
Dennis Francis, the UN general assembly president, said that with concerted action, it was still possible ‘to lift 124 million additional people out of poverty’ by 2030. Photograph: Richard Drew/AP

Dennis Francis, the president of the UN general assembly, said: “In the recent past there has been an unfortunate deficit of trust and this has undermined the capacity of the multilateral process.”

Francis said “wounds still lingered over the handling of the pandemic”, reflecting a belief that affluent countries cherrypicked the targets they could meet. He insisted, however: “With concerted, ambitious action, it is still possible that, by 2030, we could lift 124 million additional people out of poverty and ensure that some 113 million fewer people are malnourished.”

The agenda of the entire UN this week has been shaped to meet the concerns of the global south, including a separate climate summit on Wednesday, and it is evident that western powers – in an effort to counter Russian and Chinese influence – have in their round of bilateral and multilateral meetings put a heavy emphasis on the concerns of poorer countries.

The Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, is expected to meet the sceptical Brazilian president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, on Wednesday in an effort to convince him that the war in Ukraine is not an obstacle to progress for the world’s poor, and that Ukraine’s fate is a legitimate matter for the world, not just Europe.

The German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, also admitted there had been a western failure in efforts to ensure sustainable development for the planet. He said: “We see that the progress we wanted for the whole world in the fight against poverty and for better coexistence has become slower.”

Catherine Colonna, the French foreign minister, speaking behind wooden lectern in front of the UN flag
Catherine Colonna, the French foreign minister, attacked Russia for bombing Ukraine’s grain stores. Photograph: Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images

Catherine Colonna, the French foreign minister, said she wanted to avoid a north-south fracture and emphasised France’s role in building its aid budget and a new global financial pact. She went on the offensive, attacking Russia for its role in worsening the food scarcity crisis by bombing Ukraine’s grain stores.

She said: “The world can be broken down to those who destroy and threaten and those who build and feed. France is part of the coalition who help to make everyone not go hungry.” She said Russia’s efforts to present itself as a member of the global south, a term she said she disliked, were designed to mislead.

But the strength of the diplomatic olive branch to the global south was weakened by the glaring absence of two European leaders: Rishi Sunak, the British prime minister, and Emmanuel Macron, the French president. France’s mission to the UN said Macron had a scheduling conflict, hosting Britain’s King Charles III in Paris this week.

The outreach at the general assembly is likely to be matched in coming months by that of European governments undertaking to meet smaller countries that have often been bypassed by high-ranking European ministers, let alone heads of state.

Earlier this year 10 European countries, including Belgium and Slovenia, urged the EU high representative, Josep Borrell, to coordinate a diplomatic campaign to woo countries that have felt ignored, citing the need to do a better job of competing with China and Russia in what Borrell has described as a “battle of narratives”.