Maher Nasser had a blunt message to share after stepping out of Expo 2020's Global Goals Thematic Business Forum on 18 January.
“We were not on track with achieving the SDGs [sustainable development goals] even pre-pandemic,” he tells MEED.
With more than 31 years of experience with the UN, Nasser serves as director of the UN's Department of Global Communications outreach division, a position he has held for more than a decade. Since 2019, he has also been the commissioner-general for the UN at Expo 2020.
The added responsibility has come with its own share of opportunities and challenges – the latter in abundance when participating in an international event during a global pandemic.
“Expo 2020 was originally meant to coincide with the 75th anniversary of the foundation of the UN,” he says.
The milestone was to form the crux of the UN's presence at the expo, alongside the focus on the SDGs and the Decade of Action. A dedicated UN pavilion was in the pipeline to highlight people affecting change worldwide.
“Our presence is meant to be about the people we serve and not the individual organisations as an institution,” says Nasser. “What remains with people are stories, not statistics. And this was the focus of our planned pavilion.”
The plans were ultimately disrupted by Covid-19 and the subsequent postponement of Expo 2020.
“The [pandemic] meant that the resource constraints we already faced were exacerbated,” says Nasser.
The UN did away with its independent hub. Instead, it has a symbolic presence as a thought partner inside 'Opportunity', one of the expo’s anchor pavilions and also known as 'Mission Possible'. Visitors to the pavilion begin their journey with a recorded message from the UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres and then continue on a guided, narrative experience with a change-maker chaperone.
“The aim was to showcase the impact that individual actions can have, encouraging people to act now,” says Nasser.
The UN’s message of solidarity and hope goes well beyond its tangible presence. Efforts are apparent through the countless forums and engagements that UN spokespeople are undertaking.
Responding to the UN's pre-event calls for support, nearly all member states at the expo have imbibed core UN messages within their pavilions, spotlighting sustainability, gender equality, water conservation and more.
“We have also worked with UN agencies to mark specific days, including World Food Day, UN Day and others,” explains Nasser.
During the expo’s thematic ‘Global Goals’ week (15-22 January 2022), the emphasis on the 17 SDGs was amplified across the site with colourful flags, posters and banners.
“You don’t have to come to the UN hub to see the SDGs – you see them everywhere," says Nasser. "And for that, we are grateful to Expo  and their leadership.”
“All of this is great,” I say, bringing us back to where our conversation commenced. “But are we realistically any closer to achieving the SDGs by 2030?”
And while Nasser admits that we were not on track even pre-pandemic – and Covid-19 has only worsened the problem – he is confident change is possible.
“We are getting more and more involved in how our actions [affect] the planet and society," he says. "And there are success stories.”
He cites Covid-19 vaccines as an example, highlighting how the fast-tracked development of a solution to fight the virus was possible due to the collaboration of governments, companies and scientists.
An issue remaining with vaccines is the ‘crisis of solidarity’, with poor nations suffering from unequal access. A similar challenge persists in many areas of society, including developing and underdeveloped countries' lack of access to fundamentals such as food or digital connectivity.
“That’s the beauty of the SDGs because they cover these challenges,” says Nasser. “They differ from the MDGs – the millennium development goals – which only focused on developed nations and did not focus on societal and environmental issues. The 17 SDGs, with 169 targets and 250-plus indicators of achievement, are a plan of action that leaves no one behind.”
The UN and its sister entities are now rebuilding efforts to achieve the global goals.
“The six years of the SDGs have made an impact,” says Nasser. “More people recognise the SDGs today. More and more business forums, academic institutions and governments now talk about the goals.
“The emphasis on sustainability, equality, climate and the goals themselves at Expo 2020 has not come from a vacuum. It has come from the accumulative impact of our work."
For Nasser and his colleagues, the road ahead is long and difficult. But it is also necessary.
“Do we pat ourselves on the back for the work done so far? Absolutely not, because there is no room for complacency," says Nasser. "We are not where we need to be and, if anything, we must redouble our efforts.
“This is an opportunity for us to set the course back, energise and be hopeful that we can do it – because we can.”
With less than a decade to go until the deadline for attaining the SDGs, governments, businesses and individuals across the world must take responsibility for their actions. After all, there is no Planet B.
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