« Back to News

Tarja Halonen at the Kapuscinski Lecture held on 7 May 2012 at the University of Helsinki

“Political leadership for sustainable development”

It is a great honor to be invited to give a Kapuscinski  Lecture at the University of Helsinki.  And it is a pleasure to share the lecture with Helen Clark, the Administrator of the United Nations Development Program, a very respected person and my dear friend.

My theme today is “Political Leadership for Sustainable Development”.  I will approach it to a large extent by introducing an example of political leadership, what we needed in the UN Secretary-General’s High-level Panel on Global Sustainability. And let me at the outset give credit to the Secretary-General himself for the leadership he showed in establishing the Panel and in giving it an ambitious mandate and repeatedly encouragement. He again and again reminded us to be bold, pragmatic and revolutionary.

The story of sustainable development is a good example of how an excellent concept by itself does not lead to progress without a strong commitment by all necessary actors to right policies and actions.

The notion of sustainable development has been with us for more than twenty years. Yet, we have failed to implement it enough.

Today we stand at a crossroads. Continuing on a business-as-usual path will risk people and our planet. So why do this, when changing course is possible?  Now it is high time for the world community to recommit to sustainable development and to take action.

To begin with, we have to see sustainable development as one entity. It is not just economic growth, not just environment and not just social justice, but an integrated whole.  I tend to call it a modern trinity. When our perception of sustainability is integrated, we can proceed to coherent policies and actions to enable people, markets and governments to make sustainable choices.

A more sustainable path has to enhance human well-being, further global justice, strengthen equality and preserve the Earth’s life-support systems for future generations.

These kinds of thoughts have guided the work of the High-level Panel on Global Sustainability of the UN Secretary-General.  In a very intensive work process during 17 months, we managed to finalize a consensus report with 56 recommendations. I call the recommendations a Nordic “smörrebröd” table, from which one can choose what to take.

What then should be done to make sustainable development practical reality?  Wherever we turn, the need for stronger leadership in the efforts to reach sustainable development is obvious. Leadership is called for in civil society and in business life, but nowhere is it as crucial as in political life.

The Global Sustainability Panel felt that, to improve political leadership for sustainability, political systems and political decision-making need some generic changes. And, of course, political leadership is equally essential in putting into practice the specific recommendations of the Panel.

Sustainable development is fundamentally a question of people’s opportunities to influence their future, claim their rights and voice their concerns.  Democratic governance and full respect for human rights are key prerequisites for empowering people to make sustainable choices.

Sustainable development is also about the economy, which serves people’s needs while respecting long-term sustainability instead of prevailing short-termism. (One should remember this also when reading daily newspapers.)

It is also about governments, private sector, civil society, in particular, local communities working together in partnerships.

Good governance is at the heart of sustainable development, and all governments must advance its basics to empower people to make sustainable choices. The basics include, as you know, democracy, the rule of law, respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, and equality for women and men, as well as access to information, justice and political participation.

But we can say that also better accountability in political and economic decision-making is part of the transition towards sustainable development.

If good governance provides the soil in which sustainable development can grow, coherence is an indispensable tool for actually making it happen.  Governments at all levels, from local to global, work too much in silos, ministries isolated from each other.  It is impossible to make the coherent policies and trade-offs between different dimensions of sustainable development, if a genuine whole-of-government approach is not applied.

But political leadership is not only about general qualities of government.  What is needed is concrete and pragmatic actions. The Global Sustainability Panel agreed that actions are most urgent on three fronts.

First, people must be enabled to make sustainable choices.

Second, the concept sustainable development must be incorporated into the mainstream economic policy debate and practice.

Third, governance practices and institutions must be improved.

Let me briefly elaborate on each of the three.

Empowering people to make sustainable choices is based on improved equity. It is only possible once human rights, basic needs, human security and human resilience are assured.  And delivering on our global promises, in particular, on Millennium Development Goals, to end poverty is crucial.  I always repeat what my father used to say: “My dear, it is not enough to have freedom or bread, one needs to have both freedom and bread.”

On policy level investing in education and job creation is needed. Education, not only primary but also secondary and vocational, is necessary for ensuring that everybody can contribute to addressing today’s challenges and seize opportunities. I always say to young people that you probably think your parents’ and grandparents’ education is out-of-date, but the same will apply to your education even faster. So please be prepared to enjoy life-long learning.

The underutilized potential of women and youth especially needs to be put in service. Creating employment opportunities, decent and green jobs for all would considerably help to drive sustainable growth.

Women are confronted with numerous obstacles that limit their capacity as citizens, producers and leaders.  In economy, unleashing women’s capacity, talent and innovation has the potential to yield great benefits. Studies show that closing the gap between male and female employment rates would boost GDP by 9 to 16 per cent in OECD countries. And even if I do not believe that GDP is the goal, it does have some importance.

Addressing the current global economic crisis is naturally urgent. The crisis also compels us to start to transform the global economy into a more sustainable one.
Goods and services are not always priced right. Social and environmental costs are not included.  Transforming pricing inclusive of real costs takes a strong political commitment and leadership.

We also have to change the way we measure progress by creating an index or set of indicators which cover both economic growth and other aspects of sustainable development. It is time to stop the tyranny of GDP. The Human Development Index developed in the UNDP is a valuable contribution in this respect.

For investment and financial transactions new incentives for long-term sustainability are needed.

Increased finance for sustainable development and transition to green growth is necessary, although much can be done by redirecting existing funding.  Traditional ODA is not enough, so one has to find ways whereby ODA catalyzes and leverages additional public and private funding.

In economy, too, equity considerations are relevant for better sustainability. Long-termism helps to improve equity between the present and coming generations. New financing partnerships and innovative finance mechanisms can support sustainable growth in developing countries. And the businesses value a level playing field when confronted with new policies and regulations.

To achieve sustainable development, an effective framework of institutions and decision-making processes at all levels is needed. I will leave this part more to Helen and what is thought about the matter in the UN family.

In the High-Level Panel we made some recommendations in this field.  We felt that a global sustainable development outlook report would help to assess our world in an integrated way.

We also recommend considering the creation of a global sustainable development council.

These recommendations include a greater role for non-State actors – civil society organizations and private sector entities – which will be needed to better implement sustainable development. When their contribution is needed, it is only fair to give them more say. Here again, Governments have to lead and give up outdated extreme interpretations of sovereignty.

What could then be the form of commitment of different actors? A new social contract or a new global deal?  I would like to say that it is the modern trinity.

But one thing that we have already practiced is the Millennium Development Goals. I remember when I was chairing the Millenium Summit with the President of Namibia.  The feeling, or the atmosphere, was that the next millennium has to be better than the previous one.

We have not failed totally. I think that the Millenium Goals have helped us progress much more than we could have done without them. Now our experience can help us make the set of Sustainable Development Goals, to learn from our mistakes and to make them stronger and better and reflect what we need today. And this is what we proposed to have in 2015. In Rio we hope to get a strong commitment to do this. We do not want to put a shadow on the Millenium Developmet Goals, but to have a natural continuation to them.

I will perhaps not be present when in 2030 you will think if this was a good idea or not, but be aware that most of you will be, and this will be your task.