In Pursuit of Development

The UN in a post-pandemic world — Achim Steiner

Episode Summary

Dan Banik and Achim Steiner discuss the role of multilateralism and global cooperation in a post-Covid world, what is required for the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030, and the UNDP’s approach to tackling climate change.

Episode Notes

Achim Steiner is UNDP Administrator. He has served across the United Nations system. He was the Director-General of the United Nations Office at Nairobi and between 2006-2016 he led the United Nations Environment Programme, where he prioritized investments in clean technologies and renewable energy. Achim has also held other notable positions including Director General of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, and Secretary General of the World Commission on Dams.



Professor Dan Banik, University of Oslo, Twitter: @danbanik  @GlobalDevPod


Episode Transcription


Banik               It's great to see you again Achim, it's been a couple of years since we last met. Welcome to my show. 


Steiner             Thank you very much. It's a great pleasure to be with you. 


Banik               Achim, a lot has happened since we last met. Not least the pandemic, and I am aware, as I am sure all of any listeners are aware, that the UN General Assembly’s 76th session was recently held, and I know that you attended several of these sessions, there were lots of interesting discussions. The theme for the session was, of course, building resilience through hope to recover from the pandemic and I believe all kinds of issues were discussed, there was food systems, climate, and energy. What according to you, were the main take-aways, Achim, from this meeting of world leaders who were actually able to come and meet in person for the first time in a while.

Steiner             Well I think probably the last point Dan is the most important one, in the midst of a pandemic, in the midst of so many things that are really causing a great deal of stress and distress across the world, we actually saw leaders from across the world wanting to come to New York for this UN General Assembly High Level Segment in September. Because it not only symbolises a place where the world comes together, it was also an expression of, we have to deal with things at national level, but we need international cooperation, we need international solidarity and I think we were all surprised how many countries came, how many heads of states, and government levels. They obviously had a great deal of restrictions in terms of delegations but that did not stop them from coming. Side events had to go into virtual mode, and yet there was a distinct difference to last year, this week in the sense that it made the UN come alive, and I think it was in that sense an expression of hope and resilience because we are still in the midst of a pandemic and I think the world is struggling to find ways out of this multiple set of challenges that we no doubt will talk about in the podcast in a moment.

Banik               So, Achim, I am glad that you mentioned this global cooperation aspect, you've been a big supporter of strengthening multilateralism and global cooperation but some of course would say, that, in the last few years we have seen the crisis of traditional multilateralism, that even though a lot of people say we should strengthen global cooperation, there seem to be many barriers. So, the question is, are we witnessing a crisis of traditional multilateralism? Do we need a new form of multilateralism? Can we expect countries with very different priorities and values to come together and work for what is often perceived to be common goals but with different angles, is that possible? 

Steiner             Let me begin by saying that since 1945 and for the past 75 years there has always been some that have seen the United Nations in crisis and multilateralism being put into question, so, I think to my understanding of history, this is not something new. Indeed, multilateralism in some respects is a perma-crisis because it is the constant tension between national sovereignty, between a collective commitment to act together and then the deviation that may come out of political moments in a country's history, or events such as this pandemic, or the Cold War. So, you know, the UN just celebrated its 75th anniversary, its ideas and ideals are as uncontested as they were 75 years ago and yet the 75-year history of the United Nations, is, in a sense, full of moments when people question the security council, the ability to act collectively, the United Nations with its specialised agencies, funds, and programs being able to make a difference. So, there is a constant and perhaps justified set of questions, but fact is, we live in a moment of time where indeed the ability of nations to succeed in tackling some of these real challenges that we now face are more premised on acting collectively and therefore on a notion of multilateralism than perhaps at any point in time since the United Nations were founded. I think that is why we will continue to see the questioning but I think not with the intent of getting rid of the United Nations, but indeed, to get it to evolve and to be able to use it as a community of nations to tackle precisely the things that are reflected in the charter or the declaration of human rights, but also in the 2030 agenda, which is really the latest expression of nations since 2015 of how we have at least a shared plan in moving forward in the 21st century. So, crisis after crisis is a phenomenon of the way the world works, the question is, does the United Nations provide, first of all, a centre of gravity for nations to be able to continue to talk to one another? Secondly, to stand up responses and I think there are many examples in the past where we have succeeded and there are many examples where we have failed, and I think that is the reality of multilateralism. 


Banik               You know, there is something new, at least it appears to me, what we have witnessed because of the pandemic, that there is much more interest now in global public goods and the provision of global public goods. You are right about the 2030 agenda, in fact, for me that is a wonderful expression of a global public goods in terms of sustainable development but because of the pandemic, because some would claim, the failure of Covax vaccine distribution, what we are witnessing is a situation where inequalities have become extremely stark and these global inequalities are leading some developing countries to question the motives of say richer countries. In that sense, I wonder whether we have in many ways, made it difficult for countries to come together the next time there is a crisis of such magnitude.

Steiner             Well, let’s first of all note, that where we began this conversation with this year’s UN General Assembly session, I think one of the very clear things that happened was that nations were talking to each other, and through the General Assembly, to the world at large, precisely to articulate the phenomenon of some call it vaccine apartheid, vaccine famine, and vaccine inequity. Indeed, the Secretary General yesterday with the Director General of the WHO again held a press conference to try and tackle this terrible situation that we face right now. So, I think everybody is justified in recognising where we are right now on the vaccine front, that there has been a significant failure, in some ways, we have an extraordinary breakthrough in science and the United Nations indeed, last year put forward Covax precisely to avoid the kind of situation that the world is now in; where those who either have the money or have the control over the production have access to vaccines and the rest of the world comes somewhere down the line. This is not only fundamentally unacceptable from an ethical point of view, but it also is self-defeating in terms of the pandemic and containing the virus itself. So, the United Nations set up Covax, approached countries and said we need financing now, that is last year, in order to be able to put in the orders that allow us to ensure we have a more equitable access and distribution of vaccines. Unfortunately, the world, as it has on a number of occasions, failed multilateralism at this moment because it did not step up and provide the United Nations with the means, So, what happened, the UN had to step to the back of the queue in terms of orders and was not able to roll out Covax, while countries that had production and funds had essentially cornered the market and could vaccinate their populations. This is a lesson in why multilateralism is not just something you use when the fire has already broken out, multilateralism is meant to prevent crisis, not simply to be an ambulance or fire brigade service when things have already gone wrong and I think Covid 19 will continue to teach us some very hard lessons here. 


Banik               I can't agree with you more, I am a big fan of multilateralism, but whenever there are these discussions, Achim, about stepping up global public investments, providing global public goods, whenever there is talk about the world coming together, we end up overlooking the fact that the politics of global cooperation, and without mentioning specific countries, there are differences in terms of the vision for global development and the terms that are required for the promotion of global development. In terms of the vaccine nationalism issue, we see that there is growing dissatisfaction in some parts of the world, that you know, the rich countries are being very selfish and I am wondering whether you think somehow the credibility of the UN has slipped in recent months, or recent years, or do you think it has been enhanced? What is, in your view, the status of the UN brand today?


Steiner             That is a tough question to answer because I think it depends on what you are judging the UN for and who you are in the world. I think in some respects there will be many who will be disappointed, because, if you assume that the United Nations is a counter proposition to vaccine nationalism, then clearly, we have only partially succeeded. The fact that, at the end of the day, nations had to come back together and are using the WHO and Covax, and the Secretary General also continues to be appealing to the G20 to show leadership, and all of these things, in a sense, converge to nations perhaps now recognising more clearly that they cannot only ask things of multilateralism or the United Nations, they must also step up and contribute and I think this will always be a tension that is there. But if you ask me about the brand, well, we actually did a very big survey on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the United Nations and I think, you know, in many ways the idea and ideals which I mentioned at the beginning of our podcast, I think remain very much ones that define the UN brand, and that is, in large part, by the vast majority of people across the world, seen as something positive. Where I think you will and quite rightly point to, is the failures of not the brand, but then the world working through the United Nations actually being able to live up to the expectations, and we have as many failures as we have successes. Sometimes, it is also the moment in time, people are rightly getting increasingly frustrated with the lack of progress or the speed with which we are progressing on issues such as climate change and yet I would say; imagine if the United Nations had not put in place an intergovernmental panel on climate change, the sign so to speak, being liberated from national interests and informing the world about where we were 30 years ago. A framework convention that is as emblematic for intransigence and inertia as it is for its extraordinary breakthroughs, look at the Paris agreement, I think we probably have to acknowledge that more often than not, we cannot live up to people’s expectations, but I think far more often than people might be aware, the UN is foundational to things that we then take for granted in our world, and that perhaps is a conversation that merits drilling deeper, in the way that the UN communicates its daily work to the public.  


Banik               Achim, I have always been fascinated with the UNDP, it is of course one of the most important, influential, and major actors in global development and you have of course, a long track record in the UN. You have headed the UNEP, you head UNDP, how is it to actually lead this organisation? This huge organisation that operates in so many parts of the world? What would you say to the listeners, what are the challenges and how joyful is it to be in New York and head UNDP?


Steiner             Well, let me first of all say it is an extraordinary responsibility because as you say, UNDP is amongst the largest of the UN entities, it is active in 170 countries. Just to give you a sense of dimensions, and your listeners, we have 20,000 staff working across the world, we, at any point in time, are supporting countries through about four and a half to five thousand projects, so, it is a tremendous responsibility; first of all, the duty of care of staff but also the promise of UNDP, the integrity of what we offer, and in that sense, it is a lot of pressure, because clearly an organisation of this size needs to constantly question itself, and it needs to evolve its operating systems. But where it becomes really a pleasure to lead UNDP is to discover an institution that because it is so grounded across the world, well over 90% of everything we do, our staff, our recourses, are in the country teams that work on the ground with our partner countries and that means you have an institution that is remarkably well networked across the world, it is a great connector; first of all, of innovation, of insights, of what is happening in different countries, of policy reforms, poverty eradication, transitions towards a green economy, and at the same time, there is a tremendous flexibility because the United Nations Development Program is really the UN's promise to be a partner and walk alongside a country in its national development path. It has remarkable trust in many of the program countries that it has acquired over many years, it has flexibility, but, and here comes the challenge, how do you maintain an ability to really be a unique value proposition? Because, you know, to just be an agency in the UN is not enough, we are the United Nations Development Program, and much of what I try to do over the last few years, is to rediscover an element of passion in looking to the future of development and derive from the kinds of offers and services that we can provide to countries, to communities, and to actors in the development arena. That has been a fascinating journey because surprisingly, an institution like UNDP can actually be remarkably agile, it can innovate. I hope we can talk in due course about some of the new frontiers that we have been developing, but in a nutshell it’s a fascinating roll to have the ability to lead such an institution and at the same time, it is a tremendous responsibility, because inextricably it is linked also to that perception of multilateralism. 


Banik               In a lot of studies that I’ve seen, including some done by my colleagues, that actually rank the UN agencies, the UNDP comes out on top on many of these rankings, you do have a lot of influence. I have seen this in China, in India, in Malawi, in very different countries, the UNDP resident coordinator has enormous influence, knowledge and oversight over some of the development challenges. But one thing I wanted to ask you, Achim, is that development, the notion of development is of course a very contested topic, it is a notion that not everyone agrees what it actually means and development is often about politics. How do you think, UNDP as an agency, as you were saying you are always innovating, how do you keep up with the politics of global development? It must be surely a challenge to be involved in political decisions, or to influence political decisions and yet at the same time, not impose your views and decisions on others. 


Steiner             Well, there is an element of science and technical focus that certainly makes it a little bit easier for an agency such as the United Nations Development Program not to be seen as sort of a mini security council arena and yet as you rightly point out, we don't live in some political vacuum, we are very much part of a global set of forces that are shaping the geo-political agenda and economic interests. It is not surprising I am sure to your listeners, during the previous U.S administration, we were scrutinised, we were pressured in fact, the administration had, for four years running asked for a complete zeroing out of U.S funding to UNDP, and interesting enough it was a bipartisan consensus in the Congress that actually maintained the financing of the UNDP and I think therein lies an interesting message. UNDP is seen not as an apolitical actor, but it is seen as an actor who ultimately is of use and helpful to the international community by virtue of what we do, sometimes in some of the worst crisis context, whether it is Yemen, or in Afghanistan, or in the Central African Republic, or in the Sahel Region. At other points in time, it is because it facilitates a new approach to addressing issues that are fundamental to development choices. The human development report, the flagship report that UNDP began 30 years ago, to this day it is a vehicle that is perhaps the most read development report in the world, because it is both a way of trying to think about the future, while reflecting on the present and doing so with that ability to not be holden to one ideology or one national interest and I think that thought leadership that UNDP can bring on top of its thousands of points of intervention on the ground, makes it a unique value proposition to the international community. 


Banik               I am glad you mentioned Professor Sen and Professor Mahbub ul Haq’s contribution. Professor Sen is my guru and I've had numerous conversations with him about the concept of human development and it is really, as you say, well entrenched in the development discourse. Let’s move onto discussing, Achim, how the UN's or the UNDP's priorities perhaps have changed in the past couple of years because of the pandemic, and potentially new priorities for your organisation. I read this very interesting report that Mariana Mazzucato and you were part of on Covid 19 and the need for dynamic state capabilities, and I found that really fascinating because in many ways, you know, one could learn from the experience that we have had, that you could create safety nets for informal sector workers, you could have all kinds of innovation, experimentation, use data, digitalisation in new ways, foster new types of partnerships. One of the conclusions of the report I found really interesting, in fact, it says that effective governance can't just be conjured up overnight, and while the pandemic is really serious, it is especially a challenge for countries that have ignored investments in long term capacities and in dynamic capabilities of the public sector. How do we actually govern and direct resilient production system? What do we do with public service infrastructure? But also, capabilities in terms of how can UNDP, how can we all pitch in to anticipate, adapt and learn? How do we actually help citizen initiatives to be scaled up and have more influence? What do we do with digital platforms? How realistic, Achim, is it, that we will countries following up on some of these recommendations? What would you say are the things that you would like to prioritise in the immediate future? 


Steiner             On our website,, you will find a just adopted new strategic plan for UNDP that will guide and define our work and our contribution to what happens next in the world of development for the next four years. I think for those of you who are interested, please take a look because it reflects a lot of thinking about precisely the kinds of phenomena that you just alluded to. I want to begin briefly by saying, one of things that I had been very keen to articulate explicitly, that UNDP must also reflect a fundamental shift that began many years ago, first of all, the notion of development cooperation, and that is not called development and development cooperation the same thing; development cooperation is an instrument of how nations work and cooperate with one another, development really is the constant search for what a nation and a community want to do next, it is articulating choices and then making those choices. I think UNDP was born out of an era where development cooperation was essentially, you know, the transfer of technology, of expertise, of development models from north to south. I think we live in an entirely different world today, and in my mind, development cooperation has ceased to be a sort of frontier driver or variable, we are in an entirely different era where national development choices, international developments in cooperationpoint far more towards a paradigm in which we have to find ways in which we can connect, in which we can co-invest and therefore we can cooperate, and that is a very different interpretation. Another key feature, I think, of the shifts that have happened just in the last, maybe five to ten years is that we have overcome this polarity that for so long defined the development discourse, there were those who believed that state lead development was the only option and it was public policy that was going to advance development, then the world swung to the other extreme, it was markets and the private sector that was much more efficient at solving problems and therefore the less state, the less government, the better. I think, as always, when you go to the extremes you find that you probably do need to correct for those and we are in an era today where the interaction between public policy, markets, the private sector, and consumers, is I think, a far more dynamic and integrated way of thinking and that is partly where we are now, really exploring new frontiers. Take the notion of investment, we have massive challenges ahead of us in terms in inequality, climate change, energy transition, digitalisation, there is no way that public budgets will be able to carry that investment alone, so we have to leverage and we have to incentivise markets, financial markets, investors, the private sector, but how do you regulate the digital eco-system in which basically the main players right now are larger than most countries in the world. That is one of the interesting frontiers, so digitalisation, I think, has emerged as perhaps the most dramatic variable that has changed in just a few years and the pandemic has very much illustrated, and I would argue, has probably moved us forward by five years in terms of the application of digital, but also to understand how it will permeate virtually every aspect of development. Here is an area where UNDP already, three years ago, began with a digital UNDP strategy to recognise that this was going to be fundamental to what countries would need to think about and act on in the years to come and we would need to be a relevant partner, by connecting best practices, by helping countries, not just to look at the last mile of connecting fibre optic cable but rather how to invest in an inclusive digital economy. So, to your point about the paper that we published together with Mariana’s institute, dynamic capabilities of the public sector, is very much where UNDP is focusing, on how do we support government, in first of all, having the ability to look forward, to anticipate what is happening, then arrive at a consensus on not just the technological and financial side but also the normative side of the decisions that need to be made. Digitalisation could be the greatest driver of inequality in the next few years, that was the 2019 human development report alert. It could also be the greatest driver of greater equity, it will not happen by default, this is by design of choices in public policy and investment. So, here are a few examples of how, when I talk about making the UNDP a vehicle for countries to be able to work on the future of development, it is very much about the choices that need to be articulated clearly within a country, then national political dynamics and normative choices will clearly be the privilege of that country. It is not for UNDP to decide that, but we will be there always trying to articulate, first of all, what it is that are the options for a country, and secondly, what are pathways for them move forward and realise those decisions. 


Banik               In a way you could say that it’s great to have a plan, and the paper that I was referring to is a plan, you can have a vision, you know where to go and yet you are hindered because there is a lack of funds, there isn't enough from foreign aid, from development cooperation. There simply isn't money, and this is something that the UN, as I understand it, has always struggled with, sometimes member states don't pay, some states are more generous than others, within many of the donor countries, including in my own country, Norway, you know, we are proud of how generously we fund UN agencies, but even here, the local political discussion is often very polarised and some people say that we should really be prioritising ourselves, and the pandemic has made a number of these countries look inward, so, you can have a good plan, but there isn't money. Then of course, you have new emerging global actors, you have south-south cooperation, you have all of these other modalities of development cooperation and then you have the UN in addition. So, what I am trying to get at here, Achim, is how can we find common ground, not just for the plan, but also to finance the plan? 


Steiner             Well, that is the daily struggle of every UN institution, I think of every non-government or non-profit institution, we you know, are not operating like Jeff Bezos where you essentially generate the funding, we are not even of the privileged position of the World Bank which you know its replenishments essentially is given a pot of money and can then begin to operate according to the agreed priorities. The United Nations lives in a constant struggle of trying to make ends meet, and when I begin the financial year, essentially 88% of what we will spend through that year is not guaranteed income. As I mentioned, we have roughly 11-12% core funding and the rest is a series of projects and this is, I think, sometimes where I wish our partners in parliaments and also in governments would speak a little bit more creatively about the value for money that they actually receive in return. I think this perception that the United Nations, is in a sense, a place where bureaucracy and inefficiency reign is often a misperception and I think it would do us all good if we could have more agreed criteria and metrics to actually measure this. I think my simple answer to this is, look I can sit and bemoan it or I can try and persuade the world that it gets real value for money from UNDP. I think with the measures we have taken in the last three to four years, I see a turnaround, although in fact last year, but this is then product of domestic politics. Norway reduced some of the core funding to the UNDP, I am hoping this is a short-term phenomenon, the UK cut its ODA in this pandemic by billions of pounds, these are decisions that are to me, profoundly disturbing, because at the moment where we should be stepping up but we also seeing some countries step back, on the other hand others step forward. I think in the UNDP we have seen an increase in core funding, an increase in overall financing through UNDP and I think that is in part because, with the agenda that I have put in place, with my management team, and with positive feedback we are getting from countries whether it is on digitalisation, whether it is on innovation we have established in less than two and half years, a network of 92 UNDP accelerator labs. These are essentially teams that are now imbedded in our 90 country offices, specifically with the mandate to look at innovation within the country, to be a new eyes and years for our development input, they are a tremendous success in terms of brining within UNDP a new capability, we have established UNDP with another area that is fundamental to what happens next in development, and financing, our finance sector hub is today at the forefront of development. For example, the norms and standards that allow countries to raise SDG bonds on financial markets, we are developing tools that have, for instance, significant potential to influence the G20 in terms of its sustainable finance working group, that we have been invited with the Secretariat.Now, all this may sound a little bit bureaucratic, but these are capabilities that allow us to be relevant when a country says “how on earth are we going to finance an energy transition, poverty eradication, coping with the pandemic and building back better or building forward”. We are also supporting in 70 countries, now integrated national financing frameworks that are looking at how can the country align public finance, and private sector finance that is domestic and also international, and thereby multiply the investments that are needed. These are the frontiers of enabling different decisions to emerge and our strategic plan has also therefore made UNDP much more ambitious. For instance, on an issue such as climate change, we simply cannot go on just doing pilot projects or small distinct projects we made a climate promise two years ago to support 100 countries in preparing their national climate strategies for Glasgow, I am proud to say now we have been invited now by 119 countries with whom we have worked over the last two years. We have also made a commitment in our new strategic plan, that in the next four years, we will try, I cannot guarantee it because it depends, as you say, on funding, financing, and many factors, but to be central to being able to support 500 million people, half a billion people, to gain access to clean energy because we simply have reached a point in time where significant transformation actions are necessary, and institutions like UNDP has to commit itself to be part of that ambition. 


Banik               So, Achim, when the 2030 Agenda was adopted by the whole world community, in September 2015, there was this enthusiasm, this euphoria that we finally have a plan now, we are not just talking about developing countries, we are also talking about us, the whole world, we are all in the same boat, and we have the Sustainable Development Goals that will help bind us together. Staying on the issue of financing, one of the crucial elements of this plan, the 2030 Agenda, was that the private sector should be involved actively. Now, I have never seen the private sector show as much enthusiasm for global development as they have since 2015. However, others would say that that enthusiasm has not translated into adequate financing. What are your thoughts there in terms of the role of the private sector in bank rolling the SDGs? 


Steiner             Let's begin by acknowledging that I think the private sector at large has been in some ways far more engaged and interested in understanding the SDGs than they were with the Millennium Development Goals which, to me, was a surprise. It began with some extent, for example, seeing, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, in the stands and the window fronts where big corporations have their meetings, the logo, the symbol of the 17 SDGs appear and some cynics said, you know, they are so nice and colourful in the window front but let’s put that scepticism aside for a moment. Particularly, when you look at the finance sector, it is quite remarkable how they have begun to look at the SDGs as something that has to do with their core business and the future of their business. That then, I think, has to do with something I have often understood out of these discussions with financial sector leaders, they look at the future in terms of risks and you know to me it became increasing clear that what we did in 2015 and the years leading up to it, is translate a shared sense of the major risks that confronted us as nations and on which essentially being able to act on them would require us to act together. So, the SDGs are if you want, an inverse articulation of the great risks to our common future, and where we are bound to have to work together if you want to tackle them. These 17 goals suddenly become quite comfortable templates in which to look at the future, look at risks and therefore the finance sector began to realise fairly early on, if you could get governments and public policy to tackle some of these issues, this would reduce the risk for us as a world financial market, and therefore we have an interest in promoting action on the SDGs. Now, the second step obviously is to get the finance world to invest and co-finance the SDG implementation, that has been slower and interesting enough that has been one of the triggers for when I began to initiate the finance and SDG impact work in UNDP three years ago. The finance sector told us, look we don't need you on the financial engineering but where we really struggle is on the impact front, impact intelligence, impact monitoring, there is more and more capital that is asking for us to be seen to be investing in good outcomes, so how do we do this, and that is why we developed these SDG impact norms and standards. Just in the first few months it has been interesting from Mexico, two SDG bonds, both close to I think 1 billion dollars,Uzbekistan the new development bank, all in the range of 800 to a billion dollars, taking in a sense, the SDGs as a way to go to the financial markets and raise capital. That is how a very significant new, I think, opportunity arises for countries, first of all to be able to leverage financial markets with the SDGs, and secondly, for financial sector actors to finally step up and be part of the solutions to the very essence of what they have; they need money and funds as opposed to simply being spectators and thereby becoming part of the problem, which is so often what we have found in the past, the finance sector not being an ally in driving consequential shifts and transformations. 


Banik               When I have spoken to some of the major CEOs who have shown considerable interest in sustainable development, they have said a bit of the same thing as you just pointed out, that we are willing but we are not sure about the risks involved, we don't know, we don't have enough local information, maybe academics should help us, we need somebody to guide us, and so that was one set of issues in terms of knowledge, in terms of information. Another, had to do with cushioning risk that we need public sector guarantees, we should not be allowed to take the risks on our own and that has led to, as I am sure you are aware, many people doubting the genuine intension because some private sector actors, in fact many, are making the argument that being involved in sustainable development is win-win, it’s good for the company, good for profits and it's good for the world. But others are more sceptical, saying look at what has happened with Covax and all the subsidies that pharmaceuticals got that it is all about profits and not giving something back. I find that debate to be extremely polarized that while yes there are companies showing a lot of interest, there are also other parts of society that are pushing back and are accusing the private sector of SDG proofing or SDG washing their activities.


Steiner             This is neither a new debate, nor will it ever disappear because I think it is a legitimate debate. I think it is a legitimate way to question, whether genuine the net outcome, of let's say, a public private partnership or a co-investment strategy or leveraging financial sector actors in investing SDG outcomes really does produce these results. I think as always, where it is critical for us to think carefully about this, is how do regulatory frameworks, how does the public policy environment create the conditions whereby these outcomes actually become possible. Let's take the vaccines for example, we put them all in one pod but the fact of the matter is that Pfizer, BioNTech and Moderna are essentially increasing their prices already now in new orders. This is a multibillion-dollar business that is growing exponentially. AstraZeneca, from the beginning with the University of Oxford, committed to actually not making the provision of these vaccines a profit-making enterprise, so as always there are different kinds of business and different kinds of business leaders. I think what we need to figure out is that the fact that business want to make profit, I think most of us can acknowledge, is not a sin, the question is when it becomes to the detriment of society. We are witnessing just now a digital revolution that on the one hand is fascinating, on the other hand, it is rolling over many developing countries, it hasn't even begun to legislate for these kinds of digital enterprises. Therefore, the dominate players globally are inserting themselves in local markets where there is really now legislative and regulatory framework to protect citizens, citizens’ rights to privacy, also monopolies that are distorting markets and we have to understand that the private sector is a force that can be leveraged, yet, it also needs to be regulated and therein lies the same logic that would, to me, guide the engagement of financial sector actors in investing in public good outcomes. You know, we had a debate in the 90s that the bank particularly became a centre of controversy around the notion of privatisation, the fact that the policy advised them was to privatise water, water supply, clearly that caused a major backlash because you cannot privatise something that is essentially a fundamental right of citizens to have access to. For example, the South African constitution actually enshrined, in its way of creating a fundamental right for access to water at the time that Nelson Mandela became president. So, over the years we learned that you cannot always come with this argument of privatisation including of fundamental assets but you can very easily create a public tender in which you invite private companies to private water related services, be it in terms of sewerage treatment plants, be it in terms of maintaining and managing distribution systems, within very clear parameters that include public goods and public interest legislation and conditions. I think that is the era in that we find ourselves today, also going back to the work that we do with Mariana Mazzucato and UNDP, what we are trying to describe is a different form of state role, not only as the passive regulator but as developing new capabilities in order to understand how to shape future markets, we cannot afford for public policy to always be in catch up mode, and that is why again, in UNDP I have put thinking about the future of development so high up on the agenda because by anticipating what the choices, the dilemmas, some of the risks will be over the next few years in terms of technological, developments on the financial markets, we can make governments more capable of fulfilling their public promise to their citizens. 


Banik               You know, we can't really have a conversation without mentioning the climate emergency. I actually very much enjoyed reading a report, I believe UNDP actually commissioned it, the People’s Climate Vote, apparently 1.2 million respondents were part of this survey of public opinion on climate change. What is particularly interesting there I think is that despite the pandemic etc, there is still this wide spread recognition that climate change really is a global emergency and not just in certain countries in fact, in all the countries, I think you surveyed around 50 countries. What I would like to discuss with you, Achim, is that there were four sets of policies, climate policies, that apparently merged as the most popular globally, one had to do with conservation of forests and land, another had to do with solar, wind and renewable energy, a third had to do with climate friendly farming techniques and fourth, investing more in green businesses and jobs. So, in many ways you know we could have a lot of data information on what people want, what is available, what is possible, we can try and get funding for these things. But how do we also do all of this while there is this growing anxiety that nothing works, we are all just doomed. So, this climate change debate sometimes at least in our parts of the world is often characterised by this, everything is failing, horror stories, within some of these fields that I just mentioned in terms of forests or power, how do we create this more positive narrative that it is possible? I mean, you have success stories such as Kerala and Rwanda, or even Senegal during the pandemic. How do we talk more about what is working rather than just focusing on doom and gloom? 


Steiner             Well, Dan now you have opened the pandora’s box for part two of this podcast because you are touching on something that I feel very passionately about. I think you have put your finger precisely on a dilemma we face, the harsh truth is that we are in a race against time and on current projections and trajectories, we are actually losing that race against the clock in terms of climate change, there is no ambiguity about that in fact, many scientists have already given us almost the red card in the sense of saying, look you may have already passed the point of no return in terms of 1.5-degree future. I think that dramatic realisation is not one we should either dilute or create ambiguity around because it is part of understanding quite how serious our situation is, quite how dramatic the decisions are that we must take in the coming months and years. I also having led the United Nations Environment Program, I spent many years trying to help the world understand that this is not science fiction we are talking about, this will not unfold in your children's future lives but actually still in our lifetime, and sadly reality has proven, both the scientists, and people such as myself, many around the world, right. No cause for celebration as you can imagine, but the irony is that actually the world is responding and some of the announcements and decisions that have happened in the last 18 months in the midst of this pandemic are remarkable. Because five years ago, even four years ago, they would have been considered revolutionary, in fact most people would not have believed that they would have been possible and that has to do with, for example the commitment to net zero by so many countries, we have seen these stimulus packages that are now investing hundreds of billions of dollars in the transition towards greener economies and it still is something we have to be very watchful about because I think our concern is, yes our announcements are great but will it actually translate into real financing. But look at the European Green Deal, I was just a few months ago in Italy and I was fascinated to see that Italy has now been given 60 billion euros out of the allocation of the Green Deal in Europe for its recovery. That has been handed to the minister for ecological transformation in order to invest in the greening of Italy's economy, 60 billion euros. You have seen the announcement of the U.S administration that just 12 months ago had left the Paris agreement, now re-joined it and had the president of the U.S commit to doubling the U.S contribution to 11 billion a year to international climate finance. You had China finally closing the door to coal fire power stations and infrastructure being supported internationally as China was still doing. So, I could go on, and you are absolution right, we do not have the time right now, but let me say the following, we are facing an ever-narrower window of opportunity in which to accomplish these transitions, that we know, and I think largely accept now are inevitable and imperative and at the same time we are also seeing ever faster progress. What the Paris Agreement tried to design into this was to recognise the inability of the world in one big step to align in terms of what is needed with what we were able to deliver, that is why the Paris agreement also had this five-year cycle of raising the levels of ambition. The reason why UNDP has been so heavily invested in working with countries on their nationally determined contributions and the national strategies they would bring to Glasgow, was that unless the Paris Agreement can prove that it can ratchet up progress, we indeed will not have much reason to believe in the future of the Paris Agreement. 


Banik               Achim, one final question if you can briefly reflect on; you just mentioned that the UN celebrated 75 years last year, 25 years from now, what will the UN look like? 


Steiner             I think it will in fact still be judged by and be driven by the very principles and ideas that I think brought it into existence in 1945. Remember, it was in the darkest moment in the Second World War, not after the Second World War, that the future design of a United Nations was actually conceived of and people began to develop it. I think sometimes, as I have said before, out of the darkest moments in human history come some of the most bold and courageous ideas. So, I think that the United Nations as an ideal and an idea will be with us in 25 years’ time. What the United Nations will do and how it will have evolved and how it will also have changed and reflected better the true diversity of the world in a 21st economic context, and political shifts, that I think is something that everybody is struggling with right now. Clearly the UN has been in a lock in, in terms of its political evolution and I think that is perhaps the frontier that the secretary general has also singled; we need to now take on with his common agenda. Because if you cannot evolve the way the UN functions in today's world, then ideals are great but they have to be relevant to the present and this is always going to be the challenge of how the United Nations system can evolve alongside the mandate, the support and the legitimacy that it has in the world of today. 


Banik               Achim, it was really nice to see you again. Thank you much for coming on my show today. 


Steiner             Dan, it has been a great privilege and thank you very much for the invitation.