March 1 marked the beginning of my term as Rector of the United Nations University (UNU). Along with my initial excitement and ambition is the recognition that I am starting my Rectorship in an era defined
by our shared efforts to address immense challenges — climate change, lasting peace, and
sustainable development for all.
It is also an era where technology will play a pivotal role in our success, challenge our ethics, and reshape our values. UNU’s contributions and expertise are more vital than ever as we approach the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals’ (SDGs) deadline and overcome the very real SDG setbacks caused by the Covid-19 pandemic and our structural inequalities.
Access, distribution and capacity are demonstrably skewed, and our divisions have grown. As a 2021 UN report on the SDGs found, the SDGs have long been off track. If we hope to reverse this trend, we will all have to work hard to achieve them. The work of UNU and our partners must be grounded in justice that transcends our physical, mental, and digital capacities.
In Africa, the challenges of achieving the SDGs are compounded. This is because development seems to have stalled. A 2022 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) publication demonstrated that Africa’s growth rates in the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic hindered its convergence with other global economies. This lag in growth is, in turn, stunting the continent’s development and has pushed more than 29 million people into extreme poverty.
The research and application thereof that emerges from the UNU present a unique opportunity to emerge from this malaise while addressing broader global challenges. Hassatou Diop N’Sele of the African Development Bank (AfDB) stated in an October 2022 report: “The economic and security shocks experienced by Africa over the last few years have been devastating, both in their reach and their repercussions. If there was ever a time to reaffirm the relevance and critical role of security and its interrelation with development, that time is now.”
To help meet these challenges, three principal actions need to be implemented by UNU. First, we should raise the University’s global profile. Second, we should expand the activities of UNU, especially in the Global South. And third, we should increase UNU’s capacity in teaching, learning, research,
and policy-work in partnership with universities and other key stakeholders worldwide.
We need to mobilize financial, political, human and intellectual resources in both the Global South and Global North to achieve these goals. UNU should continue to create partnerships that provide sustainable support for our work in new regions and communities. We should use digital platforms to expand the teaching, learning, research, and policy offerings of UNU.
We should produce and spread digital programs primarily targeting a just transition to the fourth industrial revolution. We should prioritize using artificial intelligence and other technologies for responsible, peaceful, and sustainable policies and applications. We need to further UNU’s role as a critical player in tackling contemporary global challenges and position UNU as an essential intellectual resource for stakeholders worldwide.
The work currently being done by the UNU is innovative, exciting and impactful in positing sustainable solutions. The institutes and programs now span Japan, China, Malaysia, Finland, Germany, Holland, Portugal, Ghana, Belgium, Venezuela, New York and Canada. There is a call to expand further into the Global South physically and through our work.
Additionally, there is a call for a greater focus on technology. As the pandemic has demonstrated, we are deeply entrenched in a digital era characterized by intelligent technology. It would be myopic to approach any of our shared challenges without an awareness of this context or to use these tools to contribute towards sustainability. As a 2020 PwC report states: “For all the potential that these technologies offer, however, they could also put greater stress on the Earth, its resources, and on our society.
We should ensure, therefore, that these technologies are harnessed in the right way, to fulfil their potential to revolutionize our world, transform the lives of people, and unlock new pathways to prosperity – fast-tracking sustainable development globally.”
My approach to UNU in the coming months will be a convergence of the emphasis on the solid collaboration network that spans from the Global South to the North facilitated by technology to achieve
lasting peace and sustainable development. This is how we create a more equitable world and ensure that Africa and the rest of the world are part of the conversation and action.
The writer is a Rector of the United Nations University based in Tokyo.