By Noel Schroeder — 

Two years ago, heads of 193 countries joined together in New York to declare their commitment to protecting the planet, ending poverty, and ensuring human rights for all people. This year, they must be held to that promise. 

The annual opening of the United Nations (U.N.) General Assembly is used by world leaders as an opportunity to showcase their priorities in foreign affairs and development on a global stage. In this setting, these leaders are speaking to the president of the General Assembly, but they’re also speaking to their constituents and to one another.

Since the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were adopted two years, ago, conversations within the United Nations and at the national level have mainly focused on planning and prioritizing, rather than implementation. Advocates in our network of close to 300 grassroots groups have told us that they are frustrated by the lack of progress. Few countries have taken drastic action to kickstart the process and make a bold commitment to achieving the goals. If we wait too long, we run the risk of losing momentum and failing to achieve these lofty but important goals by the 2030 deadline.

The U.N. General Assembly this year is a key moment for world leaders to reinforce and strengthen their commitment to achieving the SDGs. Last year in his remarks to the U.N., President Obama said, “We can only eliminate extreme poverty if the sustainable development goals that we have set are more than words on paper.” Many other leaders, including those from the United States’ close allies like the United Kingdom and Canada, also used their time in front of the General Assembly to reiterate their commitment to the SDGs. Now, world leaders must use this pulpit to hold one another accountable to their collective commitment.

The SDGs are a global call to action. They do not belong to any one nation and their success or failure does not lie in the hands of any single world leader. Instead, a global, mass effort is needed to muster the resources, human power, and innovation needed to achieve the goals. Mass movements aren’t led by politicians, they’re led by activists and advocates.

The advocates working with and for civil society organizations, particularly those at the grassroots, are the ones who will really ensure that we meet these goals by 2030. They are the individuals who are convening community meetings about the goals, carrying out education campaigns, and using local expertise and experience to find the best ways to address systemic inequality and create transformative change. We can only seek to achieve the SDGs and leave no one behind if the process is led from the bottom-up.

Still, we can’t ignore the influence that world leaders have on the process, particularly on how governments prioritize funding (for military armament or human development, for isolationism or for internationalism). That is why it is imperative that these leaders use their time on the global stage to publicly reaffirm their commitment to the SDGs and then demonstrate how they will commit resources towards achieving them. It’s time for world leaders to put their money where their mouth is.

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