Keynote speech by Erna Solberg, Prime Minister of Norway

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Columbia University, 21 September 2016

Sustainable Development – Defining a generation

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Students, global citizens,

It is an honour for me to address so many globally minded students.

As co-chair of the UN Secretary-General’s Sustainable Development Goals Advocacy Group, I am counting on you to be the brains behind – and the future leaders of – global development.

I would like to thank Professor Sachs for inviting me to meet you here at Columbia University. His contribution to the concept of global goals as a development tool is truly remarkable.

Many of you are physically present here today at Columbia University Campus. Thousands of others are taking part thanks to live streaming to other campuses around the world.

You are here at Columbia or at other campuses because of your desire to learn.

I applaud that!

I view education as fundamental to sustainable development.

Access to quality education is a universal human right.

It is the key to unlocking opportunities for all, so that everyone can enjoy a better life.

My Government is on track to achieve its aim to double Norway’s funding for global education during the first four years of my term as Prime Minister.

However, the scope for improvement in global education financing is massive.

I therefore took the initiative last year to have an international commission examine how education financing can be improved and increased, and to find innovative ways of achieving this.

I will come back to the commission’s findings and recommendations later in my speech.


In retrospect, each generation will be defined by how it changed the world.

I am thinking of something far more meaningful than labels such as Generation X, Y and Z.

Your generation has the chance to put planet earth on a sustainable path.

What basis do I have for saying that?

I believe that your generation understands how economic, social and environmental factors influence the quality and, in fact, the very possibility of life.

The circular economy is an established part of your generation’s way of thinking.

This is exactly the kind of wisdom that is needed to tackle the greatest challenges of our time, and those that your generation will face..

Due to the progress made in previous decades, including through the Millennium Development Goals, you are the first generation that has the potential to eradicate poverty from the face of the earth.

We have also seen major breakthroughs in the fight to stop global warming.

Most recently with the ratification of the Paris agreement by the US and China.

This enhances your chances of success, which is vital, as you are the last generation that can prevent irreversible climate change.

I would say that the tasks your generation will face are formidable ones. Wouldn’t you agree?

The good news is that there is now a roadmap to guide our efforts.

I am, of course, thinking of the Sustainable Development Goals.

These goals were adopted one year ago by 193 state leaders here in NYC, at the UN. They address everything from poverty eradication and peace and security issues to climate change.

I would argue that the global agreement on the 17 Sustainable Development Goals marks a sea change, and can almost be compared to the Copernican Revolution.

(In the same vein as we now know that the sun does not circle around Earth, world leaders, supported by world opinion, now realise that many global challenges cannot be solved in the way we thought they could).

The Sustainable Development Goals are a truly transformational agenda.

The goals are universal.

No one has the right to say: ‘I didn’t break it, so someone else has to fix it’.

We all own these goals – and we can only achieve them together.

The question I hope you will ask yourselves is how you can use your minds, your creativity and your skills to make a contribution.

There are so many issues that cannot wait. Poverty, conflict, violent extremism, refugee crises, children out of school, youth unemployment and global warming, to mention just a few.

These economic, social and environmental ills affect all of us, regardless of where we live – or how we make a living.

The SDGs are the main track, not a side track, to the world we want. They are a powerful political tool for global leaders who are seeking to address the current challenges.

It may take time to fix what has been broken – but your generation has proved to be a generation of fast learners, who are more innovative than any previous generation on this planet. I am sure Copernicus, Newton, Einstein, Gandhi, Mandela, and other intellectual leaders of the past would probably agree with me on this point. Perhaps Jeffrey Sachs would also agree?

So, without placing too big a burden on your shoulders, I have full confidence in your ability to create and manage change.

The pledge to leave no one behind is the guiding principle of the SDG era.

Why is this pledge so important?

Nelson Mandela put it very well – and I quote: ‘As long as poverty, injustice and gross inequality exist in our world, none of us can truly rest’.

Eradicating extreme poverty, ensuring that mothers and infants do not die from avoidable complications during childbirth, making sure that everyone is nourished, and gets a quality education – all these things are our common responsibility.

So ‘leaving no one behind’ is the right motto for our efforts.

It is also a smart motto.

If we are to achieve lasting peace, stop forced migration, fight pandemics and ensure environmental sustainability in any one area of the world, our common SDG efforts must apply everywhere in the world.

So the smart and right thing to do is to make sure we do not leave fragile and marginalised areas and populations behind.

Today, and every day until the goals are reached, we must take concrete steps to make the world more sustainable.

This requires broad ownership, effective leadership and innovative partnerships in all countries and at all levels of society.

Governments, businesses, civil society organisations and academia must work together to find efficient, sustainable solutions locally, nationally and globally.

The 17 goals are interconnected, and many of them cannot be achieved without cooperation across national borders.

That means that we will stand or fall together.


Let me return to the International Commission on Financing Global Education Opportunity.

This past Sunday the Commission, made up of a group of international leaders and education experts and chaired by former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown, presented its findings and recommendations to the UN Secretary-General.

Here are three of the most alarming findings:

First, the economic costs of not educating children and young people are enormous. If we fail to take action:

  • Based on present trends in global education, in 2050, GDP per capita in low-income countries will be almost 70 per cent lower than it would be if all children were learning – this amounts to an estimated loss of 1.8 trillion dollars for low-income countries alone.
  • The losses from failing to educate children in middle-income countries will be far greater.
  • The losses will hurt the poorest most, but they will also have a negative impact on the entire world economy.

Second, we will not achieve the whole set of Sustainable Development Goals unless we reach the education targets.

  • With the present trends, the growing skills gap will prevent the world from reaching the first and most fundamental SDG, which is ending extreme poverty.
  • The number of people living in absolute poverty in low-income countries could be stuck at around 300 million for the next 35 years.

Third, failing to educate all children and young people has international security implications:

  • Analyses show that inequality fuels unrest.
  • Low levels of secondary education among young males are strongly associated with higher levels of social disorder and disturbance.
  • Unrest is likely to be greatest where the gap is widest between the expectations of young people and the opportunities available to them.

Clearly the task at hand is huge, but the measures proposed by the Education Commission are correspondingly ambitious.

They have come up with a vision for a Learning Generation that, if acted upon, will represent the largest expansion of educational opportunity in modern history.

The idea of the Learning Generation is to get all young people into school and learning within a generation.

This is to be achieved through a combination of reforms, innovation, and financial investment to ensure that all children in low- and middle-income countries have access to quality pre-primary, primary, and secondary education.

According to this vision, by 2030children in low-income countries would have the opportunity to achieve learning levels on a par with children in rich countries today and would be given the same access to post-secondary education.

To turn the vision into a reality, the Commission calls for a Financing Compact, under which the international community would join forces to provide increased financing to those countries that commit to reforms and to investing more in education.

Finally, the Commission proposes new accountability mechanisms that would empower citizens, leaders, and institutions around the world to hold governments accountable for their lack of progress or inaction.


In closing, I would like to stress that the Sustainable Development Goals are not just a means of fixing what is broken in our world.

Achieving them will, in fact, put the world on an altogether different and more sustainable path.

They are the roadmap to the future we want.

It will take a lot of effort, but this is your generation’s most important task. I am convinced that you will succeed, that your generation will be a great one, and that this will be its defining achievement.

Thank you.