Can everyone in the world enjoy a decent life?

Pre-school children line up to be vaccinated during a UNICEF assisted immunization drive in Maracaibo City, Venezuela. ©
Pre-school children line up to be vaccinated during a UNICEF assisted immunization drive in Maracaibo City, Venezuela. © UNICEF

Can everyone in the world enjoy a decent life? Can every one of the world’s 7.5 billion people really have access to job opportunities, health, education, food, water, sanitation and justice?

There is little question that a better future for all is not possible if the world continues on the present path, with growing inequality, limited opportunities, and ever-increasing levels of pollution and emissions. Ongoing civil wars, record numbers of refugees and displaced persons, combined with a stagnant global economy and ever increasing environmental degradation make the prospects of a better future appear bleak.

Even if they don’t agree on many things, the 193 countries of the world have recognized that there needs to be a new way of doing business.

Last year they adopted a sweeping and ambitious new agenda at the United Nations that, if implemented, would provide a path to prosperity and well-being for all while protecting the environment and addressing climate change.

When I think of my primary school days in the 1960s, South Korea was a poor country with a per-capita income below $100. Still, we had our eyes on the future and shared a deep commitment to education. The warm milk that helped sustain me in my studies came in powder form from UNICEF, and our textbooks were printed with the help of UNESCO.

Within my lifetime, South Korea has become a developed country, and our trajectory has been shaped both by our national ownership of development and by international cooperation. I am convinced that this transformation can happen anywhere and everywhere else.

National ownership and international cooperation — these are the two driving forces behind the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that the global family adopted as a blueprint for development for the next 15 years. These are central to the discussions that are taking place at the United Nations this week at the High Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development.

Just as U.N. agencies bolstered Korea’s development in my childhood, the international community has made commitments through the SDGs to support countries around the world on the road to sustainable development. The goals address education, infrastructure, good governance, and agricultural development and food security — those key areas for Korean development — as well as a host of other priorities.

As president of the United Nations Economic and Social Council, I am presiding over the Forum, where we are featuring 22 countries from all corners of the world and at all levels of development who share their experiences and challenges so far.

The new goals apply to all countries, and they were built on the understanding that in many ways, no matter how much progress we have made, we are all developing countries. No society has yet achieved full prosperity for its citizens, and no country has found a way to effectively care for our one and only planet.

Our work has just started, but I do believe we are on the right path if we all engage: governments, civil society, the private sector, the scientific community, and all of our citizens.

The Forum gives all of us the opportunity to renew our commitments to keep moving towards a sustainable future, leaving no one behind.

Oh Joon, ambassador and permanent representative of the Republic of Korea to the United Nations, is president of the U.N. Economic and Social Council.