Opening Remarks by Dr. Babatunde Ahonsi at 2020 South-South Cooperation Day - 22 September 2020

H.E. Mr. Zhang Maoyu, Vice Chairperson, China International Development Cooperation Agency,



Distinguished Guests,

Colleagues from the United Nations and the international community,

Ladies and Gentlemen,


Good Morning.


On behalf of the UN development system in China, let me begin by welcoming all of you to the UN Compound, at this best time of year in Beijing. This year we celebrate the International Day for South-South Cooperation in a very different world than we faced this time last year. And you can see we are celebrating it in the open space rather than the large conference room.


The COVID-19 pandemic has upended our daily lives and the fabric of our interconnected world, infecting more than 30 million people and leading to about one million deaths across the globe. It is a health crisis, an economic crisis, a social crisis, that will require sustained a sustained whole-of-society response for many months to come. The pandemic has placed pressure on the weakest points in our health systems, curtailed access to finance, threatens to cause heightened food insecurity, and continues to disrupt international trade. It has posed tremendous risks to human health and safety as well as to the world economy, having proved itself a grave challenge to the global public health governance system and to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). As the United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres rightly put, “due to COVID-19, an unprecedented health, economic and social crisis is threatening lives and livelihoods, making the achievement of Goals even more challenging.” 


Against such a backdrop, the Decade of Action for accelerating progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030 has kicked off in an uncertain time. Many of the gains that have been made over the past years in terms of poverty reduction, health and nutrition are threatened to relapse in the face of the extensive socio-economic shocks brought on by the global pandemic.


The 2020 Sustainable Development Goals Report pointed out, alarmingly, that an estimated 71 million people are expected to be pushed back into extreme poverty in 2020, the first rise in global poverty since 1998. Underemployment and unemployment due to the crisis mean some 1.6 billion already vulnerable workers in the informal economy – half the global workforce – may be significantly affected. The more than one billion slum dwellers worldwide are acutely at risk from the effects of COVID-19. Women and children are also among those bearing the heaviest brunt of the pandemic’s effects. Many countries have seen a surge in reports of domestic violence against women and children. School closures have kept 90 per cent of students worldwide (1.57 billion) out of school and caused over 370 million children to miss out on school meals they depend on. Lack of access to computers and the internet at home means remote learning is out of reach of many. About 70 countries reported moderate to severe disruptions or a total suspension of childhood vaccination services during March and April of 2020. 


There is still a long road ahead of us before the spread of the pandemic can be stemmed, with much work still to be done to overcome the immediate health impacts from COVID-19. Looking to the long-term recovery, our horizons should be wider and our ambition more far-reaching, focusing on not just how to regain the progress that has been lost, but how to build back better and create more equitable and resilient societies and economies better equipped to deal with future shocks. Containing COVID-19 requires the participation of all Governments, the private sector, civil society organizations and ordinary citizens around the world. Strengthening multilateralism and global partnership are more important than ever. And today, we are gathered here to explore ways of how to leverage South-South Cooperation as a means to do so, utilising our combined expertise and know-how to share solutions to shared problems.


In response to the pandemic, the UN Secretary-General has launched the UN Comprehensive Response to COVID-19 to save lives, protect societies, and build back better. The Response sets out what we can and must do to: (1) deliver a global response that leaves no-one behind; (2) reduce our vulnerability to future pandemics; (3) build resilience to future shocks – above all climate change, and (4) overcome the severe and systemic inequalities exposed by the pandemic.


As part of the response, the UN Secretary-General has been issuing policy briefs to provide ideas to governments on how to address the consequences of this crisis. Bringing together latest achievements in policy making, innovation, and catalytic impact, these analytical documents focus on issues ranging from socio-economic impact, debt, and jobs to mental health, human rights and inequality, and target various population groups to include women, children, older persons and persons with disabilities.


Last year on the South-South Day, we commemorated the 40th anniversary of the Buenos Aires Plan of Action, a major milestone in the evolution of South-South and triangular cooperation. This year, we mark the South-South Day at an important milestone in China’s own international cooperation history, namely the 70th Anniversary of China’s Foreign Aid. Today, we look ahead to the future of China’s South-South and trilateral cooperation on how we can learn from past experiences when faced with new challenges and trials. The focus of the UN in China today is to support China’s effort to implement the 2030 Agenda and achieve the SDGs. Our focus is to make sure that “no one is left behind” as China walks the last mile in its poverty alleviation efforts and shifts focus towards a high-quality development. We are also working with China on its increasing international development cooperation with other countries. Through these global partnerships, China has an opportunity to contribute to the achievement of the 2030 Agenda not only within its borders, but also globally. The UN is happy to play its role as a facilitator of South-South Cooperation, and we hope to continue to play a role in sharing China’s development experience with other developing countries, and bringing experience from other developing countries to support China’s own development.


UN-China collaboration under the umbrellas of South-South and Trilateral Cooperation has enjoyed fruitful results over the years. To give but some examples, the Rome-based agencies FAO, IFAD and WFP are all actively engaged in South-South Cooperation initiatives towards fostering rural development and food security in other developing countries including IFAD’s project fostering climate resilience and agricultural cooperation between Pakistan and China; FAO’s South-South Project with China to support smallholder farmers’ production, productivity and profitability in the Democratic Republic of Congo; and projects under WFP’s Centre of Excellence in China sharing China’s experience through projects like supporting market expansion opportunities for rice and maize farmers in Sri Lanka. Beyond the work of these agencies in rural development and food security, the ILO together with the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security is carrying out a trilateral cooperation initiative with Lao PDR, Myanmar and Cambodia strengthening public employment services and youth employment in the three countries; ESCAP-CSAM promotes private sector engagement in sustainable agricultural mechanization for realising the SDGs across the Asia-Pacific region; and UNFPA held a Youth4Youth Forum bringing together young leaders from China and Africa to discuss how to strengthen youth involvement and cooperation on population and development issues of relevance to both China and African countries.


This is far from an exhaustive catalogue of the UN China country team’s collaborative initiatives under the framework of South-South Cooperation, and during the special session and over lunch, you will all have a chance to learn more about many of the other projects and initiatives.


The outbreak and spread of COVID-19 has altered the global development landscape, and the lessons from past successes we have enjoyed in initiatives like the ones mentioned above, will need to be adapted to the new status quo. Innovative approaches will be required, and the panels today will look at different facets of how to utilise and adapt the modalities of South-South and trilateral cooperation to accelerate achievement of the SDGs during this unprecedented crisis, both in and beyond the immediate COVID-19 recovery period.


In July this year, the UN Country Team held a discussion with the African Ambassador’s group to share with them information on the above-mentioned UN Framework – and I am happy to see some of your Excellencies present at today’s meeting, finally we are having a face-to-face discussion, not a virtual one. During that discussion, the need for strengthened South-South cooperation between China and African countries was highlighted throughout. China’s experience in overcoming the immediate health impact of the pandemic and efforts made to stimulate the post-COVID recovery can provide some important lessons for countries on the African continent. I look forward to hearing new perspectives from the panellists from our first sessions this morning on how new opportunities and avenues for South-South Cooperation can be leveraged and included into national response plans during this critical period.


This afternoon, following the special sessions showcasing the successes of past South-South Cooperation projects, we will hear experience from past South-South and Trilateral Cooperation initiatives and how to streamline best practices into future cooperation, taking perspectives from Chinese and international development actors. The last session will focus on the important area of rural development and inclusive rural transformation, addressing the role China can play in supporting sustainable food systems across the developing world and contributing to global food security in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic.


One crucial lesson of the 2030 Agenda that cannot be forgotten at a time when countries are eager to kickstart their economies and make up for time lost to the pandemic, is the inextricable link between the three pillars of sustainable development: economic, environmental and social. In a time when economies across the globe are experiencing unprecedented economic contractions and crises, it is all too tempting to look for quick fixes that prioritise short-term thinking that provides the veneer of a successful recovery. Now is not the time to find excuses to neglect environmental and social sustainability in the name of jump-starting economies, if anything, the pandemic shows us just how dangerous and misguided such siloed thinking is, and no recovery can be successful if it neglects all dimensions of sustainability.


Of course, the world faces multi-faceted challenges, which go beyond the pandemic. To give just one of many examples. The 2020 SDG Report also shows that climate change is still occurring much faster than anticipated. The year 2019 was the second warmest on record and the end of the warmest decade of 2010 to 2019. Meanwhile, ocean acidification is accelerating; land degradation continues; massive numbers of species are at risk of extinction; and unsustainable consumption and production patterns remain pervasive. Many of the challenges we face are global and will need global solutions.


The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed the inequalities within and between countries, revealed vulnerabilities in our health and social protection systems, revealed how crises exacerbate social inequalities and indignities, revealed the fragility of much of what we once took for granted in a globalised world. But at the same, the strain of the pandemic and its wide-ranging socioeconomic impact has proven the unassailable need for global cooperation and mutual support in a time of global crisis. As countries grapple with the challenge of COVID-19, the commonalities of our shared experience should be a cause to strengthen international cooperation and multilateralism, not weaken it. South-South Cooperation and its promise of a two-way street of knowledge exchange and mutual learning provides an antidote to threats to the multilateral system; providing platforms for countries to learn from each other and strengthen the bonds between countries and the bonds between peoples.


Today we are taking a step forward: sharing experiences and practices to be able to build back better, and better prepare ourselves for the future. This means we must think beyond the current COVID-19 pandemic and prepare ourselves for potential future pandemics and crises which will require collaborative global responses. We should develop a far-sighted view, and identify and agree on next steps to make full use of the Decade of Action and Delivery of the SDGs that remains between now and 2030. Actors from the governments, the international community, the private sector, and academics – many of who are represented here today – have the power and resources to drive and shape the future of our society. We call on each and every one of you to use your power, wisdom, skills, and resources to make the world more inclusive, more resilient and more sustainable for all.


This year, the UN is marking its 75th anniversary at a time of great disruption for the world. Together, in this time of immense change, lets look to the opportunities provided by South-South Cooperation as a means to renew our commitment to multilateralism; let’s join hands in sharing resources and experiences, to help countries all over the world to overcome this unprecedented crisis confronting humankind and bring the world back on track towards achieving the SDGs.


Thank you for your kind attention. Xie Xie!

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