FEB. 14, 2019. Unlike its usual emptiness during winter break, Baekyang-ro was filled with people scurrying their way toward the Centennial Hall of Yonsei University, emblazoned with a huge blue banner that signaled the opening of the second annual Global Engagement & Empowerment Forum (GEEF). The time was 9:30 a.m., an hour away from the opening ceremony, but the lobby was already packed with people queuing up for registration, sharing their excitement in different languages. Proudly wearing their badges around their necks, attendants entered the hall and took their seats one after another until there were none left. Sitting next to strangers seemed less awkward, as their mutual interest and passion for a better future broke the language barriers and spurred conversation.
Organized by the Institute for Global Engagement and Empowerment at Yonsei University (IGEE) and the Ban Ki-moon Center (hereby BKM Center) for Global Citizens in Vienna, GEEF is a global conference to evaluate the status of the United Nations’ (UN) 2030 Agenda: Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)*. On its second conference, it invited more than 100 representatives from over 60 NGOs, universities, government departments, and international organizations to discuss their efforts in attaining the SDGs. With the theme, “A Call to Action: Empower People, Share Prosperity,” GEEF not only brought awareness to these endeavors, but also inspired attendants from more than 70 countries to join the cause and take action. The Yonsei Annals attended this two-day forum to take this “Call to Action” to a wider audience.
The mission of GEEF
GEEF’s primary goal is to bring all parties involved to collaborate and share ideas for attaining the SDGs. In his opening remarks, Kim Yong-hak, the President of Yonsei University, pointed out that global problems have become too complex for one institution to solve. Recognizing the SDGs as solutions, GEEF hopes to serve as a global platform for the SDGs. Its other objective is to act as an annual checkpoint on the progress of the SDGs. In an interview with the Annals, Professor An Shin-ki (Prof., College of Medicine), the Director of the Organizing Committee of GEEF 2019, addressed that these SDGs are too broad and interconnected to be discussed in depth in one sitting. In order to specify the subject of discussion, GEEF follows the BKM Center’s Five Pillars of SDGs that organize the 17 goals into five categories: People, Planet, Peace, Prosperity and Partnership. This year’s theme, “A Call to Action: Empower People and Share Prosperity,” focuses on the SDGs regarding People and Prosperity. By focusing on different “pillars” annually, GEEF will generate a tangible set of solutions for global issues.
During GEEF 2019, plenary sessions revolved around health, women’s empowerment, and sustainability and future cities. Here are some insights shared by the experts in these fields.
Health: holistic approaches to healthy lives for all
As the Centennial Hall filled with more excitement and energy after the opening ceremony, GEEF opened its first plenary session with a focus on health. Here, panels addressed that health is an inalienable human right and the foundation for peace and prosperity. Unfortunately, disparities in levels of health make it difficult to achieve the SDGs. As a solution, GEEF focused on Universal Health Care. The system ensures that all people have access to the medical services they need without exposing themselves to financial hardships. Yet, it faces some practical obstacles—poverty and population trends to name a few—which stifle its establishment. In this regard, the panelists highlighted the necessity of engagement from all nations and global organizations and the empowerment of the public.
In his opening remarks, Ban Ki-moon, the 8th Secretary-General of the UN, addressed the need for a political vision with strong leadership to tackle health issues. Introducing an example of Ban’s outlook, the President of Bahrain’s Supreme Council of Health illustrated the power of state action with his anecdotes of Bahrain’s medical policies. Bahrain’s government monitors all transactions and payments of health services to ensure a transparent reimbursement system for health insurance. By achieving this transparency, Bahrain reduced excessive health expenditure to provide better healthcare for the poor.
While acknowledging the importance of national policies, Mahmoud Mohieldin, the Senior Vice President of World Bank Group, stressed that Universal Health Care cannot be achieved without the active participation of global institutions. The logistics of it is impossible for one nation to sustain, so it is imperative for the global community to cooperate. Mohieldin further explained that because quality health and education programs are unattainable without financial support, the World Bank is currently establishing global partnerships to extend the coverage of Universal Health Care.
Universal Health Care demands more than just macroscopic endeavors, as noted by Princess Nothemba Simelela, the Assistant Director-General of World Health Organization (WHO), who drew attention to the use of technology to empower individuals as proactive advocates of spreading health awareness. Ironically, mobile phones are more accessible than electricity in developing countries. By using mHealth, a mobile medical service, WHO hopes to secure accessible healthcare in areas where resources are scarce. mHealth allows medical experts to share accurate and essential information on health with the public, who can then spread the knowledge and increase the overall well-being of their communities.
Though the panels proposed different ways to accelerate the progress of good health for all, one message was clear: Universal Health Care is unattainable without the joint efforts of all people. A roaring applause filled the hall as Simelela summarized the event with her closing speech, “All of us working together in a multi-sectoral collaborative partnership can enhance the health of our communities and families. Let us all work together, support all people and share knowledge.”
Women’s empowerment: inclusive actions for gender equality
Another main discussion in GEEF 2019 was women’s empowerment. In her opening remarks, Lee Mi-kyung, the President of Korea International Cooperation Agency (KOICA), noted that sustainable development is not only about saving the environment, but also about leaving no one behind. However, inequality persists, and the vast majority of the marginalized are women. Lee also expressed hopes that women will greatly accelerate social cohesion and global prosperity. In this regard, the #MeToo Movement was monumental in that it allowed women to share their experiences of gender inequality and raise awareness on the dangers of discrimination against women, according to Kwon In-sook, the President of Korean Women’s Development Institute (KWDI). As with the previous discussion on health, the panelists emphasized the need for the participation of different sectors in society for the empowerment of women and elimination of gender inequality.
Helen Clark, the 37th Prime Minister of New Zealand, started the panel speeches by emphasizing the importance of having more women in politics. Clark added, “Political parties must make sure that they recruit women and enable them to stand in public offices.” Having more women actively participating in politics shows that women can be decision makers and change makers of society, designing policies that directly involve their lives. Clark also advised that while it is important for individual women to build self-confidence and step forward, legal measures like quotas should be considered if progress is too slow.
The speakers further mentioned that nations and firms should provide ways for women to be active agents in the economy. One reason behind the disparity between genders in the labor market is the inequality of opportunity. Armida Salsiah Alisjahbana, the Executive Secretary of UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP), expressed concerns about the lack of quality education for women around the world. Due to this disparity, women are subject to lesser paying jobs, widening the wage gap between genders. Alisjahbana suggested that having more regional institutions with training programs for women is one way to facilitate the economic participation of women. Kati Ihamaki, the Director of Corporate Sustainability of Finnair, illustrated how flexible working hours for people with children also allowed women to continue their careers.
In the same fashion with the discussion on health, the session on women’s empowerment stressed the need for action on a microscopic level. Sabine Machl, the Representative of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Liaison of UN Women Indonesia, detailed the importance of men’s participation in tackling gender inequality. Machl cited HeForShe, a social media platform that encourages men to take action against negative gender stereotypes, as an example of inclusive measures to accelerate the removal of gender barriers. Irina Bokova, the 10th Director-General of United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), also confirmed that feminism is not a movement against men, but rather an agenda that requires a partnership with men.
The underlying principle for gender equality is nothing grand or preposterous, but rests on the simple fact that we are human beings. This message was best encapsulated in Machl’s closing remarks of the final session of the day, “We always come back to this core of who we are as human beings who should be respecting each other. I think this should be the guiding principles towards change and equality.”
Sustainability and future cities: methods for building smart cities
The second day of the forum started with the last plenary session of GEEF, in which the panels discussed SDG 11—“Sustainable cities and communities” and the various paths to its accomplishment. Although nationwide actions were emphasized in the previous two sessions, cities are also gradually playing a significant role in the well-being of humanity, especially with the prospect that 80% of the global population will live in urban areas by 2030. As the moderator of this session and the former President of Korea Research Institute for Human Settlements (KRIHS) Kim Dong-ju explained, “Mass production and consumption in cities cause problems related to climate change, pollution, inequality, poverty, and loss of humanity. All of them are obstacles to achieving sustainable development.” Ensuring sustainability in cities has become a prerequisite for building an overall sustainable society. The panelists shared their ideas on how to do so through the means of technology, government administrative systems, and humanity.
In response to the emergence of technologies such as Artificial Intelligence (AI), 5G internet, and Internet of Things (IoT), Michael Wen Zhang, the President of SenseTime, suggested the concept of a “smart city” as an ideal model of a sustainable city. Powered by the application of these innovations in various fields from education to medicine and transportation, smart cities will efficiently manage the current pressure on city resources and find better ways to allocate them.
However, the President of Future Consensus Institute, Lee Kwang-jae, alarmed the audience by explaining the negative aspects of technological innovation. He pointed out the possibility that technology may deepen social inequality, as access to the services provided is often limited to the rich. Lee emphasized humanity, and urged people to uphold the virtues of sharing by finding ways to “enable unlimited access to information for all.” As an example, Lee explained his Utopia Library Plan, in which regional and national government offices, public libraries, and universities share a platform to freely access each other’s data. As Lee puts it, “Humanitarian efforts like this will ensure that everyone enjoys the benefits of AI, IoT, and 5G internet.”
Ultimately, the panelists underscored the need to find balance between technology and humanity. According to Kim Se-ho, the 10th Vice Minister of the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport of Korea, many cities may fall into a “smart city trap.” The “trap” refers to a condition in which cities blindly chase after technology and innovation to keep up, without a concrete understanding of why sustainable development is important. “People and their values, traditions, and history are what should lie at the center of building a smart city. Technology should remain a means to an end,” says Kim.
“An effective mediation between innovation and humanity lies in the cities’ administrative system,” said Professor Oh Soo-kil, a member of the Committee for Seoul’s Sustainable Development. “The conventional administrative system is too inflexible and bureaucratic to instill sustainable development as ultimate goals in public officers. This is mainly because their job only revolves around chasing what their leaders promised during his or her term,” explains Oh. Taking Seoul as an example, he suggested expanding the paradigm by setting the SDGs as a meta-plan over all of Seoul’s short-, mid-, and long-term plans. Once the cities’ administrative systems are connected to that of the UN, the cities will effectively contribute to the global journey towards sustainable development.
Youth empowerment: youth as the changemakers
After the plenary sessions, parallel sessions were held in The Commons to discuss the specific details briefly mentioned in the previous rounds. In a session called “Youth as Partners to Achieve the SDGs,” the focus shifted from the solutions that tackle the specific SDGs to the importance of youth as change makers leading the future. The participants of this session, consisting of six student groups from Yonsei University that have led several projects for SDGs, came together, recognizing the limits of existing solutions. “As the new generation, as the youth, we are able to provide more innovative, interdisciplinary solutions to the problems,” said Sam Okyere, a television personality and the moderator of the session.
In an interview with the Annals, a student representative in one of the groups, Team Jeong-dam, elaborated on how these creative solutions are relevant for the establishment of a better future for all: “The youth’s perspective on societal issues and how to solve them is critical because these issues don’t only concern the youth. The youth acts as a bridge that connects the younger and older generation. Their solutions affect everyone in the society.” To shed light on the potential behind this “youth’s perspective,” the invited student groups introduced their projects and shared their insights as their mentor, Michael Sheldrick, the Vice President for Global Policy and Government Affairs at Global Citizen, gave feedback on how they can further improve their projects.
“It’s all well and good to say that sustainable development is important, but it’s all meaningless if the actors aren’t there. The youth will be the ones driving the world and the changes in the future, so it’s important for the youth to be empowered,” explained Shin Yesun (Sr., UIC, International Studies), a student speaker from Team YeS, in an interview with the Annals.
Likewise, GEEF not only brought awareness of youth participation, but also closed the distance between the youth and the SDGs. By empowering the youth to broaden their perspectives beyond their GPAs and extracurriculars to the global issues affecting humanity, GEEF hopes to inspire the youth to step up with their own creative ways to contribute to achieving the SDGs. “It starts from one university, but then the efforts will go on to several universities, all over the country, beyond the country, then worldwide,” says Okyere. GEEF brought a resonating message to all participants that small actions lead to big differences. At the end of the day, the SDGs may not be as far-fetched as they used to be.
The significance of GEEF
This year, GEEF has newly partnered with KOICA, an organization that promotes sustainable development in developing countries. According to Lee Mi-kyoung, KOICA shifted its focus of assistance from providing practical support in agricultural, educational, and medical sectors to raising awareness on the values of equality, peace, and democracy. Acknowledging that these values are typically neglected in the process of economic development, Lee further noted that they are fundamental for a sustainable future.
With such visions, KOICA raised public awareness on SDGs among the citizens of developing countries and brought a select few to GEEF. The Annals was able to interview a KOICA-sponsored student from Cameroon, Christian Ngha Kah Nchia. “If everyone is engaged in attaining these goals, I’m sure we can all attain sustainable development,” said Nchia.
Despite agreement on the importance of SDGs, ideas about sustainability had remained seemingly too abstract for some to take practical action. “I have never thought about the term ‘sustainability’ in great depth, as the term itself seemed very vague at first glance,” says one participant of GEEF, Park Sang-ha (Soph., UIC, Techno-art div.) in an interview with the Annals. GEEF, the platform through which experts share their views on how to achieve the SDGs, redefined the meaning of sustainability into a relevant “Call to Action” for Park and others. “Sustainability now seems more applicable—it deals with the dire situations we confront in life, ranging from health issues to gender inequality,” Park commented. GEEF’s successive conferences will continue to bridge the gap between the general public and SDGs until they become the standards to a sustainable future.
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GEEF is still in its developing stage as it is not yet receiving enough public attention from global news outlets. Still, the organizers of GEEF showed their determination to expand its reach to become a mainstream platform, through which people are updated with the global progress in achieving the UN 2030 Agenda of SDGs. “Just like how the Davos Forum is for economics, GEEF is there for the SDGs,” explained Professor An. He hopes that GEEF will become a symbolic event that has the power to mobilize not only the participants but also the global audience as a whole to take actions for a sustainable future. As Ban Ki-moon puts it, “Let us work together. Nobody can do it alone.”
*The original title of the agenda is the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development; Adopted in 2015 by the General Assembly of the UN, the 2030 Agenda outlines 17 Sustainable Development Goals to be attained during the period of 2016 to 2030; The SDGs stem from the concept of “leaving no one behind,” therefore calling for action from all UN Member States.