Sustainable Development Requires an Evolving Agenda

Korean ambassador to the UN says climate change, other issues now are important parts of the institution’s development platform.

Dean Linda Livingstone welcomes Korean Ambassador to the United Nations Oh Joon.
Dean Linda Livingstone welcomes Korean Ambassador to the United Nations Oh Joon. (Logan Werlinger/GW Today)
March 14, 2016

By Mary A. Dempsey

The United Nations’ approach to development continues to shift away from purely economic advances to encompass more social and justice issues, Korea’s ambassador to the UN told an audience at the George Washington University on Thursday.

During his lecture titled “Sustainable Development Goals: What does it mean to the world?” Ambassador Oh Joon said the UN was more single-minded when it launched 70 years ago amid the poverty and starvation that followed two world wars.

“The emphasis was, naturally, on economic growth. You need economic growth to feed people,” Mr. Oh told an audience of students, faculty, international development experts and members of the community.

The event was hosted by the GW School of Business and the International Council for Business (ICSB) at the Elliott School of International Affairs.

In the decades since, social issues, justice, equity and, most recently, climate change have been woven into the development platform of the intergovernmental agency. Going forward, the ambassador said, some existing goals will be renewed at the same time new goals are promoted.

“In the last couple of decades we all realized that climate change is probably one of the most serious challenges. The environment is now reflected in the concept of development,” said Mr. Oh, who has also served since July as president of the Economic and Social Council at the UN.

He discussed details of the 2030 Agenda, the UN’s new sustainable development goals platform, and its 17 goals and 169 targets designed to eradicate extreme poverty in the world by the year 2030. He said the agenda was a cause for celebration because it garnered such strong support when it was approved in September 2015.  

He noted that while developing countries long have been the UN’s focus, Agenda 2030 targets both developed and developing countries. Mr. Oh said public-private partnerships have critical roles to play in the effort. Furthermore, the role of small and medium enterprises become more important.

To illustrate the dramatic difference that sustainable development goals can make, Mr. Oh showed slides as he told a tale of two towns. One image was of an impoverished slum with precarious, ramshackle structures. The other was a modern community of gleaming highrise buildings and sleek roads “where you can get up in the morning and invest in the stock market or buy a new car.” He called them Town A and Town B.

“I have lived in both,” he said, explaining that Town A is Korea of the 1950s and Town B is Korea after economic and social development.  

“Not too many countries have experienced this kind of transition in the world. Korea is exceptional,” he said. “And that’s what the United Nations is doing, trying to facilitate this kind of transition, to find out what is needed to make this kind of transition.

“Because you cannot be happy with an empty stomach, when your children are sick,” he said.

Dr. Ayman El Tarabishy, associate teaching professor and executive director of ICSB, introduced former GW President and Professor of Public Service Stephen Trachtenberg, who opened the proceeding,  which is part of the GW Lectures Series. Dr. Trachtenberg acknowledged the university’s long and deep ties with Mr. Oh’s country. Dr. Trachtenberg mentioned the social and political reformer Philip Jiasohn, who in 1892 became the first Korean to graduate from GW and the first Korean to earn a U.S. medical degree.

“Back in Korea, he was involved in [the Gapsin] coup and stuck out as a revolutionary. He had to flee back to the United States where he becomes the first Korean [naturalized as a] citizen of the United States,” Dr. Trachtenberg said.

In the more than century since, Korea and GW have developed deep connections and shared interests, most notably in the areas of sustainability and health. The Republic of Korea is also home to the university’s largest and oldest international alumni chapter.

School of Business Dean Linda Livingstone told the audience that the GW Business School and ICSB helped to develop the new Korean Management Institute, which she said provides an additional opportunity “to think deeply about important issues that affect all of our lives and the lives of many generations to come.”