| | Interview

Vincent Defourny: 'A shared value approach is necessary to achieve the SDGs '

Vincent Defourny, director of the UNESCO Geneva Liaison Office (©Defourny)

The sustainable development goals (SDGs) are a call for action at the heart of the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. To reach that objective, cooperation in the form of a global partnership is indispensable. And global not only means international organisations and governments but also the private sector. To help tackle the most urgent issues, technology and innovation can move from challenges to opportunities.

The 2030 Digital Fasttrack Studios (2030 DFS), organised by Microsoft, the Geneva Liaison Office of the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) and the Graduate Institute, contribute to moving closer to the deployment of the SDGs, by bringing different parties to the table and creating the dialogue.

Vincent Defourny, director of the UNESCO Geneva Liaison Office reflects on the importance of shared values in the process and the role each partner can play in the era of digital transformation.

What is the UNESCO Geneva Liaison Office’s mission?

Our mission is to establish and to maintain a context between UNESCO and International Geneva. It is the official representation in some official bodies, like, the Human Rights Council for example. But it also endorses a very important role, which is promoting and creating visibility for UNESCO, and establishing links between our programmes, projects, activities, and the activities developed by other partners in Geneva. We have a connecting role, which is based on human relations and the knowledge of the organisation from inside.

Most of the time, we aim at establishing a context, and develop activities. However, we also want to provide the best contribution to the common agenda of the entities present in Geneva, such as the Sustainable Development Goals.

How has the digital transformation impacted UNESCO and its agenda?

We have to keep in mind that the mission of UNESCO is really building peace in the minds of men and women, through international cooperation in the field of education, science, culture, and communication. Although the mandate is broad, that focus on peace building is particularly important in Geneva.

Of course, now, in terms of digital changes, effects are important, especially in the context of Covid-19. Education has been directly impacted by the lockdown, and millions of children around the world are not going to school and getting a full scholar career.

UNESCO has played an active part from the very beginning of the pandemic. First of all, to follow what is happening in the schools around the world, but also to try to find solutions and share experiences. Understanding how best practices can be shared using the inter alia digital solution, but also radio and TV, is key.

In the field of culture, another area directly and hardly impacted by the crisis, we have developed a number of programmes, one example being the label called “Resiliart”. The idea is to show and demonstrate the resilience of the artist and the cultural sector as a whole. That means sharing practices by individuals and groups, mainly for policymakers. A recent publication called “Culture under crisis”, for example, presents some of the policies developed by member states to help or mitigate the impact of the crisis on the cultural sectors.

How did the idea of the 2030 DFS emerge?

Microsoft UN affairs team contacted us to imagine something together. I agreed, as I think it is very important to bring different actors around the table to discuss topics related to the SDGs, not only with the UN family and the usual suspects, but also with the private sector. It is very important for all UN entities to open up and enter into real dialogues with the private sector, with NGOs, and the academia. That is why we also wanted the Graduate Institute to be on board. So in fact, it is a mix, a conjunction of common interest for the SDGs, and trying to see how the digital revolution will evolve and continue beyond the current crisis. We want to see how we can find solutions in these areas and contribute to the course of the sustainable deployment.

The subjects that we have chosen are directly linked with the International days. It is a good opportunity to highlight some of these issues. The first panel that we organised was related to the World Teachers’ Day. The discussion touched upon the digital divide, that teachers are facing, from knowledge to infrastructures and use of digital tools. The second studio looked into artificial intelligence, human rights and liberties. UNESCO is preparing a recommendation on ethics in artificial intelligence and human rights. It was extremely interesting to take part in the discussion and I actually learnt a lot from Microsoft and their human rights based approach in business. That mixed point of view is key.

What we want to underline is really the path, the one that will allow us to make progress using all sorts of technology.

Why is this experience important for UNESCO?

It is part of the partnership strategy and the way we want to be ready to engage. It is what makes Geneva interesting, the diversity of that ecosystem. Geneva is not only a UN hub, it is an international hub with different partners, and we need to bring all these partners to the table. 2030 DFS is part of the reinvention of multilateralism. This is how we are going to attract partners who do not necessarily have a voice in official entities. It is the main purpose.

What strategies are needed to leverage these opportunities?

We need to broaden the discussion, which means really understanding and sharing common objectives and views about sustainability and development. There is one area where I would like to develop some activities in the future. It is called the shared value approach. The shared value approach is a theory showing how some business developments are not for profit only, but for the good of society and the environment as a whole. This approach is very much in accordance with the principles of the Sustainable Development Goals.

In other words, we should explore how the private sector can be engaged in the SDGs, not only as a corporate social responsibility, but as part of their core business. And very often the businesses are very effective in developing some solutions. But they need to share some objectives and values with the more traditional non profit sector.

And Geneva is a perfect place for that, because all the actors are here.

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