During this pandemic, I had the honour of delivering a commencement speech. In preparing for my remarks, I thought about the future young people face today and how I felt at that age, full of energy and aspirations, ready to take on the world.

“Ready” is such a loaded word. These past 15 months have shaken up everyone on our planet. Very few communities or countries were prepared for everything that has come our way.

So how can this generation — coming of age in the middle of a pandemic, in a world facing gross inequalities, a climate crisis and an economic depression not seen in decades — be ready? How can any of us prepare for what comes next?

We can start by choosing to be guided by the compass of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The SDGs are a kaleidoscope of hope, 17 goals to be mixed and matched to help us realize a more inclusive, green and just world. From bridging the new digital divide to reaching net zero carbon, many of humanity’s questions can be answered through the SDGs — if we act now.

With students of Government Secondary School and Junior Secondary School, Kabusa Abuja, Nigeria in June 2021. Credit: UNIC Lagos/ Oluseyi Soremekun

Honour our shared and lived experience

Humanity is going through a crisis that nearly every single person on earth has acutely felt. With more than 3.7 million deaths, 41 million people on the brink of famine and 220 million jobs lost — families and societies have been shattered.

Some parts of the world are picking up the pieces, while many regions are diverging to respond to third and fourth waves of the pandemic. As I write this, new variants creating additional waves are being announced, meaning more hopes and dreams are put on hold and more anxiety and fear is woven into our social fabric.

Every next step will be a better one if it can be taken with a deeper appreciation of our shared and lived experience.

We can channel our shared feelings of loss and frustration to push for safety nets for all who are being left behind. We can co-create a narrative that acknowledges the inequalities that exist globally and within our communities.

As much as we rely on data to drive us, lived experience can strengthen our skills and shape our mindset to what comes next.

With women leaders in 2019

Start something for people and for planet

Each of us has the ideas and the strength of character to help the world respond to recover better from the health and socioeconomic impact of the virus.

This must begin with a united front in ensuring all people receive a vaccine.

Right now, almost 90% of the world has not been fully vaccinated. More than 3.5 billion young people need digital solutions for education. The year 2020 was among the warmest on record, with wildfires, droughts and storms intensifying. The challenges are real and present, especially for women and youth.

The silver lining in this pandemic is the real opportunity the SDGs bring to solutions and pathways for recovering better. Reaching the SDGs will make us more equally resilient and ready to meet tomorrow’s challenge and help us recover faster from today’s crisis.

There are solutions all around us. Programmes like Giga are connecting schools to the internet. There are strategies to close the gender pay gap and coalitions to build vaccine equity — like COVAX.

We need inclusive solutions that address discrimination and inequality of all kinds.

People also need jobs — especially green jobs that can tackle the climate crisis: everything from clean electricity and clean electric transport to large-scale nature and biodiversity conservation. For every dollar spent on conservation, almost seven more are generated in the larger economy in the medium-term.

Before the pandemic, the financing gap to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals was US$ 2.5 trillion per year. As we call for closing the fiscal gaps in our economic stimulus packages, the focus must be on directing these unprecedented investments to foster inclusive and sustainable growth, decent jobs, social protection, and connectivity for a green transition. With these steps, we will spur innovation at scale to ensure solutions reach everyone, everywhere.

In Times Square, New York City in 2019. Credit: UN Photo/Manuel Elías

Keep the promise

Humanity merits a recovery that lives up to the 2030 Agenda’s principle of leaving no one behind; a recovery that will strengthen our human rights, health, education, and social protection systems, sharpen our focus on vulnerable communities, empower women in all settings and build resilience.

A recovery that is grounded in advancing a just transition in energy, food systems, digitalization and infrastructure — will help reduce emissions, support people who are shifting from the brown economy and create new and better jobs for a sustainable future.

A recovery that gives space to the intergenerational transition underway — from the frontlines to online will empower young people, especially young women, to build a more inclusive and equal world. All that is needed is for those with power to heed their vision.

A recovery built on the 2030 Agenda’s commitment to partnerships and universality will ensure we move forward together, as one humanity, with a whole of society approach.

We all belong to our human family in this world. Now it is time for leaders, governments, businesses, cities, communities, and each of us to keep the promise of the SDGs for all of us and future generations.