United Nations

The UNDESA Division for Sustainable Development – Providing Leadership on Implementing Sustainable Development

By: Patricia Chaves, Senior Sustainable Development Officer, United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs — Division for Sustainable Development

Sustainable development has been of fundamental importance to the international community for over 20 years. Agreements on the implementation of this concept or guiding principle has been reflected in work programmes, United Nationsnational policies, development cooperation frameworks, outcome documents, regional strategies, Secretary-General’s reports and resolutions of the UN General Assembly agreed at various intergovernmental processes and summits of Heads of State and Government under the auspices of the United Nations.

The concept has evolved internationally from the time of the publication of the Brundtland Report in 1987, the UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED – Brazil – 1992), to the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD – South Africa – 2002) and the recent UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20 – Brazil – 2012).

The three dimensions of sustainable development: Economic Growth, Social Equity and Environmental Protection.

Sustainable development benefited from broad based discussions among Member States, civil society, including the private sector, regional organizations and the UN system through the UN Commission on Sustainable Development which offered a platform for engagement and dialogue during the 20 years of its existence (1993 – 2013). The Commission was abolished in September 2013 to be replaced by the High Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development.

During a time of high expectations, hopes, enthusiasm and attentive interest on sustainable development after UNCED, the Division for Sustainable Development (DSD) was established in 1993. It aimed to give operational meaning to the concept of sustainable development by providing leadership in promoting and coordinating the implementation of the sustainable development agenda of the United Nations at the global, regional and national level.

The Division translates its responsibility as the primary UN office in support of intergovernmental sustainable development processes into five core functions:

  1. Support to UN intergovernmental processes on sustainable development;
  2. Analysis and policy development;
  3. Capacity development at the country level;
  4. Inter-agency coordination; and
  5. Knowledge management, communication and outreach.

In addition, the Division houses the Small Islands Developing States (SIDS) Unit mandated to support the implementation of the Mauritius Strategy of Implementation of the Barbados Programme of Action for Small Island Developing States. The Division also extends its work through overseas offices in Republic of Korea, Japan, Colombia, Kenya and Zaragoza, Spain. 

Support for the UN Intergovernmental processes includes preparing all substantive and organizational aspects of meetings of the General Assembly and ECOSOC, the High Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development as well as several processes launched at the Rio+20 Conference considered one of the largest conferences in the history of the United Nations. In particular, the Division is tasked with supporting member states’ deliberations of the open working group on the sustainable development goals, discussions at the intergovernmental committee on sustainable development finance, dialogues on the possible options for the establishment of a technology facilitation mechanism and the preparatory process of the 2014 Third International Conference of Small Island Developing States.

The Division also supports related regional processes and follows Member States’ implementation of commitments on sustainable development since the 1992 Earth Summit.

Through the Division’s analysis and policy development work, it provides an analytical and scientific basis for intergovernmental deliberations on sustainable development. It undertakes assessments of long-term sustainable development challenges, both new and intensifying ones.

The Division supports member states in translating decisions of UN intergovernmental bodies related to sustainable development.

Through its capacity development work, the Division supports member states in translating decisions of UN intergovernmental bodies related to sustainable development, specially agreements reached at Rio+20, into actual policies and actions at the country level. In particular, the Division endeavours to assist member states to develop policies that integrate the three dimensions of sustainable development, i.e. economic growth, social equity and environmental protection. These activities in turn allow the Division to inform intergovernmental bodies on the relevance and impact of normative and analytical efforts at the country level.

Through its interagency coordination responsibilities, the Division mobilizes the UN system and other relevant organizations to support sustainable development strategies. In particular, the Division houses Secretariats for key inter-agency mechanisms namely UN-Water and UN-Energy, and contributes closely to the inter-agency process on Oceans. It also chairs an informal mechanism called the Inter-Agency Consultative Group on SIDS.

Through the Division’s knowledge management, communication and outreach efforts, it aims to support the effective participation of Major Groups or civil society in the UN political processes and its analytical and capacity development work. It also provides wide access to information and knowledge on sustainable development, through its online Sustainable Development Knowledge Platform and social media: http://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/index.html

The Post 2015 Development Agenda
new, universal development agenda centered on sustainable development.

At present the Division is concentrating its efforts in supporting the follow up of the intergovernmental processes launched at the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20 – Brazil – 2012) as enumerated previously. Most of these processes will have a direct bearing in the definition and shaping of a new, universal development agenda centered on sustainable development, known as the Post 2015 Development Agenda. Member States have agreed to launch a process of intergovernmental negotiations on this new development agenda in September 2014 which will last for a year and will culminate in the adoption of the post-2015 development agenda by a summit of Heads of State and Government in September 2015.

The year 2015 will mark an extraordinary moment in history for the international community in which challenging agreements must be reached on (a) a single framework for sustainable development supported by a new set of sustainable development goals as well as (b) on a meaningful legal agreement on climate change. The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) framework launched in 2000 extended its life until 2015 and thus a new development framework needs to be agreed to continue the important gains achieved in 15 years of the implementation of the MDGs and envision emerging challenges for the next 15 years.


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