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Nikhil Seth: “The challenge is making politicians and managers take the steps to make changes”

Irene Matías Campano
Nikhil Seth appointed by the United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon as UN Assistant Secretary-General and Executive Director of the United Nations Institute for Training and Research recently visited Spain to learn more about how the country carries out its development cooperation activities and to work with Universities and to see how the challenges posed by the 2030 Agenda. Ibercampus had the opportunity to speak with him in his recent visit to Spain to understand UNITAR´s mision

What are the main goals of the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR)? 

The United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR) is the dedicated training arm of the United Nations. Headquartered in Geneva and with out-posted offices in Hiroshima, New York and Port Harcourt, Nigeria, the Institute’s mission is to develop capacities to enhance global decision-making and to support country level action for shaping a better future. 

After the adoption of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development in September 2015, one of UNITAR’s main areas of work has been to help empower national governments and their partners to mainstream, implement and review the 2030 Agenda. The SDGs are indeed a subject that I feel extremely passionate about, and I hold a personal sense of responsibility to help implement the 2030 Agenda. There are five imperatives for its success, which have endured from its conceptualisation, and must be the basis for its effective implementation:

  • Engagement of all
  • Universal applicability
  • Evidence based policy with emphasis on disaggregated data
  • Treating the goals as an indivisible whole
  • Leaving no one behind and reaching the furthest first.

It is clear that solutions are multifaceted and diverse, and the priorities for action may vary from one country to another. As a result, the Institute applies a two-fold strategy to increase its outreach and enhance the impact of its products and services. First, it develops generic toolkits for the benefit of all Member States. Second, it provides tailored institutional support, training of trainers, face-to-face workshops and e-Learning for participants.  Examples of this work include:

The first national briefing package developed by UNITAR jointly with UN Development Group (UNDG), which has been used by a number of countries in Africa, in the Caribbean, in the Middle East and in Asia.

UNITAR has also partnered with the Sustainable Development Goals Fund (SDG-Fund) in 2016 to host an international conference on strengthening the partnership between the UN and the business sector in attaining the SDGs by 2030.

With engagement of all being pivotal to the success of the 2030 Agenda, jointly with UN DESA, UNITAR has developed an e-Learning course for Government officials specifically to strengthen stakeholder engagement.

UNITAR also regularly organises regional workshops to boost the capacity of Government staff to tackle challenges faced by individual countries in the implementation of the 2030 Agenda. For instance, UNITAR organised a workshop in Bangkok in October 2016. It provided support to Government staff from several countries in Asia to adapt their monitoring and evaluation systems to better assess their advancement towards meeting the targets of the SDGs.

UNITAR is stepping up its training initiative to support national governments and other stakeholders in building the capacities needed to implement the 2030 Agenda. Which are the governments that are at the moment mostly involved/committed with UNITAR? And the less involved? Why? 

Training and capacity building is extremely important for realising these changes called for by the SDGs. At UNITAR, our daily work is in realising capacity building activities to enhance and strengthen the implementation of the 2030 Agenda, as well as other global agreements, frameworks and agendas. We work hand-in-hand with the UN System and with Member States and other stakeholders and actors, to ensure that the best training is delivered to those who may be instrumental to change. 


Following the adoption of the 2030 Agenda, 70 of the poorest countries have sought our help in introducing SDGs into their national plans, in reaching agreements with different actors related to development, or in creating statistical systems to monitor progress. These countries include Small Island Developing States (SIDS), and other countries emerging from, or still in situations of conflict. We must recognize, however, that these problems are universal and are not exclusive to poor countries. In this regard some of the more developed countries who are facing similar challenges in adapting their current laws to achieve the SDGs have also sought our help.

UNITAR recognises the need to work with all governments collectively, since the challenges we face today, including disease, drought, and the increasing number of displaced peoples, have no borders and countries cannot solve them alone. There has to be a collective effort. The focus should be on multi-dimensional, evidence-based approaches, which mobilise resources from both the public and private sector and from civil society. Of course, the challenge is making politicians and managers take the steps to make changes. Practices will not change unless those at the top are convinced of the need and are not just talking the talk, but are walking the walk!

How does UNITAR promote Economic Development and Social Inclusion? 

UNITAR´s Decentralized Cooperation Programme aims to build the capacities of decision and policy-makers at national and local levels. Together with its network of 15 affiliated training centres worldwide – the CIFAL Network – activities are delivered in the fields of urban governance and planning, economic development, social inclusion, environmental sustainability and the 2030 Agenda. Further, UNITAR is committed to ensuring that its activities reach the furthest first, and leave no one behind, with special attention to Least Developed Countries (LDCs), Small Island Developing States (SIDS) and other groups and communities who are most vulnerable, including those in conflict situations. 

To give one example of our work in social inclusion, UNITAR appreciates the need for the full participation of women and girls, and the appropriate representation of women in national, regional and international policy and decision making bodies and forums is essential to accelerate change.  UNITAR’s Women’s Leadership Programme recognises this need, and runs regular women’s leadership workshops, specifically to encourage women’s participation in UN fora. This is particularly important as it has been shown that the more women around the table, the more likely a group is to reach consensus, and the more likely it is that the agreement reached will reflect women’s empowerment priorities, whether it be through the lens of peace and security, poverty and sustainable development, environment or otherwise.


UNITAR’s Public Finance and Trade Programme delivers training and capacity development for finance and trade of officials, from public and private sectors, in the areas of financial governance, debt management and poverty reduction, financial negotiation, trade and investment, and intellectual property. The programme offers e-learning courses, as well as tailor-made trainings delivered in partnership with various international and regional institutions, including the Arab Bank for Economic Development, the West African Institute for Financial and Economic Management, the Macroeconomic and Financial Management Institute of Eastern and Southern Africa, the Food and Agricultural Organization, the Economic Community of West African States, and the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa. 

What objectives do you have in Spain? Are you currently developing any project? 

In the context of UNITAR’s work, I came to Spain firstly to learn more about how the country carries out its development cooperation, particularly in the context of Latin America. Secondly, I came to work with Universities and to see how the challenges posed by the 2030 Agenda can be reflected in their educational curricula, particularly through interdisciplinary approaches aimed at finding solutions to human problems. Research is usually driven by curiosity, rather than by trying to solve human problems, and although I think it is important to know the origin of the Universe, I think it is just as important to know how to avoid its destruction – at least that of planet Earth. Thirdly, I wanted to learn about the ways in which Spain is promoting and disseminating the SDGs, how this is reflected in society, in the private sector, and in government, and most importantly to see how UNITAR as an institution can help by providing knowledge on the subject. My meetings in Spain have been very fruitful, and it is clear that the Spanish Government is committed to the implementation of the SDGs. This goal is being made a priority, as well as achieving an impact through development cooperation in other countries.

Education in Spain is facing many challenges. According to the latest PISA rankings Spain's students are still struggling despite all the money the country has spent on trying to improve its educational standards.  On the other hand, we have 44% youth unemployment rates. How do you think UNITAR could help Spain to achieve a better economic development and social inclusion? 

There is often the feeling that governments are not doing enough, but I do not have the impression that this is the case in Spain. The truth is that these processes take time. When the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were adopted, they were essentially for developing countries and took years to take off. But with the SDGs, only a year later, everyone wants to start. However, the fact that Spanish people are vigilant about what their country is doing is a good sign. I believe that all leaders, not only politicians, but also academics, entrepreneurs, scientists and researchers, have to understand that human aspirations, their fears, concerns and hopes are related to the economy, engineering, sociology, the environment, law, the construction of peaceful societies etc. Unless this is well understood, decisions will continue to be taken in isolation, without taking into account the interlinkages between them. How do we eradicate poverty? How do we make youth employment and infrastructure sustainable? How do we protect the marine ecosystem and the air we breathe?

On the contrary, how can Spain help with UNITAR with its goals?

We have become accustomed to working in a certain way, not just in governments, but in Universities, and in business, each working independently of the others. The great lesson of the SDGs is that we have to do it together. This will take time, but people are realizing the advantages of joining efforts, so the change will come. Organizations such as UNITAR help bring about a change in peoples’ mindsets, which is the essential ingredient to initiating change on the broader scale and in the long term.


Of interest