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Ulrika Modéer, Assistant Secretary-General

Interview with

Ulrika Modéer, Assistant Secretary General

Ulrika Modéer is Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations and Director of the Bureau of External Relations and Advocacy of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) since 2018. One of her tasks is to push for the achievement of the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals by 2030. Ulrika Modéer has many years of experience in the foreign service and civil society, including as State Secretary responsible for development cooperation and as Policy Director at Diakonia.

What impact do you think that the Covid-19 pandemic will have on developing countries?

There were problems of socio-economic inequality in developing countries even before the pandemic which have been further exacerbated by the crisis. The latest UN report shows that 120 million people have been forced into extreme poverty and 160 million have been pushed into famine. We have lost 20 years of education and 243 million girls and women have been subjected to sexual violence, in part because of the socio-economic stress that is caused by the pandemic.

The problem is that developing economies have had insufficient financial muscles to deal with a large-scale crisis. Unlike other countries, it has been difficult to sustain support for the business sector. We are seeing declining foreign direct investment (FDI), remittances and aid flows at a time when developing countries’ economies are under severe pressure with rising public debt and high inflation.

It is easy to focus on the immediate humanitarian needs during a crisis. But since the crashed economies and increased inequality and vulnerability is the result of failing social systems, we need to focus on how to build back better. Unequal access to vaccines remains a major challenge, not least in sub-Saharan Africa. The health budget of developing countries needs to increase by around 57 percent to reach the WHO recommendation of a 70 percent vaccination coverage. Unequal access to vaccines is driving the severe socio-economic crisis right before our eyes.

What are your thoughts on the future development of democracy?

The UN has made clear that shutdowns should not be used as an excuse to reduce democratic control. Instead, governments have a great responsibility to ensure that it is maintained.

What concerns us at UNDP is the growing trend of disinformation. In the social unrest following the pandemic, we see a loss of trust in institutions in both well-functioning democracies and authoritarian states. There is a risk that this will be bad for FDI, putting further pressure on the economies of these countries.

A positive democratic trend is the social uprisings that we have seen in several countries, demonstrating that people do not tolerate governments and institutions that do not take responsibility in difficult situations. We see that women have been instrumental in the social mobilisation.

What is the role of digitalisation in sustainable development?

Even though we have been talking about digital technologies in international development cooperation for many years, and although several digital solutions have emerged, I think that we have missed the big picture. Even before the pandemic, the UNDP’s Human Development Report pointed out that the digital infrastructure is incredibly poor in most countries, with different digital capacity both within and between countries. That is why the strategic plan of UNDP is highlighting digitisation as a key enabler of sustainable development. We are also working with governments to develop digital strategies, which all countries should have. Digitisation is also important from a multidimensional poverty perspective, and we need to make sure that everyone is included.

How do you see the climate issue in relation to poverty?

Climate change is the single greatest challenge of our generation and how we deal with it will affect everything else. The IPCC report demonstrated that we are no longer dealing with a wake-up call, but rather a high distress signal. With the commitments that we have in place today, we are already heading for a positition well above the target of 1.5o C warming. The climate issue should therefore be an integral part of the Global Goals for Sustainable Development, poverty reduction and democratic development.

In this context, it is also important to highlight the crisis when it comes to biodiversity, with deforestation of large areas and the extinction of species. Investing in biodiversity by protecting and partially restoring our ecosystems is also an investment in the mitigation of climate change.

How do we mobilise resources needed to achieve the goals of the 2030 Agenda?

It is not really about a lack of funding, but rather about ensuring that the funding ends up in the right places. Investors need to invest in companies that work towards the Global Goals. Both the funders and the individual companies need to improve their planning, reporting and accountability. We see a growing interest from many private investors to invest in line with the 2030 Agenda, but the challenge is that they often find it risky and difficult to identify suitable investments in developing countries. In order to enable investment, we need to design new instruments to attract the development finance that the UN believes is needed. For example, different types of financial instruments could be set up. This in turn can attract other investors to markets where capital is needed.

What are the three most important issues for a sustainable future?

It is important to work with UNDP’s core mandates concerning good governance and the rule of law to be able to direct investments to where they will do the most good. It is incredibly important to create an environment where investors dare to invest and where local businesses can grow, preferably in close cooperation with governments and other stakeholders. We also need to focus on digitalisation and climate - two crucial issues for a sustainable future.

Rather than to see the Global Goals as separate issues, it is incredibly important to know how they are interconnected from a systems based perspective. For example, investments in renewable energy leads to economic growth, poverty reduction, less urban-rural inequality and better opportunities for women and girls. Although there are conflicting objectives, we can move forward only when we use a system based perspective.

What can development finance institutions do more of or differently?

Development finance institutions like Swedfund have a really important mission in demonstrating that it is possible to make both commercially smart and sustainable investments in challenging environments.

It would be exciting to see if more could be done to engage larger commercial actors and institutional investors who have not previously been part of the international development cooperation. Another interesting question is how we can link the work of development finance institutions with, for example, the UN Secretary-General’s new Sustainable Investment Network.


The United Nations Development Programme, UNDP, is on the ground in 170 countries to eradicate poverty, reduce inequalities, promote peaceful societies, and support countries in achieving the 2030 Global Goals. The programme helps countries to prevent crises and conflicts, to strengthen democratic institutions and to build partnerships for sustainable development where no one is left behind.

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