Gabriel Wikström, Swedish national coordinator for 2030 Agenda

Gabriel Wikström, Nationell samordnare för Agenda 2030
Photo: Ninni Andersson, Regeringskansliet

“The 2030 Agenda is a tremendous reason to do much more for the health of children and adolescents”

Text: Ulrica Segersten

Gabriel Wikström, formerly minister with responsibility for public health and healthcare, is now the Swedish national coordinator for 2030 Agenda. He has the somewhat daunting task of increasing societal cooperation to reach the 17 SDGs. This goes for local and regional actors, business as well as civil society and academia.

“We will of course work with the Agenda as a whole, but I will keep a special focus on children, adolescents and mental health”, says Gabriel Wikström in a SIGHT Zoom-meeting.

Historically, few agreements have been as extensive as the United Nations 2030 Agenda. The task of transforming lofty phrases to action while making a difference on super-local level is easy to view as a Mission Impossible.

“This is exactly why we need a national coordinator in very decentralised country as Sweden is”, says Gabriel Wikström.

Sometimes the 2030 Agenda is misunderstood as some kind of complex climate project, because it is about sustainability. Completely wrong, according to the national coordinator.

“In my view sustainability concerns all aspects of human life, although the climate change demand acute changes.”

“Unless people have a tolerable existence and means for survival, we will not succeed in environment or economy either. The 2030 Agenda builds democracy, bridging social divides, access to clean water, equality and poverty reduction.

Gabriel Wikström feels that Sweden still has some way to go in order to meet the high expectations of implementation.

“The last 5–6 years have unfortunately been rather a lot of talk and less action while implementation should be the main issue.”

Society is in the midst of structural change on many levels, not just in terms of climate. This will require more multisectoral perspectives and solutions than earlier crises.

Social issues are challenging – even in Sweden.

“We have some serious challenges in terms of equality and inclusion. The Swedish society has changed, but politically we have had trouble keeping up. In my view the 2030 Agenda is a tremendous reason to do much, much more, not least on the local level, in order to keep up with reality. Covid-19 has showed us that there is creativity and capacity to act when needed.”

Connecting academia with civil society and using available knowledge to work proactively in order to strengthen the health of children and young people is one concrete way to make a difference.

“This is long-term work. Youth crime has been a matter of lively debate during the last years, although it must be seen as a consequence of our failure to address the needs of a large group of young people during a long period of time. Our inability to prevent mental ill health among young people is not a new phenomenon.”

Sweden’s smug slogan is often repeated:” In Sweden, we have a system.” Gabriel Wikström says that in terms of youth health, this famous system has largely been absent. Especially in terms of prevention. Rather, youth health seems to be an area prone to savings cuts in good and bad times alike.

Long-term prevention work is seldom praised. Disasters that don’t happen are rarely highlighted, while those who heroically repair damages might be awarded a rose or two – or even a newspaper story. How to strengthen societal ability to look at things in a more long-term, holistic and cooperative way? How to honor those who prevent future disasters?

“Public health needs to be a common goal. This is something the pandemic has made abundantly clear.”

Gabriel Wikström is candid in his acknowledgment that Sweden often has a high international profile in welfare issues, but still has a great deal to learn from other countries, not least from its Nordic neighbors.

“And in order to be sustainable for real, we need to look further out in the world, to the low and middle income countries. We need to learn from countries that have to make do with very limited resources. The Swedish system needs to become more open to learn from others.”

Above all, Gabriel Wikström thinks that the political systems have failed to address the most profound challenges the society is facing.

“As soon as the pandemic started to slow down this autumn, politicians began discussing crime again, but didn’t touch on the reasons why it is increasing, such as social inequality.

In order to achieve real societal change and understanding for the 2030 Agenda, grassroot support and commitment to public health, social justice and work against climate change are also needed.

Fridays for Future with Greta Thunberg have managed this in an amazing way. They put pressure to bear on the political system by catching the public attention. Young, innovative students are a dormant force that will make a difference.”

“Young people will not accept going back to business as usual after the pandemic. Now is the time for politicians on different levels, scientists and other sectors to join forces with business for a sustainable reboot. But it needs to be founded in science. If we don’t care to invest and act proactively for better health in areas where we possess knowledge, how will we be able to act in areas where we lack knowledge?”

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