#YEEinterview: V4SDG

In a new #YEEinterview, meet Krisztina Zálnoky and Lilla Bartuszek, co- founders of V4SDG. Krisztina and Lilla will tell you more about the V4SDG, a youth-led non-profit organisation working on strengthening partnership and leadership for sustainability in the Visegrad Group. The Visegrad Group, V4 for short, is an alliance of four eastern and central European countries – Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. V4SDG is a collective of young professionals transforming sustainability affairs in these countries. Find out more about their ambitious projects and how they’re contributing to the sustainable development of the Central and Eastern European region. 

Who are some of the members of the V4SDG’s team? Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

My name is Krisztina Zálnoky, and I’m a Co-founder and Board member of V4SDG. In my professional life, I am currently a policy intern at the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership in Brussels. I am also a member of the Global Shapers Brussels Hub and a graduate of University College London in Public Policy MSc. I also would like to highlight the co-author of this interview, Lilla Bartuszek, V4SDG’s Secretary-General, whose input was invaluable. 

V4SDG is a non-profit organization run by young professionals, strengthening partnership and leadership for sustainability in the Visegrad Group. We are turning our region into a shaper of sustainable development for the benefit of the EU and beyond, taking a historical opportunity to reconstruct our relevance. 

How did you come up with the idea of V4SDG? What is the main focus area of V4SDG?

It was December 2017, when a group of enthusiastic students and young professionals with the high ambition to strengthen the collaboration among sustainability actors in the Visegrad countries came together to think about how to realise the projects. This was the time, when us co-founders started working together, namely András Volom, Federika Fait and myself. We came up with the idea as in our various previous roles we learned that there are brilliant initiatives concerning sustainability solutions across the various sectors, however, many of these projects work in silos. We wanted to break this and support better collaboration across fields, sectors and professionals. Furthermore, we at V4SDG strongly believe that the Visegrad countries and more broadly the Central and Eastern European region have a significant role in implementing the Agenda 2030. I can say that this is our strongest motivation. 

Since then, we grew into an NGO with over 30 members across Central and Eastern Europe and beyond. I consider myself fortunate to nurture this growth. 

Regarding the operation of V4SDG, we have above 30 active volunteers working across Europe. We have four main projects tracks, V4SDG Compass, Connect, Exchange, Lab. You can read more details about the projects below. Furthermore, we have a Global Relations team dedicated to strengthening our presence at international organisations, a Communications Team leading both our organization’s external and internal communications and also Country Teams who focus on local engagement opportunities.

Building bridges and sharing ideas represent a valuable tool for developing sustainable solutions: is this the right direction to achieve SDGs in Central Eastern Europe?

Achieving sustainability is the definitive challenge of the 21st century, but it is also a unique opportunity for the Visegrad Group and Central Eastern Europe to show leadership and weigh in on the right side of history. For the past 30 years, the Visegrad collaboration between Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic has been an example of a successful model of regional cooperation. At the outset, V4 as a community of shared goals and common values, helped to achieve joint European aspirations leading to the EU and NATO accession. It proved the potential of the region not only to foster links and dialogue, but to effectively strengthen mutual positions while tackling challenges together.

Now, the global challenges of climate change, degradation of the environment, and growing inequalities pose new threats to our way of life, prompting us to strengthen the Visegrad cooperation in the direction of sustainability.

Sustainability requires cooperation and partnership, two goals our organization values the most. By sharing best practices, regional sustainability actors from all sectors can take a big step forward in forming a united forefront in the fight for a more sustainable V4 region. V4SDG can play a great role in creating a platform for these actors, connecting the representatives of governmental and business sectors, academia and the youth, thereby getting a diverse perspective on such important issues as sustainable development.  

Which is the biggest challenge you have faced (or you are facing) since setting up V4SDG?

I think the main challenge I would highlight is the question of funding that is I believe a common difficulty for non-profit organisations. Being sustainable in financial terms as well is crucial if we would like to achieve our ambitious goals. In the first two years, we were mainly funded by sponsorship. I would highlight here the EIT Climate-Kic with whom we worked on various high-level sustainability leaders forum since 2018. The breakthrough was when V4SDG was awarded with a Visegrad Fund grant as well as a grant from the Ministry of Human Capacities in Hungary. This enabled us to realise our Budapest Sustainability Exchange, the region’s first strategic sustainability forum, among other projects.

What reactions/feedbacks have V4SDG received?

Since its foundation in late 2017, V4SDG has gradually increased its presence in the region, attracting more and more young professionals from the field of sustainability. At the same time, the organization also grabbed the attention of several high-level sustainability experts, whom we were honoured to welcome at our events and members of our wider community. Based on feedback that we have received, sustainability actors of the region are happy to be provided with a platform where they can exchange their visions and best practices. This feedback also resonates with our mission to contribute to the necessary infrastructure for enhanced regional cooperation.

Regional representation should be more present at the tables where decisions are made, and it is in our power and interest to change that. V4SDG’s primary aim is to accelerate the sustainability discussion as we believe that – in terms of innovation and development – this is a unique opportunity for the Visegrad region and Europe as well.  

In your opinion, which role does youth play in raising awareness about environmental issues?

Youth play an increasingly important role when it comes to sustainability. Those currently in office have an immense responsibility as they should find a way to let young people’s voices be heard. Equally, our generation has a massive role to play and a huge amount of responsibility to share in this regard. It is us, the young generation, whose future will be impacted the most by the current actions of decision makers and world leaders. In addition, this generation has the opportunity and the willingness to stand up for such important causes as the issue at hand.  

Youth continuously raise awareness to different cross cutting issues. Youth has a wide variety of tools at hand. Whether one chooses to intervene by joining activist groups or by dwelling deeper into political advocacy, the main message we can convene is clear and simple: we should act and we should do it now.  Also, we often tend to underestimate the role of a simple discussion about a specific topic that we are concerned about. However, in reality that is how the conversation starts which can then hopefully turn into action and, provided we persist, solutions will eventually be worked out. As a best practice, V4SDG welcomes the UN Secretary General’s Youth Advisory Group on Climate change. We would like to see more similar engagement opportunities for youth from local to the global stage.

Do you believe that economic development can coexist with sustainability and ecological conservation?

I am convinced that the economy and sustainability can thrive together. Although, we need to define the boundaries within which we can move without overstepping our planetary boundaries and also how we understand the term economic development. The work of Kate Raworth is a pioneer in this, and I agree with her philosophy as she thinks that “we need an economy that makes us thrive, whether or not it grows.” Her idea reflects on the pressing need to change the way we think about growth. I also think that beyond consistency, sustainability principles should drive the economy, especially the economic recovery after the current crisis.

How far did the V4SDG grow since its beginning? What’s next for you and V4SDG?

At V4SDG – Visegrad for Sustainability, we have spent the last three years constructing the foundations of an organisation that will help us combine our efforts for a more sustainable V4 by integrating sustainability actors from our region, across sectors, and enhancing their potential to positively impact the future. Now, we are ready to take the first steps ’on the radar’. The ultimate objective is to create the pipeline through which the integrated perspectives and expertise of the CEE can be mainstreamed into the EU-level and global processes shaping the course of sustainability. 

In 2020, V4SDG set up 4 projects, aiming at addressing the question of sustainability in various sectors. V4SDG EXCHANGE is our project aiming at strengthening intersectoral dialogue and partnership through in person and online activities in the region. After four successful conferences in the V4 capitals, on 23rd-24th September, the first Budapest Sustainability Exchange took place, launching a cross-sectoral and cross-party reflection on green cooperation between the V4 countries. The two-day conference attracted hundreds of participants both in-person and virtually via Livestream, creating a unique, interactive forum for dialogue. During the event, we launched V4SDG CONNECT, our online platform for matchmaking and knowledge- sharing between the professionals and institutions of the region dealing with sustainability. Alongside, we are building V4SDG LAB, a community of 100 young professionals covering all the 17 Sustainable Development Goals of the UN, laying the groundwork for a regional think-and-do-tank that can inform decision-makers on sustainability. Finally, we are taking our first steps with V4SDG COMPASS, our advocacy arm responsible for drafting a Visegrad Sustainability Cooperation Minimum together with the representatives of youth. Once we pass our first milestones in the Visegrad Countries, we will expand into the other CEE countries, integrating the sustainability infrastructures of our broader region. 

Which advice would you give to the young people like you who want to be more active in the field of sustainable development?

Looking at the example of V4SDG, one piece of advice I could give is to be bold and don’t compromise on your goals and values. Being ambitious and maybe even a pioneer among your friends, at the university or workplace, can be scary. However, acting upon sustainability that is a defining theme of our century, will be rewarding. Now we have a global momentum to scale up our sustainability ambitions: we have to take action now.

Thank you V4SDG! Your example shows how valuable knowledge-sharing and partnership are, by exchanging information regarding how to tackle sustainability challenges, we can try to create a more sustainable world, where everyone aims towards a joint goal – the common good. In YEE, we feel this point particularly important, among our main goals, mitigating the climate crisis by enhancing international cooperation and knowledge-sharing among our members is a key pillar of our mission. Good luck V4SDG with your next projects!

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