Even before the outbreak of the coronavirus, the world contended with a host of inequities and systemic problems that threatened its societal fabric. To identify and address these inequities, the United Nations (UN) adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, featuring 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), in 2015.
These SDG targets have remained intact throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, but the immediate needs of the health crisis have weakened their already precarious viability in many cases. As a result, the UN 2030 goals face an uncertain outlook for advances and achievement in the coming decade.
Challenges and Hard-Won Gains
The SDGs formalized a broad range of ambitious targets, from ending poverty and reducing inequities to combating climate change and bolstering the sustainable use of natural resources.
The UN estimated that costs of achieving the goals would run between $5 trillion and $7 trillion per year for the life of the 2030 agenda. Yet from the start, officials identified a multitrillion dollar gap between developed and developing countries. Against this backdrop, the path to achieving the UN 2030 goals was always fraught for some, with worries around a constant struggle for resources required for the world’s poorest communities.
Nonetheless, in 2019 the UN Economic and Social Council reported generally positive responses from national, regional, and city governments as well as support from business, civil society, academia, and younger populations. As a result, it cited select progress in areas such as extreme poverty, child mortality, hepatitis B infections, access to electricity, and marine protections.
However, these gains have proven to be the exception. The council concluded that the development pathways to achieve the SDG targets are “not yet advancing at the speed or scale required.” More specifically:
- The projected 6% extreme poverty rate in 2030 will not effectively eradicate extreme poverty.
- Hunger levels keep rising alongside obesity among children 5 years old and younger.
- Greenhouse gas emissions keep increasing.
- Significant gender inequities persist in the workplace and on the home front.
- Government commitments to multilateral cooperation are weakening amid intensifying conflicts and instability around the globe.
With a decade left on the clock, expectations are increasingly clouded by the likelihood of sluggish economic growth in the coming years, rising trade conflicts, and high debt levels for individuals and institutions alike.
The Coronavirus Complication
Enter COVID-19. Within two months of the World Health Organization declaring a pandemic, confirmed coronavirus cases topped 4 million worldwide, and reported deaths totaled almost 300,000.
The world’s at-risk populations proved to be the most vulnerable to the outbreak—these are the same communities poised to benefit the most from the SDG targets. Yet the pandemic’s rapid spread accelerated an urgent demand for related resources, and UN-led development funds quickly agreed to allow recipients of SDG monies to use a portion to tackle COVID-19.
Such shifts could affect long-term funding of the SDGs, and multiple UN leaders requested COVID-19 support separate from funding that backs the 2030 goals. One vehicle that could facilitate such efforts is social bonds, a class of sustainable debt that funds projects that provides positive social outcomes, from broader community resiliency initiatives to specific COVID-19 programs.
Ultimately, just as the coronavirus exacerbated global inequities, the world’s response has the potential to right historical wrongs—and the SDGs provide a thorough blueprint to do so. For example, as the UN urges action against the pandemic, it aligns comprehensive responses with SDGs such as good health and well-being (SDG 3); gender equality (SDG 5); and peace, justice, and strong institutions (SDG 16).
The UN underscored that the effects of this pandemic extend beyond a single viral outbreak. To address thse effects, the UN launched a $1 billion COVID-19 Response and Recovery Fund, which consists of three objectives:
- Conquer the immediate crisis.
- Facilitate broad social remedies.
- Build resiliency into the recovery efforts.
The repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic will resonate deep into the future. However, as the co-chairs of the UN Secretary-General’s SDG Advocates wrote in an article for the World Economic Forum, the pandemic’s ability to quickly rally a broad cross-section of stakeholders in a shared battle is inspirational.
“If we attach the same level of importance and urgency to the fight against poverty, hunger, and climate change, we will find success in this Decade of Action on the SDGs,” they conclude.