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SDGs: the Challenge to Improve Lives After the COVID-19 Crisis

Alexander Trepelkov is Officer-in-Charge of the Division for Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) at the UN’s Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA)

UN Secretary-General António Guterres briefs the media on the socio-economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. Credit: UN/Mark Garten

UNITED NATIONS, Apr 27 2020 (IPS) - The SDGs, with their universal scope, interlinked nature and focus on leaving no one behind will be more essential than ever during and after this crisis.

The SDGs encourage investments in critical public goods like minimum levels of social protection and the provision of services like health care, clean water and education which help to build resilience and enhance the mechanisms people have to cope with the immediate and longer-term impact of shocks.

The most recent estimates indicate that some 3 billion people are without basic handwashing facilities at home and 4 billion people lack any kind of social protection.

The SDGs are a commitment to leave no one behind, and this includes ensuring everyone is able to take measures to reduce their exposure to the disease and have the means to cope and recover.

If anything, the SDGs will become more important in the days and months ahead. The goals and targets set in 2015 are precisely the areas where progress needs to be made to build resilience and guard against future crises and where we will need to work to build back after the immediate tragedy subsides.

Preliminary projections from the UN system indicate that COVID-19 could lead to the first increase in global extreme poverty in over 20 years, since the Asian financial crisis of 1981. It could push 40 to 60 million people into extreme poverty and could double the incidence of food insecurity in the world.

The challenge for improving people’s lives after this crisis will be greater than ever, but the SDGs will help guide the path forward to ease suffering.

Do any goals stand out at the moment as most pressing?

Because the SDGs are all interconnected, interventions can be taken in ways that achieve one goal while also leveraging positive synergies among other goals to have a wider reach. UN DESA launched the Global Sustainable Development Report last September and a key message there was that taking advantage of synergies and addressing trade-offs among goals is the only way to achieve the 2030 Agenda.

Strengthening human well-being was identified in the report as an entry point for maximizing progress across the Agenda and there are examples that investing in education in science and technology can help build capacities for responding to pressing challenges like climate change and also like the current pandemic.

The report also emphasizes the need for increasing access to social protection as economies change and people need to cope with disasters, including health related; and the need for increasing support for workers to transition to new types of work when livelihoods are dependent on unsustainable sectors.

All of these are policy arenas that will be at the forefront of decision-makers’ attention as countries grapple with responses to Covid-19 and try to build stronger social and economic systems to reduce future vulnerabilities.

Are they unrealistic? What about the 2030 deadline in light of the pandemic?

The science and knowledge needed to achieve the 2030 Agenda is well advanced and from a science perspective, the COVID-19 pandemic may even encourage greater collaboration and knowledge sharing for the public good.

There are also some surprising trends in areas of the 2030 Agenda where progress has been slow. There is evidence that lockdown polices and the resulting reductions in economic activity have seen CO2 emissions decline substantially.

The conditions of these declines have been tragic and with loss of human lives and livelihoods. But there are questions now as to whether some of the shifts in human activity in response to Covid-19 government implemented guidelines could open space for dialogue about behaviour changes that can support longer term climate action.

So, we have the evidence needed to take action and possibly the space to make significant policy changes. But to be successful, all stakeholders should be involved in dialogue and inform the decision-making processes.

Two annual events that DESA organizes can provide a model for multi-stakeholder engagement and decision-making: the Science, Technology and Innovation Forum (STI Forum) and the High Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF).


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