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Are UN’s Sustainable Development Goals in the Doldrums Due to the Corona Virus?

A Somali resident sells meat at a market in Hudur, where food shortages continue to cause suffering. Meanwhile, between 720 and 811 million people in the world faced hunger in 2020 – some 161 million more than for 2019 – the UN Secretary-General said July 12; “new, tragic data”, which indicates the world is “tremendously off track” to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030. Credit: UN Photo/Tobin Jones

BRUSSELS, Belgium / JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia, Jul 30 2021 (IPS) - A short answer to this question is yes, but it is obvious and predictable failure was visible for some time. This debate started before 2015, the year in which the Sustainable Development Goals (or SDGs) were adopted as successors to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) agreed in 2000. The 8 MDGs were expanded to 17 massive goals and 169 targets.

Using projections from international organizations such as the World Bank, the OECD and the WHO, the British Overseas Development Institute (ODI) already quantified in 2015 how much the world would need to accelerate current trends to achieve the SDGs by 2030.

The targets were given a ‘grade’, based on the expected progress. An ‘A’ rating meant that current progress is sufficient to meet the target, ‘B’, ‘C’, ‘D’ and ‘E’ numbers need to go up a notch. An “F” number indicates that the world is going in the wrong direction.

None of the 17 SDGs was rated A. Only three SDGs, — SDG1 (no poverty), SDG8 (economic growth and decent jobs) and SDG15 (biodiversity) — were rated B. SDG 3 (health for all), 4 (quality education), 16 (peace, justice and strong institutions), 17 (partnerships for the goals), 2 (no hunger), 6 (water and sanitation), 7 (energy), 5 (gender) and 9 (industrialization) all received an average C grade. SDGs 10 (inequality), 11 (cities), 12 (waste), 13 (climate change) and 14 (oceans) were all unsatisfactory.

In other words, only 3 of the 17 SDGs were on track to achieve a reasonably acceptable outcome by 2030. This score was developed in 2015, long before COVID-19 hit.

With the devastating effect of COVID-19 on nearly every sector of the global economy, it is clear that achieving the SDGs by 2030 is virtually impossible. Moreover, addressing development goals by nation states is more difficult than was recognized by the authors of the 2030 Agenda for Development.

For example, a study by Lin and Monga (2017) concluded that between 1950 and 2008, only 28 countries managed to reduce their gap with the United States by 10 percent or more. That is a period of 58 years, while the 2030 agenda must be realized within 15 years. Of the 28 countries listed by Lin and Monga, only 12 were non-European or non-oil economies.

According to Lin and Monga, the challenge of renewing developing countries’ economies is inseparable from some of the intellectual and policy errors imposed by the Washington consensus in the 1970s to 1990s, the years described as the lost decade for developing countries.

Banerjee and Duflo (2019), who shared the 2019 Nobel Prize in Economics for their work on poverty alleviation, in fact emphasized how economists designing development policies are out of touch with the realities of ordinary people.

In a more recent analysis, published in the authoritative World Development, Moyer and Hedden (2020) also question how feasible the SDGs are under the current circumstances. They highlight difficulties for some SDG indicators (access to safe sanitation, high school completion, and underweight children) that will not be resolved without a significant shift in domestic and international aid policies and prioritization.

In addition, Moyer and Hedden cite 28 particularly vulnerable countries that are not expected to meet any of the nine human development targets. These most vulnerable countries should be able to count on international aid and therefore financial support.

In our view, the realization of the 2030 agenda can only be achieved on the basis of three factors.

The first is financing. The critical question that is posed in various forums about the SDGs invariably ends with the question: who is going to fund it? Where will the money come from? How can low- and middle-income countries generate sufficient resources to finance the 2030 development agenda.

Although each country has its own priorities, paying the bills for the SDGs remains a delicate matter. The Asia-Europe Foundation calculated (2020: 6) that “the total investment costs to achieve the SDGs by 2030 are between USD 5 and USD 7 trillion per year at the global level and between a total of USD 3.3 and USD 4.5 trillion per year in developing countries.

This implies an average investment need of USD 2.5 trillion per year in developing countries. To better understand the real financial needs of the SDGs, these countries should prepare their own estimates, at least for their priority objectives”.

A significant effort must be made through the private sector and philanthropists. While governments and ordinary people have been hit hard by the health and economic impact of COVID-19, in a way it has been good news for billionaires, many of whom have seen their wealth grow astronomically.

A report from the Washington-based Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) shows that US billionaires have seen their wealth grow by $1 trillion between March and November 2020. Amazon’s owner Jeff Bezos’ net worth increased 61 percent between March and November 2020, from $113 billion to $182.4 billion.

The report added that just three years ago, there was not a single multi-billionaire, that is, a person with a net worth of more than $100 billion. Since November 2020, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, there are now at least 5 multi-billionaires; namely Jeff Bezos of Amazon, Bernard Arnault, president of Louis Vuitton; Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft; Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook; and Elon Musk of Tesla (Huffington Post 2020).

These billionaires, along with the more than 2,000 billionaires from around the world, are wealthy enough to help make substantial progress in some of the SDGs.

The second important factor that can help achieve the SDGs is political will. Many countries have drawn up ambitious national development plans that look great on paper. How many of those plans end up being realized?

When one sees that the fortunes of a country have been successfully changed through the effective implementation of national plans, one cannot separate such achievements from the strong political will of the leaders. The example of China speaks for itself.

The crucial question to be asked is whether that political will is there. UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, responded to a mid-term review of the Sustainable Development Goals (UN 2020): “It is inevitable that one crucial ingredient is still missing. Political will. Without political will, neither the public opinion, nor the stakeholders take sufficient action”. This is where the challenge to achieve the SDGs lies, i.e. a real political will.

The third factor is the need for robust communication for development and social change, so that political will can be conveyed to all stakeholders. Leaders who inspire change do so with the communication tools available in their time.

While the digital age disrupts social systems and drives transformation at a scale and pace unparalleled in history, the SDGs remain quite silent on the subject. Indeed, today digital technologies determine what we read and consume, how we vote and how we interact with each other and the world around us.

Many risks and uncertainties are emerging, including threats to individual rights, social justice and democracy, all amplified by ‘the digital divide’ – the differential speed of internet penetration and access to digital technologies around the world.

None of the SDGs can be achieved unless people are able to communicate their dreams, concerns and needs – locally, nationally, regionally, globally. We therefore propose to supplement the list with SDG 18: Communication for all.

Communications for social change in the era of COVID-19 must also consider the challenge of misinformation when initiating communication strategies. Therefore, the communication strategies of the World Bank, UNICEF or WHO are not comprehensive enough.

First, they failed to take into account the challenges of infodemics and fake news in addressing the COVID-19 pandemic. The second shortcoming is that the strategies contain little scientific communication to make the public aware of how health professionals make decisions and advise the public about its safety. Disinformation is a critical factor that exacerbates the challenges that communication for development and social change must address.

For all these reasons, the UN and the rest of the international community need to be realistic and review the 2030 Agenda for Development by shifting the timeline from 2030 to 2050.

Some regional organizations, such as the African Union, have already set the date for achieving their development goals to 2063 (

The SDGs should be prioritized with SDG1 on the eradication of extreme poverty as the main objective for the next 10 years. Eradicating extreme poverty is likely to have implications for other SDGs, in particular SDGs 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6.

Efforts to eradicate extreme poverty should not be based on slogans, but should be supported by governments, funding agencies, donors and philanthropists are seen as the best chance to save humanity. The intellectual errors and policies imposed on low- and middle-income countries, which plunge them further into the abyss of underdevelopment, must be avoided.

Serious thought should be accorded to the post COVID19 world due to the impact of the lockdown on the global economy. Some governments, multinational institutions and private sector are hastening to institutionalize remote work before the pandemic ends.

As an interim major, working from home has contributed significantly in reducing the impact of the pandemic, but what is the impact of working from home on the future of work in a post-COVID-19 World?

Will the closure of offices, firms and other businesses for remote work accelerate or reduce the chances of achieving the SDGs? Is there sufficient data to back the policy decisions on a permanent remote work culture? How does this affect the employability of low and unskilled workers?

These are questions that policy makers must think through. The SDGs are meant to promote social inclusion and reduce inequality, not to save money and increase profitability.

Setting the timeline for the achievement of the SDGs to 2050 will allow sufficient time to re-evaluate progress made so far, complete missing objectives, such as SDG 18 on communication for all, and bridge the lost ground of the SDGs.

It will also give the global community ample time to strategize on how to deal with the potential rise of right-wing, populist and nationalist governments such as Bolsonaro, Duterte or Trump’s, which may impose limits on the SDGs through their disdain for multilateralism. And plans must also be made in advance to mitigate the next disasters that could impair the achievement of the SDGs.

Jan Servaes was UNESCO-Chair in Communication for Sustainable Social Change at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He taught ‘international communication’ and ‘communication for sustainable social change’ in Australia, Belgium, China, Hong Kong, the US, Netherlands and Thailand, in addition to short-term projects at about 120 universities in 55 countries.

Muhammad Jameel Yusha’u is an international development expert and former journalist with the BBC World Service, London. He was the Managing Editor of Africa Policy Journal at Harvard Kennedy School, USA and one-time Senior Lecturer in Media and Politics at Northumbria University, UK; he has taught Mass Communications at Bayero University, Kano, Nigeria.

This text is based on Muhammad Jameel Yusha’u & Jan Servaes (eds.).
The Palgrave Handbook of International Communication and Sustainable Development, Palgrave MacMillan, 2021, ISBN 978-3-030-69769-3,


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