Sustainable Development Goals: What to salvage from Covid-19

By Abdullah Shibli
May 21 2020 (IPS-Partners)

Once the Covid-19 pandemic is under control, and the world economy is back on its tracks, the status and fate of the 2030 Agenda, also known as Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), needs to be reassessed. The year 2020 was supposed to kick-off the Decade of Action. With just 10 years to go, plans were made to undertake “ambitious global efforts” to deliver the 2030 promise—by mobilising more governments, civil society, businesses, and calling on all people to make the Global Goals their own.

Before the worldwide lockdown began in March, various stakeholders of the SDG movement were planning to undertake a full-scale five-year evaluation. Fifty-one countries had signed up to conduct voluntary national reviews (VNR) by May 2020, a process through which countries assess and present progress made in achieving the 17 goals. The process came to a complete halt with the current pandemic crisis.

The “pandemic pause” is a blessing in disguise. It gives all the stakeholders a chance to undertake a thorough review of where we stand as well as what needs to change. Are all the 17 goals equally important? A partial answer was provided by Nobel Laureate Abhijit Banerjee. “Think of the bureaucratic capacity it takes to achieve these things. How are countries going to keep track? We need to go back to the drawing board,” he said.

The next question is, how do we reprioritise and revamp the SDGs? While advances made in some SDG indicators have been eroded, this should not deflate our energy. However, a few SDG targets now assume greater priority. The health aspect of SDGs is more important and can be used as an entry point. Experts suggest that the experience of Covid-19 can be used to redesign the food supply chain. Furthermore, there is an urgent need for engagement with the private sector and civil society to chart the path that lies ahead and to cope with future pandemics.

Even before Covid-19 hit us, concerns were voiced in SDG progress review meetings as evidence mounted about the slow progress and lack of scale required to reach the targets before the decade ends. Earlier this year, the UN reacted by sending out a clarion call for action. “Today, progress is being made in many places, but, overall, action to meet the Goals is not yet advancing at the speed or scale required. 2020 needs to usher in a decade of ambitious action to deliver the Goals by 2030,” it cautioned. According to one estimate, more than five billion people will lack access to essential health services by 2030. Those services include the ability to see a health worker, access to essential medicines, and running water in hospitals.

Covid-19 thus poses a real challenge, to put it mildly, and some have gone as far as to warn the developing countries that the looming crisis threatens to devastate employment gains, food security and equity in education. The World Bank also raised a low-level alarm when it declared that the coronavirus is a serious obstacle for 240 million Asians trudging along on the road to poverty elimination.

If things had gone as planned, by end-May, each of the 51 countries was expected to submit its SDG voluntary national review report describing its experiences, including successes, challenges and lessons learned during the five years of implementation of the 2030 Agenda. Bangladesh had signed up for its second VNR. All this will now cease.

Concurrently, on pause is the next meeting of the High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF), the central global platform for follow-up and review of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Sustainable Development Goals. The UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) was scheduled to convene the 2020 session of HLPF in New York from July 7-16, and receive a progress report in the completion of the 2020 targets: responsible consumption and production (SDG12), biodiversity (SDG15) and some selected indicators of SDG13 and SDG14.

Turning to Bangladesh, after the hiatus period forced by Covid-19 ends, the Prime Minister’s SDG Directorate needs to evaluate two key metrics: the impact of the pandemic on the poor and the status of SDGs. All economic crises adversely affect the poor and the present crisis is no exception. From all accounts, the short-run impact of the pandemic and the lockdown is being felt very strongly by low-income people. In line with its SDG commitment, the government’s immediate goal ought to be to facilitate the re-employment of workers (SDG8), feed those who lost their sources of income (SDG2) and strengthen healthcare and provide medical support (SDG3).

Apart from lost jobs, hungry mouths and deteriorating health conditions, other collateral damages will emerge due to the interlinkages between the SDGs. Poverty (SDG1) will take a hit and so will the quality of education (SDG4). Other goals to asses are water and sanitation (SDG6), reduced inequalities (SDG10) and peace, justice and strong institutions (SDG16). One should not be too surprised if our post-pandemic review shows that it has not only devastated the economy, but also wiped out many of the SDG gains.

According to the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics’ provisional estimates, GDP growth this year will be 5.5 percent, in contrast to the 8.2 percent projected earlier. This is higher than the 3.8 percent and 2-3 percent forecast by the Asian Development Bank and the World Bank, respectively. On the positive side, we have already seen an increase in the budget allocation on health and an improvement in the environment.

Recovery is a complex and non-linear process. The pandemic has exposed fundamental weaknesses in our global system. It has shown how the prevalence of poverty, weak health systems, subpar education, and a lack of global cooperation exacerbate a health crisis. In our effort to return to normalcy, we must not lose sight of the lessons gained from the pandemic.

Globally, the pandemic has exposed the widening SDG needs gap. The world currently (pre-pandemic) spends approximately USD 7.5 trillion on health each year or 10 percent of global GDP. While spending has increased steadily, dangerous public health gaps exist, especially in rural or conflict-ridden areas where access is difficult and infrastructure is lacking.

This access is complicated by a shortage of trained healthcare workers. The 2020 State of the World’s Nursing report found that the world would need six million more nurses by 2030 to reach global health targets. Shortages of healthcare workers are felt most acutely in low- and middle-income countries.

As cities and societies start emerging from the crisis, governments should focus on key factors that contribute to the spread of epidemics and other public health risks: inadequate infrastructure, lack of services, and substandard housing.

In a sense, the process of recovery might strengthen our SDG efforts if the government of Bangladesh, in collaboration with civil society, NGOs, and the private sector, look afresh at the 17 goals and focuses its attention and resources on those that need reinforcement.

Dr Abdullah Shibli is an economist and works in information technology. He is Senior Research Fellow, International Sustainable Development Institute (ISDI), a think-tank in Boston, USA.

This story was originally published by The Daily Star, Bangladesh

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