Finding transformative pathways in turbulent times

This year marks the start of the Decade of Action to deliver the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030. It is a critical period to advance a shared vision and accelerate responses to the world's gravest challenges – from eliminating poverty and hunger to reversing climate change. Yet, in only a brief period of time, the precipitous spread of the novel coronavirus turned a public health emergency into one of the worst international crises of our lifetimes, changing the world as we know it. The Sustainable Development Goals Report 2020 presents an overview of progress towards the SDGs before the pandemic started, but it also looks at some of the devastating initial impacts of COVID-19 on specific Goals and targets. The report was prepared by the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs in collaboration with over 200 experts from more than 40 international agencies, using the latest available data and estimates

No area has been spared the effects of the pandemic

One third of the way into our SDG journey, the world is not on track to achieve the global Goals by 2030. Before the COVID-19 outbreak, progress had been uneven and more focused attention was needed in most areas. The pandemic abruptly disrupted implementation towards many of the SDGs and, in some cases, turned back decades of progress.

The crisis has touched all segments of the population, all sectors of the economy, and all areas of the world. Not surprisingly, it is affecting the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people the most. It has exposed harsh and profound inequalities in our societies and is further exacerbating existing disparities within and among countries.

Forecasts indicate that the pandemic will push 71 million people back into extreme poverty in 2020, in what would be the first rise in global poverty since 1998. Many of these people are workers in the informal economy, whose incomes dropped by 60 per cent in the first month of the crisis. Half of the global workforce – 1.6 billion people – support themselves and their families through insecure and often unsafe jobs in the informal economy, and have been significantly affected. The impacts of COVID-19 are also increasing the vulnerability of the world’s one billion slum dwellers, who already suffer from inadequate housing with limited or no access to basic infrastructure and services.

Older persons, persons with disabilities, migrants and refugees are more likely to experience severe effects from COVID-19 due to their specific health and socioeconomic circumstances. Similarly, the pandemic is taking a toll on the world’s women and children. Disrupted health care and limited access to food and nutrition services could result in hundreds of thousands of additional under-5 deaths and tens of thousands of additional maternal deaths in 2020. About 70 countries reported moderate-to-severe disruptions or a total suspension of childhood vaccination services during March and April 2020. Many countries have seen a surge in reports of domestic violence against women and children. Millions of unintended pregnancies can be expected as tens of millions of women are unable to access family planning supplies and services.

School closures kept 90 per cent of students (1.57 billion) out of school and caused over 370 million children to miss out on school meals this spring. Prolonged absence from school results in lower retention and graduation rates and worsens learning outcomes. It also has an adverse effect on the social and behavioural development of children and youth. As more families fall into extreme poverty, children in poor and disadvantaged communities are at much greater risk of child labour, child marriage and child trafficking. In fact, the global gains in reducing child labour are likely to be reversed for the first time in 20 years. In short, the crisis is having life-altering consequences for millions of children and youth worldwide.

The economic impacts of the crisis are equally sobering: the world is now facing its worst recession in generations. Even the most advanced and developed countries are struggling to cope with the health, social and economic fallout of the pandemic, but the poorest and most disadvantaged countries will inevitably be hit the hardest. Estimates suggest that world trade will plunge by 13 to 32 per cent, foreign direct investment will decline by up to 40 per cent, and remittances to low- and middle-income countries will fall by 20 per cent in 2020. Many poorer countries are already experiencing acute food insecurity. All of these external shocks, together with job losses, fragile health systems, insufficient basic services and low coverage of social protection systems have aggravated their vulnerabilities. Without support from the international community, the crisis could destabilize the economies of these already impoverished nations.

We must hold firm in our convictions

There is no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic has shaken the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development to its very core. However, we must hold firm in our convictions and not let the crisis derail our hopes and ambitions. In fact, the principles on which the SDGs were established are key to building back better in the post-COVID-19 recovery. The continued pursuit of these universal Goals will keep Governments focused on growth, but also on inclusion, equity and sustainability. Our collective response to the pandemic can serve as a “warm-up” for our preparedness in preventing an even larger crisis – that is, global climate change, whose effects are already becoming all too familiar. Governments and businesses should heed the lessons learned from this wake-up call to formulate the kinds of transitions needed to build a healthier, more resilient and more sustainable world. Central to such transitions are timely and disaggregated data and statistics, from which effective and equitable measures and policies can be shaped.

In September 2020, the United Nations will commemorate its seventy-fifth anniversary amidst extraordinary global challenges. While commitment to the purpose and principles of the United Nations and the 2030 Agenda remains strong, the COVID-19 pandemic is a vivid reminder of the need for global cooperation and solidarity. We must strengthen and combine our efforts to leave no one behind and to forge the transformative pathways needed to create a more liveable world.

Liu Zhenmin Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs