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Four ways to prevent the Sustainable Development Goals becoming a casualty of Covid-19 responses


Written by Amina Khan

Hero image description: Sustainable Development Goals logo and icons. ODI supports the SDGs.

Covid-19 is proving fatal for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Hard-earned progress on the SDGs on poverty, hunger, health, and inequality, among others, could be reversed. And there is a real risk that the SDGs (and their underlying commitment to ‘leave no one behind’) could become a casualty of policy responses to the pandemic. Drawing on my conversation with Ambassador David Donoghue as part of our new ODI Bites series – and to mark this week’s Ministerial meeting at the High Level Political Forum (HLPF) – in this blog I explore what Covid-19 responses could mean for the final Decade of Action on delivering the SDGs.

1. Governments should take sustainability more seriously

Under strict lockdown measures – such as the shutting down of factories, offices, and the grounding of airlines – there has been a record fall in global carbon emissions. But this has come at a huge economic cost. The environmental gains are likely to last just a short while, with limited impact on the concentration of carbon dioxide that has accumulated in the atmosphere over decades.

Only when governments take sustainability more seriously can we make more structural changes to economic activity, mobility, and production and consumption patterns. And only then, can we bring down emissions to more manageable, globally agreed levels as endorsed in Agenda 2030 and international climate agreements. Economic recovery must have greener technologies at its heart.

2. Governments should speed up the progressive realisation of universal goals

The SDGs are meant to provide benefits to all and reach the furthest behind first. And so, universal goals – such as SDG 3 (good health and wellbeing), SDG 4 (quality education), SDG 6 (clean water and sanitation), and SDG 7 (affordable and clean energy) – need to be progressively realised at country level to increase service provision. This is currently inadequate to serve the needs of all, especially the poorest.

The Covid-19 crisis has exacerbated cracks in public health systems to deliver key services in high-income countries like the US, and in low- and middle-income countries such as India. System-strengthening approaches within the health sector (such as increased capacity for staff to facilitate prevention, response and early warning as well as to manage health risks) alongside improved coordination of actors across different levels of the health system, will help with the Covid-19 recovery and ensure progressive universalism.

Coupled with such strengthening, governments will be able to make more progress on serving all groups across a number of SDGs in sectors such as water and sanitation, education, and energy.

3. Government investments should cut across sectors

Significant financial resources are being channelled to get economies started, expand social protection and unemployment benefits, and reopen schools globally. Societies and economies will better cope with the crisis if gains from these investments cut across sectors. As schools reopen, policy-makers need to consider how the education system, for instance, can support the health system response.

Bringing education and health planners together will help to ensure alignment and better enable them to identify creative ideas as the crisis response evolves. This cross-cutting governmental work will also break siloed policy-making practices, where health and education actors often act alone, and without regard to how their actions could positively or negatively affect other SDGs.

4. Non-governmental actors should share responsibilities on achieving the SDGs

Achieving the SDGs is a shared responsibility, and not of governments alone. It’s important to look at other key groups that can deliver these.

Healthcare companies, for instance, have been helping ease the Covid-19 crisis by donating Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), hospital supplies and providing support for Covid-19 testing for hospitals and medical service providers around the world. Other companies have also repurposed manufacturing processes to begin making PPE, sanitisers, disinfectants and ventilators.

Around 1.2 billion learners – nearly 70% of total enrolled learners – worldwide have been affected by the coronavirus outbreak. Leading technology providers are partnering with governments to ensure education and learning is continued for students. Across the UK for example, IBM and Cisco have offered teachers free access to video conferencing to support remote teaching in up to 24,000 schools.

Equally important for those of us outside the policy arena, it is our responsibility to scrutinise governmental decisions and actions on crisis response and recovery from the perspective of the SDGs. Where synergies clearly exist, they should be explored and maximised.

It is crucial that the Ministerial Declaration that follows this week’s meeting pays attention to these four key areas and provides clear language and guidance on how to accelerate progress on the SDGs – despite Covid-19. Ministers should also use the meeting to explore how national crisis responses in their own countries may be hurting cross-border SDG targets and where greater collaboration is needed.

With many countries having to rebuild economies and social systems in the wake of the pandemic (and in anticipation of further waves), there is an opportunity to build fairer, more resilient, inclusive and equitable societies. We must not lose sight of that and galvanise action on the SDGs in this final decade.