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Three ways governments can ensure people in crisis aren’t left behind by SDG progress

Written by Emma Samman


As the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were being agreed in late 2015, my colleagues here at ODI produced the Projecting Progress scorecard. This assessed how far the world was from reaching a putative target under each Goal – using trend data (usually from the previous decade) and assuming this trend prevailed through 2030. 

I’ve been working on an updated version of this exercise with colleagues in a joint report with International Rescue Committee, out this week. This time we’ve done the calculations at the country level to allow us to focus on the trajectories of fragile states. These are home to the majority of people caught in crisis, whether living in conflict or displaced by violence and instability.

The outlook is not encouraging:

  • Fewer than a fifth of fragile states, on average, are on track to meet selected SDG targets (under Goals 1-7 and 11, which focus on unmet basic needs). The remainder are off-track or lack the data needed to assess progress. This is half the share of low- and middle-income countries that are on track to meet these same targets.
  • People living in fragile states risk being even more excluded from progress in 2030 than they are now. While these countries will be home to nearly a third of the population of low- and middle-income countries in 2030, they will have 96% of people lacking electricity and 85% of people who are extremely poor.
  • There will be more people in fragile states with certain basic needs not being met. For example, the number of undernourished people will rise by 84.5 million, the number lacking improved sanitation by 45 million, and the number living in slums by at least 106 million.
  • 152 million people worldwide need humanitarian aid to survive. With the number of violent conflicts doubling since 2000 and displacement on an upward trend, these populations could keep growing.

How crisis and fragility harm SDG progress

Our research also reveals clear links between crisis and dismal outcomes across the SDGs.

In health, we have seen the resurgence of previously-eradicated communicable diseases, such as diphtheria and malaria in Venezuela. Education is affected: 35% of 13-year-old children in Syria could not read a 60-word story. Violence against women is endemic in conflict and displacement, especially where government accountability is weak and women are deliberately targeted – in conflict zones in South Sudan, nearly two-thirds of girls and women had experienced sexual and/or physical violence. And conflict can destroy people’s assets and income-generating opportunities. In Yemen extreme poverty surged from 50% in 2015, soon after conflict began, to over 80% in 2017.

These outcomes are not inevitable. We are seeing progress through innovative policies and financing – such as Education Cannot Wait, a global partnership focused on increasing political will and finance for education in emergencies. Targeted efforts focused on people caught in crisis can spur SDG delivery for these populations as well as their countries and host communities. 

What governments need to do now

In September 2019, heads of state will for the first time attend the High-level Political Forum (HLPF) meeting where progress on the SDGs is monitored and reviewed. This will be a pivotal moment for the international community to catalyse updated or new commitments and prioritise leaving no one behind.

When government representatives from around the world meet at the United Nations General Assembly in New York this week, they should take three key steps to prepare the ground ahead of next year’s critical meeting:

  1. Establish a high-level panel, by the end of 2018, to drive further commitment and action on ‘leave no one behind’. The panel, consisting of former or present heads of state and global leaders, would highlight what action is needed for all left-behind groups, including people caught in crisis.
  2. Ensure governments and donors have a formal process to track, review and debate progress towards achieving the ‘leave no behind’ agenda. The UN Secretary-General should require each member state to submit plans and report on progress in this area, considering people caught in crisis – for example, including refugees and internally displaced people in national development plans.
  3. Prioritise policies that target those most at risk, orient financing towards them, and provide better data. To leave no one behind, as our past work has shown, government policies should foster improved access to basic services and to work, as well as institutional and legal reforms to protect rights and promote freedom from violence and discrimination. Governments and development partners should scale up financing for social protection and commit to allocating it according to need. And all relevant actors should sign up to the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data’s Inclusive Data Charter to make progress in filling data gaps for marginalised groups, including ‘people caught in crisis’, who are often excluded from traditional means of data collection.

1,000 days into the SDGs, I hope that this analysis will help to galvanise these actions to ensure the ‘leave no one behind’ commitment results in a concrete strategy to deliver the SDGs for all.