Can the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals survive the Covid-19 crisis?

Can the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals survive the Covid-19 crisis?

The pandemic will massively impact the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Yet, they remain the best roadmap to deal with the crisis—and to prevent future ones.

Seventeen brightly colored squares: the UN Sustainable Developments Goals resemble a virtual hopscotch game. Immensely audacious and groundbreaking in their scope, they were unanimously accepted in 2015 by the 193 Member States of the UN and set the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. This a cause for celebration, as these 17 goals and 169 sub-targets integrated decades of globally negotiated agreements between governments, businesses, and civil society.

A visionary report

In 1987, the visionary, UN-commissioned Bruntland Report entitled "Our Common Future" introduced the world to the notion of sustainable development as "meeting the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." The UN 1992 Rio Earth Summit convened to translate this concept into policy. However, the follow-ups were worrisome: Twenty years after Rio, global warming had continued unabated, and biodiversity was threatened. It was time for renewed and urgent action. The SDGs took these previous commitments to the next level, the international community recognizing that true sustainability could only be achieved by going beyond environmental stability to incorporate social inclusion and economic equality. Negotiated over three years and signed in 2015—the same year as the Paris agreement on climate change—the SDGs were rightly heralded as the most ambitious and elaborate form of global governance.

A massive threat

They are now being jeopardized by the kind of threat they were meant to prevent in the first place, a global pandemic. In its March 2020 report "Shared Responsibility, Global Solidarity: Responding to the socio-economic impact of Covid-19", in typical UN parlance, the UN puts it this way: "This is much more than a health crisis. It is a human crisis. Covid-19 is attacking societies at their core. (…) A hard truth is that we could have been better prepared for this crisis. The SDGs could have put us back on track towards a world with access to universal health coverage and quality health care." The report—a must-read to understand the current situation—goes on: "the Covid-19 crisis is likely to have a profound and negative effect on sustainable development efforts. A prolonged global economic slowdown will adversely impact the implementation of the 2030 Agenda." The report states that "the most vulnerable, including women, children, the elderly, and informal workers, will be hit the hardest."

"It is on par with rebuilding after a world war."

When I ask her assessment of the severity of the crisis, Brenda Killen, Executive-in-Residence at the Geneva Center for Security Policy (GCSP), marks a very short pause before admitting that "it is on par with rebuilding after a world war." "Covid-19 is a huge inequalities machine," she continues, quoting a fellow panelist on a recent GCSP seminar. She takes nutrition as an example to drive the point home: "It doesn't affect us here. But in many countries, the food markets aren't functioning. But emergency feeding doesn't always bring the nutrients a child needs. Malnutrition can alter your DNA. It passes down the generations. I will still argue that the SDGs provide the best roadmap for the future. We see a number of new initiatives being proposed, but rather than try and negotiate something new now, we have this agreement signed by 193 world leaders. The solutions are right there, in the SDGs themselves. "

"As a platform, the SDGs have never been so relevant, the coronavirus crisis has made clear for everybody that you can't just focus development efforts on a single issue like health, or on labor, or gender, or education, that you have to take a holistic approach and see the Goals as a package," concurs Edward Mishaud at the Geneva-based SDG Lab, a multi-stakeholder initiative contributing to the implementation of the SDGs. "This is true for the Global South and for the North as well."

The Goals can no longer be considered as an issue concerning only the South and developing countries."

A former high-ranking UN official agrees: "As everything is interdependent, the Covid-19 crisis has shown that societies are more resilient when they invest in all the goals. A sanitary crisis is not just a sanitary crisis, it has multiple origins and multiple effects."  

A senior diplomat from a large European country points to another aspect that, in his view, plays in favor of the SDGs in the long term. "The fact that the North has been so affected has changed its perception of the SDGs. They can no longer be considered as an issue concerning only the South and developing countries. We see now that the countries that have fared best in responding to the pandemic are the ones that had invested in strong health systems, in quality education, in building resilient cities with robust infrastructures." "At the SDG Lab, we are focused on making sure that the SDGs are viewed and implemented as the global roadmap for sustainable development. Our primary focus is here in International Geneva and its broader ecosystem of actors, which has a wealth of resources and knowledge, is to keep pushing for this interconnected multi-stakeholders approach," emphasizes Mishaud.

Staggering costs

The costs of the pandemic are staggering. Between 3.3 and 82 trillion USD  are the current calculations emanating from the risk center at the University of Cambridge. The lower end depicts an optimistic scenario where pent-up demand fuels a speedy recovery, whereas the worst-case scenario incorporates the potential of a long-term recession turning into a depression. Such a scenario could occur should a second global wave hit or if protectionist barriers are put in place. According to The Economist Intelligence Unit, the global economy will shrink by 2.5% in 2020, with a drop almost three times higher for the Eurozone. European institutions and member states have already committed 3 trillion EUR in relief to prop up their economies. By comparison, the Marshall Plan implemented to rebuild the European economy after WWII was 115 million in current USD.
For Edward Mishaud, "It is important that as governments naturally focus on providing essential health care to citizens, the resolve remains to address broader development and inequality issues that Covid-19 has exacerbated. Funding and overall resources are key. There is a huge appetite for SDG sustainable investing here in Geneva and Switzerland as a whole, and this is encouraging. The SDG Lab is directing a lot of efforts into that."

It is worth remembering that Switzerland significantly contributed to the development of responsible investment by supporting the Kofi Annan UN Global Compact Initiative. It remains to be seen if Covid-19 will boost sustainable investing (ESG), which integrates environmental, social, and governance factors in its analysis, or if it will slow it down.

"We are at a crossroads," reflects a former UN high-ranking official when I ask him to offer me his most candid assessment of the situation and what the future holds. "

Piers Cumberlege, Chairman of Straightview and adviser to the Ground-Up project, sees ESG investing in the SDGs as a long-term trend. ESG investing is now globally estimated at 30 trillion USD annually. "When you have an emergency, you have to put out the fire, and that's what large institutional investors or investment banks are doing right now. But pension funds, for instance, which operate on a much longer-term, can align their investment strategies with the SDGs’ goals, anchoring very significant change in the energy space, the poverty space, the reduction of inequalities."

He sees another powerful driver in a generational change. "Family offices and foundations, now in the hands of a new generation of impact investors, operate on a multi-generational horizon. They understand that to protect their assets over such a long period, they need societal, physical, and economic stability. They are prepared to invest in the things that will create that stability, through climate investment, zero hunger, education, good health, biodiversity."

"We are at a crossroads," reflects the former UN high-ranking official when I ask him to offer me his most candid assessment of the situation and what the future holds. "Is the business community willing to invest in the social contract to reduce inequalities? Because as we see, in the Global South and in the North, the most affected by the pandemic are the poor and the underprivileged. What is the point for the North in decoupling from low-wages countries to reclaim control of its supply chain and technological sovereignty if you don't reduce inequalities? At Davos last year, in the days leading to the annual meeting, all the talk was about ‘reinventing capitalism’, and you had all the big guys saying, ‘Now is the time.’ And then the discussion went back to the traditional issues that look good for business: climate change, green energies because it is not sexy for companies to invest in fighting inequalities."  

At the GCSP, Brenda Killen thinks we might have reached "an inflection point. One hundred and ninety-three, heads of state committed themselves to the SDGs. They are here, ready to be used. And we don't need to ask for permission. So, when I see this massive, global demand from people around the world to change the system, which has been reinforced by the pandemic, maybe this will lead to leaders holding to their promises."