UN should redesign Sustainable Development Goals, revise targets under Covid challenge

It is the best time to pursue a truly transformative framework by prioritizing the goals, resetting targets with deadlines and setting the strategic actions to fruitfully implement SDGs and their gradual achievements, writes Dr. Mohammad Rezaul Karim for South Asia Monitor

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UN should redesign Sustainable Development Goals

Sustainable development goals (SDGs) are thought to be an inclusive development agenda to bring a qualitative change in human life. In the backdrop of the Covid-19 pandemic playing havoc with lives and livelihood, development analysts are posing a critical question as to whether SDGs are really sustainable amid the coronavirus surge.

SDGs’ vision of leaving no one behind while aiming to enhance inclusive development and ensuring implementation by 2030 is facing a big challenge from the pandemic. Millions of people are being ultimately left behind because of the dire effects of the viral infection. In fact, the implementation of almost all 17 goals and 169 targets has taken a bigger hit than it was previously imagined. This is despite the argument that achieving SDGs is critical in the current situation.

Moreover, SDGs that emphasize measuring the progress focusing on people, planet, prosperity, peace and partnerships, are already in jeopardy.

Poverty increased during the last one and half years. The rapid spread of Covid-19 across the world impacted the overall economy and the poverty rate increased from 9 percent to 30 percent. Thus the first SDG goal of eradicating poverty has been affected.

The SOFI (State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World) report jointly produced by Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), The International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), United Nations Children Fund (UNICEF), World Food Program (WFP) and World Health Organization (WHO) found that Covid-19 has pushed the world ‘off track’ from achieving the second SDG goal of zero hunger by the deadline. The report also forecast 840 million people would remain hungry in 2030 if the current trend continues.

Healthcare, education

Although every country is focusing on Covid-19 treatment during these troubled times, the overall preventive and curative healthcare systems are under threat putting a question mark on achieving goal 3- good health and wellbeing. Almost all resources of this sector are being utilized to grapple with the Coronavirus infection, mostly ignoring the treatment of other maladies.

Moreover, the amount of medical waste has exponentially increased contributing to environmental, social and economic impacts. In addition, the vaccine-producing developed countries are in an advantageous position. Vaccine nationalism and the politics associated with it have not only widened inequality but also caused deterioration in bilateral relations, which may slow down mass inoculation drives.

The education sector is the most affected because of the pandemic. Almost all academic institutes are shut with a possibility that such a state of affairs may continue for a considerable period of time, thus adversely affecting goal four – quality education.

The World Bank forecast about 1 billion kids in developing countries may be out of school. The International Labor Organization (ILO) and UNICEF have warned that about 9 million children are at risk of becoming child labor, whose number has gone up to 160 million – the highest at any point in time.

The number of child marriages in developing countries is going up because of the closure of education institutes. Moreover, the new graduates are unable to enter the employment market because they are yet to get their degrees. A study found that pupils have started forgetting what they had learned before the pandemic.

Women, gender inequality, hygiene

Women have been the most vulnerable section in all disasters, and the present pandemic is no exception. The gender gap is widening, which means goal 5 -  gender equality – is compromised. Women, particularly those expecting, are facing problems due to the uncertainty over medical care.

Young women are more likely to be unemployed than men during the pandemic. The infection rate among them is likely to increase because of the spreading Delta variant. Moreover, the birth rate is decreasing, and that will affect the total growth rate, triggering scarcity of future human resources.

The SDG Goal 6, dealing with clean water and sanitation, may also miss the target. With increasing poverty and a hamstrung healthcare system, can the people afford clean energy (goal 7)?

However, on the positive side, because of the closure of many industries and reduction in fossil oil use, carbon emission has reportedly reduced.  But there is a possibility that in the coming days there could be an overuse of fossil oil for increasing industrial production to minimize the economic loss sustained during the pandemic. This would again have a multiplier effect on carbon emission.

Jobs, industries, economy, inequality

After the education sector, goal 8 (decent work and economic growth) is the most affected, thus impacting the overall development perspective. Employment opportunities seem to be hurtling south with more than 255 million full-time jobs wiped out globally during the pandemic. Only in Bangladesh, 2.2 million people lost their jobs during this period.  

Moreover, people in unstructured jobs are in crisis. While survival is the key motto of industries amid the pandemic, industrial growth has also suffered. Although the pandemic has led to industrial innovations (goal 9), the overall industry and infrastructure have seen a huge impact and targets are impossible to achieve by the deadline.

Goal 10, aiming to reduce inequality, is in the troubled zone as the gap has already widened. There are broad indications that inequality will continue to increase until normalcy returns, and the regular economic activities go on unhindered for a certain period of time. During the pandemic, the affluent people have become richer, with the poor becoming poorer. This trend will stay on.

The Forbes annual world’s billionaires list released in June states that the number has swelled to 2,755— 660 more than a year ago. Altogether they are worth USD 13.1 trillion, up from USD 8 trillion on the 2020 list. There are a record-high 493 newcomers to the list—roughly one new billionaire every 17 hours,

It is impossible to fulfill the targets of sustainable cities and communities related to goal 11. People are leaving cities for villages because they can’t afford the huge cost of urban life. Social problems have increased. People are forced to consume less, with production also at a low ebb.

Consumption, environment

This means goal 12 – responsible consumption and production – may see a positive impact, not because of positive actions taken by the world communities rather because of the forced action of staying at home and movement restrictions. Any forced action may not be sustainable because it has cyclical effects on other sectors important for people’s livelihood.

Goal 13 – climate action – is the one that has gained the most from the closure of industries, restriction on vehicle movement, limited flight movements and so on. Only healthcare accessories and medical goods are being produced in greater numbers. It has been a boon for the environment.

Goal 14 – life below water – is, however, out of the purview of this discussion as actions can hardly be taken for addressing this issue.

Goal 15 that aims at protecting, restoring and promoting sustainable use of ecosystems, sustainably managing forests, combating desertification, halting and reversing land degradation and halting biodiversity loss may also be hard to achieve when survival is the most important issue for most of the developing and least developed countries across the world.

The pandemic reduced the activities of wars automatically that may help achieve partly the goal 16 relating to peace, but the same cannot be said of the other two components - justice and strong institutions.  

The issue of forging a global partnership for sustainable development – the last goal - for some is worth mentionable during the pandemic, especially in terms of inoculation, although vaccine nationalism rose and vaccines are still with the developed nations.

As every issue concerning socio-economic development is inextricably dependent on the effects of coronavirus currently or shortly, it can easily be pointed out that most of the SDGs will not be sustainable as long as the virus stays in the universe. Hence, the UN should redesign the goals and revise the targets to make them achievable under the Covid-19 challenge.

It is the best time to pursue a truly transformative framework by prioritizing the goals, resetting targets with deadlines and setting the strategic actions to fruitfully implement SDGs and their gradual achievements. Every country should also realign these goals and targets with their prioritized development agenda.

(The writer is a faculty member at Bangladesh Public Administration Training Centre, the apex training institute for civil servants at Savar, Dhaka. The views expressed are personal; He can be reached at rezapatc@gmail.com)