SDGs: Four years of progress on alleviating poverty ‘wiped out’ by Covid pandemic, UN says

By Julian Pecquet
Posted on Friday, 8 July 2022 16:48

Headquarters, New York City, U.S., September 20, 2021. John Angelillo/Pool via REUTERS
A view of empty desks at the UN General Assembly Hall as speakers deliver remarks remotely at the SDG Moment event as part of the UN General Assembly 76th session General Debate at the United Nations Headquarters, New York City, U.S., September 20, 2021. John Angelillo/Pool via REUTERS

The Covid-19 pandemic has “wiped out” more than four years of progress toward alleviating poverty around the globe, the United Nations (UN) said in a devastating new report.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) report for 2022 finds that midway through their course, the commitments made by world leaders in 2015 – to end extreme poverty, inequality and climate change by 2030 – are in crisis and in need of a renewed sense of urgency. Instead of shrinking, the gap between developed and developing countries has only expanded over the past few years.

To help reverse the tide, some 1,000 participants — including dozens of heads of state, government ministers, business and civil society representatives and members of the UN system — are meeting in New York until 15 July to help get the SDGs back on track.

“We must rise higher to rescue the SDGs – and stay true to our promise of a world of peace, dignity and prosperity on a healthy planet,” UN Secretary General António Guterres said when releasing the report.

Bad news

The report offers a bleak assessment of where the international community stands in achieving the 17 goals and 169 targets agreed to seven years ago.

According to the UN:

  • Worldwide excess deaths attributable to Covid-19 reached 15 million by the end of last year;
  • Some 75 million to 95 million more people are living in extreme poverty in 2022 compared to pre-pandemic projections;
  • And an estimated 147 million children missed more than half their in-person instruction over the past two years, while 24 million learners across all grades may never return to school.

The pandemic has also devastated health services, particularly in developing countries. Immunisation coverage has fallen for the first time in a decade, while anxiety and depression are up 25% worldwide – particularly among women and children.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has aggravated inequalities, creating one of the biggest refugee crises in modern times and causing food, fuel and fertiliser prices to skyrocket while disrupting international supply chains. Today, one in three people do not have enough to eat while the planet is experiencing to the largest number of conflicts since 1946, with one quarter of the world’s population living in conflict-affected countries.

Combined, they are threatening the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the very survival of humanity.

Meanwhile, the climate crisis has only gotten worse, with energy-related carbon dioxide emissions rising by 6% in 2021 to reach their highest level ever.

“The world is facing a confluence of crises predominated by the Covid-19 pandemic, climate change and increased number of conflicts around the world,” said Liu Zhenmin, UN’s undersecretary general for economic and social affairs, at the launch of the report on 7 July. “Combined, they are threatening the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the very survival of humanity.”

Getting back on track

Africa is particularly hard hit, Collen Vixen Kelapile, the president of the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) for its July 2021-July 2022 term, tells The Africa Report.

The UN body is in charge of monitoring and implementing the SDGs. As such, it is hosting the eight-day annual High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development this week and the next.

Originally from Botswana, Kelapile is the 12th African to lead the council. In an online interview with The Africa Report from his office in New York, he says the SDG backsliding is a wake-up call for world leaders to find new ways to fill an almost $3trn annual financing gap to achieve the goals – particularly as richer countries deal with their own Covid-19 responses.

“Many of the same countries that used to provide for others are also experiencing the same problems,” Kelapile says. “So then it begs the question that if we cannot get this support as developing countries, how do we raise funding for this agenda?”

Options under consideration include domestic resource mobilisation, international cooperation on tax matters and fighting illicit financial flows.

Rich countries must also abide by their commitment to provide $100bn a year to help poorer countries transition to cleaner energy, he says.

“The big debate is the funding issue still, which is also prominently featuring on the climate cluster,” Kelapile says. “I don’t see many of the developing countries seriously not wanting to do anything about protecting the environment. It is all about those who are able to not honouring the commitments to support them to do that.”

Debt relief?

Debt relief for poor countries in Africa and beyond remains a hot topic, especially in light of sharp disagreements over the matter at the ECOSOC Forum on Financing for Development in April.

“You cannot be asking countries to find resources to respond to a pandemic, but yet you’re expecting them to repay their loans,” Kelapile says.

He acknowledges, however, that the war in Ukraine has made international collaboration more difficult.

“This really happens every time you get the most powerful and the most influential [countries] having differences. It makes it very difficult for the smaller ones to even function,” he says. “Because all these intergovernmental platforms, they become the battlefield to iron out those differences.”

Quest for accountability

Key to getting results, Kelapile says, is making national governments accountable for reaching their stated goals. This is why ECOSOC and the Association for International Broadcasting convened a dialogue on the margins of the forum to discuss the media’s role in explaining the importance of the SDGs to the public and track their progress.

“The essence of it is that this group seeks […] not to name and shame but to be able to chase the global leaders through effective reporting, asking them pointed questions. ‘What are they doing to implement the SDGs?’” he says.

The goal, he says, is really to “raise awareness” about why the UN’s seemingly arcane work really matters.

“Citizens shouldn’t think this is just government slogans and projects, which belong to the government enclaves. These goals were put together through a highly consultative process, which involves our own citizens and their representatives,” Kelapile says.

“These goals embody the aspirations of our people. Therefore, it is very important that the leadership globally must be held to account on what they are doing, and there is a very positive role here for the media to play a much more constructive role.”

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