From July 6 to 15, countries will report on their SDG progress at the UN Economic and Social Council’s annual High-Level Political Forum. As COVID-19 continues to rage around the world, and recovery exacerbates global inequalities, the pandemic’s impact on progress is undeniable and profound. Still, the UN’s latest progress report says there are rays of hope that can be built upon.

Every year since the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) at the UN in 2015, governments give their own account of what they are doing to realize the Goals at the High-Level Political Forum (HLPF) through a process called Voluntary National Reviews (VNR). Last year, the meeting took place as the COVID-19 pandemic raged unchecked, with prospects of a safe, effective vaccine far from sight. It is still far off for many now, while wealthier nations are moving faster ahead towards recovery. And as the virus and its variants continue to spread around the world, this year’s HLPF primarily focuses on COVID-19 recovery and how to move forward in a way that “promotes the economic, social and environmental dimensions of sustainable development.”

Shortly after the adoption of the SDGs in 2015, they were projected on UN Headquarters. Photo Cia Pak/ UN Photo

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, we saw some positive advances to achieve the Goals in key areas such as poverty reduction, improving maternal health, and gender equality, but progress was neither fast nor widespread enough. Since the virus hit, much of that progress has declined or reversed. This year’s HLPF falls at a challenging juncture: either we use the pandemic as a wake-up call to make some serious changes, or we risk falling behind even further on our 2030 Agenda goals.

Each year, HLPF focuses on a subset of the 17 goals, and each year, the gathering has grown to include more voices and more players — including regional and city governments giving Voluntary Local Reviews (VLR)  of their own progress, private sector actors contributing their own experiences and perspectives of aligning business models around the goals, and civil society organizations keeping authorities accountable and offering their own expertise. This year, participants will review all 17 Goals, but will specifically do a deep dive into:

  • Goal 1: No poverty.
  • Goal 2: Zero hunger.
  • Goal 3: Good health and well-being.
  • Goal 8: Decent work and economic growth.
  • Goal 10: Reduced inequalities.
  • Goal 12: Responsible consumption and production.
  • Goal 13: Climate action.
  • Goal 16: Peace, justice and strong institutions.
  • Goal 17: Partnerships.


While we do not yet have a full picture of exactly how COVID-19 has impacted SDG progress, the advance copy of the annual report recapping the state of the SDGs shows that it’s already threatened decades of development. However, as the document stresses, there is an opportunity to use the lessons we learned from the pandemic — resilience, decisive leadership, bold collaboration — and channel them into jump-starting the SDGs.

Here are a few of the key takeaways from the report:

Over the past year, economic fallout from the pandemic has pushed up to 124 million people into extreme poverty. This is in addition to employment losses equaling 255 million full-time jobs. The downturn has also negatively affected potential SDG funding mechanisms, including remittances and foreign direct investment (FDI). In fact, global FDI flows have plummeted to below $1 trillion for the first time since 2005, with private sector investment flows to key SDG sectors in developing countries falling by one-third.

Pandemic lockdowns and restrictions have also meant that more than 100 million children now have below minimum reading proficiency levels, and there is a likelihood that child marriage will increase over the next decade, placing millions of girls at risk.

A student takes notes during a learning session for students at Nyarubare Primary School in Kayonza, Eastern Rwanda. Photo: Habib Kanobana/ UNICEF

COVID-19 has also exacerbated inequalities within and between countries, pushing some states back as much as 10 years on their SDG progress. This includes 24 million people who became refugees, the highest absolute number on record in 2020.

The report shows that the world is far from making progress on climate change, with global greenhouse gas emissions increasing in 2020, and countries behind on reaching biodiversity targets. It warns that while some efforts have been made to protect forests and ecosystems, much more needs to be done to place the planet’s health at the center of all recovery efforts.

Despite these trends, the report urges us to look at the “rays of hope” — including urgent new social protection measures brought in by governments, an increased focus on digital transformation, and record-breaking cooperation on developing vaccines and treatments — of the past year, and build on these strong foundations. In order to do this, UN Secretary-General António Guterres has made it clear that we must work together to pursue a pathbreaking vision for recovery.

“2020 brought us tragedy and peril. 2021 must be the year to change gear and put the world on track,” he said in January remarks to Member States outlining priorities for this year. “We need to move from death to health; from disaster to reconstruction; from despair to hope; from business as usual to transformation.”


At this year’s HLPF, countries will continue to imagine what the path to post-pandemic recovery could look like — the policies and multilateral action needed to get the world back on track in the Decade of Action. Whether or not we’re able to recover from the pandemic and make meaningful progress on the SDGs will hinge on our potential to act collectively over the next 18 months.

 Here are a few other things we’re tracking at HLPF:

  • An inclusive COVID-19 recovery:  While some countries are focusing on vaccinations, other countries are still in the throes of the pandemic and are struggling with how to inoculate their populations. This year’s HLPF will address all facets — economic, health, social — of the post-pandemic recovery and how to make it work for everyone, everywhere. The UN Foundation is co-organizing an event on the intersection of public health and climate-related threats as well as a discussion on the importance of routine child immunizations.
  • Strengthening multilateralism: To achieve the ambitious goals on the agenda, HLPF participants will also discuss how to forge a more inclusive, sustainable multilateralism and international cooperation. UN Foundation President and CEO Elizabeth Cousens will moderate one such discussion about how to strengthen the UN Economic and Social Council. The event will celebrate the Council’s 75th anniversary as well as reflect on ways to leverage it to advance the 2030 Agenda.
  • An increased role for local leadership: Local governments are frequently on the frontlines of planning and implementing the right policies to achieve SDG progress. More cities — including Orlando, Florida — are embarking on the VLR process, taking stock of their sub-national SDG progress. The Forum will include a panel discussion about how to strengthen and encourage VLRs, and how to support local leaders in pursuing the 2030 Agenda. 
  • More countries to submit progress: 43 countries are preparing to formally present their progress, successes, and challenges through VNRs. 10 of them will be presenting reviews for the first time. Ahead of the presentations, the UN Foundation will host a VNR town hall for stakeholders to exchange best practices and models that work for implementing the SDGs and how to strengthen reporting.  
  • Spotlighting the unique challenges of SIDS: Small Island Developing States (SIDS) face disproportionate vulnerabilities, including remoteness, fragile ecosystems, and climate shocks. However, they have been neglected in pandemic response efforts, receiving only 4% of available COVID-19 funding for developing countries. An HLPF session and side events will be focused on helping SIDS realize the SDGs.

It’s time to channel the solidarity many showed at the onset of the pandemic into a sustainable, inclusive recovery that sets us on the right path for the future. Despite the challenging year we’ve all had, it’s not too late to place the Sustainable Development Goals back at the center of our plans. In fact, the Goals are our best way out of this collective crisis.

Featured Photo: Cia Pak/ UN Photo