Problems get a lot of news coverage, but just as deserving of attention are the plans to fix them. In 2015, the world came together around an ambitious vision for a safer, healthier, and more prosperous world by 2030. That agenda, articulated across 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), was designed intentionally to represent a new approach to development – threading together economic, social, and environmental dimensions, while acknowledging that decisions and approaches are related and have both synergies and trade-offs.
Now the agenda is four years in, and this September, world leaders will come together for the first time since the goals were adopted to discuss what progress is being made and what more is needed. The meeting in September will be informed by the annual High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF) in July, where six specific goals will be under review:
- Goal 4: Ensuring inclusive and equitable quality education
- Goal 8: Promoting sustained, inclusive, and sustainable economic growth, including decent work for all
- Goal 10: Reducing inequality within and among countries
- Goal 13: Taking urgent action to combat climate change
- Goal 16: Promoting peaceful, just, and inclusive societies
- Goal 17: Advancing global partnerships to tackle the goals together
So how are we doing on the SDGs?
One way to measure progress is to focus on the “5 Ps” that shape the SDGs: People, Planet, Prosperity, Peace, and Partnerships. The 5 Ps highlight how the SDGs are an intertwined framework instead of a group of siloed goals. Progress on one P must balance and support progress on another. Refocusing on the “5 Ps” feels particularly relevant this year given their clear and intentional alignment with the goals under review at HLPF. Let’s take a look.
The SDGs declare the world’s determination “to end poverty and hunger, in all their forms and dimensions, and to ensure that all human beings can fulfil their potential in dignity and equality and in a healthy environment.”
Despite some signs of hope, it’s clear we need to do better – especially as we face complex challenges like conflict and climate change that directly impact the dignity and well-being of humankind.
In 2019, the global prevalence of extreme poverty is the lowest-ever recorded in human history, with less than eight percent of people living on less than $1.90 per day, a stark contrast to the 36% who lived in extreme poverty nearly 30 years ago. One recent bright spot is India, where significant progress means its extreme poverty rate will likely fall below three percent by the end of 2019.
But progress has been uneven and the disparities promise to widen going forward, making it increasingly difficult to achieve less than three percent extreme poverty by 2030. The speed of global progress has slowed as poverty becomes increasingly concentrated in a handful of countries in Africa, where today almost 75 percent of the world’s people in extreme poverty live. More than half of the extreme poor are children. According to current trajectories, 480 million people will still live in extreme poverty in 2030 and 233 million will be children.
Ending extreme poverty will require addressing the underlying complex issues of fragility, conflict, and displacement and the looming threat of climate change.
On other basic needs, such as nutrition, education, and access to water, sanitation, and electricity, inadequate recent progress means by 2030 hundreds of millions, and in some cases billions, of people will be left behind if we fail to change the trajectories. Around the world, hunger has increased for the third consecutive year in a row and the number of out-of-school primary-age children remains stuck at around 60 million for a 10th year in a row.
The world has made significant progress on many areas of health and well-being but will need focused effort to achieve Universal Health Coverage and reach the furthest behind. For example, while child deaths have been cut in half since 1990, the lives of 9 million children under age 5 are still at stake if countries fail to meet SDG 3 on good health by 2030, with Nigeria, Pakistan, and the Democratic Republic of Congo accounting for more than half of these lives.
At least half of the world’s population, 3.5 billion people, do not have access to essential health services due to financial constraints or lack of accessible facilities. Out-of-pocket spending on health care pushes 100 million people into extreme poverty each year. Addressing the barriers to universal health coverage produces benefits across the SDG agenda, including on poverty, education, decent work, and gender equality. In September, the UN will host a summit on Universal Health Coverage to push for greater action toward 2030.
The SDGs set a goal to protect the planet “so it can support the needs of the present and future generations.” Nearly every day we are seeing just how connected – and fundamental – climate change is to global development.
Recent reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the impacts already felt around the world make clear that we need to increase urgency and ambition on climate change and environmental protection. The Secretary-General’s recent trip to the Pacific was capped by a TIME cover of the UN’s leader submerged in water, denoting rapidly sinking islands.
The world is facing a climate emergency that is outpacing our efforts to address it. The global emissions rate jumped last year. At current rates, global warming is likely to reach at least 1.5 degrees Celsius between 2030 and 2052, leading to significant risks to health, livelihoods, food security, water supply, human security, and economic growth. Without rapid and all-encompassing transitions, these impacts will be even worse.
Climate change is a roadblock to achieving the SDGs and has disproportionate effects on the poor. Without concerted action, it could drive 100 million more people into poverty by 2030. Warming is expected to decrease crop yields in many areas, exacerbating food insecurity, undernutrition, and stunting in poor communities. Achieving key SDGs can also play a role in addressing climate change, but only if they are achieved in a climate compatible manner.
The world is also facing dire challenges in addressing biodiversity and environmental protection. Human actions have already significantly altered three-quarters of land and two-thirds of marine environments. Today, around 1 million animal and plant species are threatened with extinction, which is the highest number in human history. While deforestation has slowed, it still continues around the world, and land degradation and desertification have increased. In most regions, water quality has significantly worsened since 1990 due to organic and chemical pollution, and more than 75 percent of freshwater resources are now devoted to crops or livestock production.
However, there is positive movement. Marine protection has seen a recent uptick; forest loss is declining; and citizens around the world are increasingly pressuring their governments to pursue climate-smart policies and governments are acting. Countries like the United Kingdom, Chile, Finland, and the Marshall Islands, have developed concrete and detailed plans to reach carbon neutrality by 2050. In the United States, 25 governors have committed to act on climate to advance the goals of the Paris Agreement, even as the national government has vowed to withdraw. Cities, businesses, and local communities are setting ambitious plans and policies but now need to turn those plans into action.
Given the clear need to increase action on climate change, the UN Secretary-General is hosting a major climate summit in September. Let’s hope world leaders listen.
The SDGs aim to “ensure that all human beings can enjoy prosperous and fulfilling lives and that economic, social, and technological progress occurs in harmony with nature.”
Inequality is one of the defining issues of this generation and requires a commensurate focus that, to date, has been lacking.
Trends toward achieving a shared prosperity have largely stalled, as the world struggles with a slowing economy and rising inequality. Progress on decent work has been slower than expected, with reductions in unemployment not matched with improvements in the quality of work. In many high-income countries, wage growth has stagnated even with low unemployment rates.
There are still vast, systemic inequities that limit prosperity. Economic mobility across generations has stalled in large parts of the world, meaning the opportunities of too many people are still tied to their parents’ social status rather than their own potential. Persons with disabilities are more likely to live in poverty than those without. Progress toward gender equality has stalled overall, while movements like #MeToo and #TimesUp continue to expose the scale and severity of discrimination and violence facing girls and women. In many places, girls and women’s rights are deteriorating and harmful laws deny girls and women justice and dignity. The global gender pay gap will now take over 200 years to close.
More positively, we are seeing initial examples that it is possible to grow our economies in an environmentally sustainable way. Economic prosperity and progress on climate change can be achieved together. From 1995 to 2013, 23 countries successfully decoupled economic growth from greenhouse gas emissions while also reducing their carbon footprint. At the global level, the carbon intensity of world output is falling, meaning we produce fewer emissions to generate each unit of GDP, but total emissions are still growing.
This is positive news we need to build on – and build on quickly given the scale of the challenge.
The SDGs rightly note that “There can be no sustainable development without peace and no peace without sustainable development.” Therefore, they set out goals to foster peaceful, just, and inclusive societies.
Progress on promoting peaceful and just societies has been mixed. Conflict threatens human rights; it also threatens our development gains and has been increasing in recent years. The number of people killed in armed conflict is 10 times greater than in 2005 and the number of countries with violent conflicts is the highest at any point in the last 30 years. Those living in fragile and conflict-affected states are the furthest from achieving the SDGs and by 2030, could account for 80 percent of the extreme poor.
After declining between 2000 and 2007, the global homicide rate has increased since 2015, particularly in Latin America, and the world is far from ending violence against women and girls. Women bear the greatest burden of homicide by a partner or family member. Every day, 137 women are killed in this manner, with women in Africa facing more than double the risk compared to the global average (3.1 deaths per 100,000 females compared to 1.3).
Justice underpins the success of the SDGs: from ending poverty and inequality to ensuring no one is left behind. But 5.1 billion people lack meaningful access to justice, including at least 253 million people living in extreme conditions of injustice and 4.5 billion excluded from the opportunities provided by the law, such as legal identity, proof of housing, or land tenure. Often the most vulnerable populations find it the hardest to access justice, which increases the risk they will continue to be left behind.
Worryingly, around the world the conditions for civil society have been increasingly restricted. The basic tenants of association, peaceful assembly, and expression have been challenged, with 109 countries having closed, repressed or obstructed civic space. The world also saw its 12th consecutive year of decline in global freedom, with 71 countries suffering net declines in political and civil liberties.
While these statistics are sobering, there is a huge opportunity to drive progress on the SDG agenda by focusing on peace and justice for all people.
The SDGs call for “a spirit of strengthened global solidarity.” Problems that cross geographies and sectors require collaboration that does as well.
The good news is that we’re seeing a variety of players step up for the SDGs, from youth activists striking for climate action to cities embracing sustainable living conditions to corporations embedding sustainability into their core plans.
This is important, but more solidarity is needed, especially when it comes to mobilizing financing and reaching the furthest behind. Governments alone can’t achieve the SDGs, but they have a key role to play, and they need to play it better. In 2018, Official Development Assistance declined 2.7 percent – just one example of an area that needs improvement. The international community must mobilize adequate and targeted financing both domestically and internationally, including improving domestic revenue mobilization and meeting commitments for development assistance.
What’s Next? Moving to the Decade of Delivery
The annual progress report from the Secretary-General suggests that progress is being made but the shift in development pathways required to meet the SDGs by 2030 is not moving at the speed or scale required. With time running short to bend the SDG curves toward achievement, the events of 2019 present an opportunity to refocus and get specific on the “What next?” question.
While there are still significant data gaps that need to be filled, we must get much more specific about where progress is needed. This means prioritizing data so we understand baselines and progress that is made now, not years ago. It also means shifting focus from current levels to trajectories to better understand where current progress is sufficient, where progress needs a nudge, and where it needs a complete overhaul. This helps us get specific on the consequences of failing to reach the targets by tracking the number of lives at stake and in directing policies and projects into specific places and spaces. Financing – ODA, domestic resource mobilization, and through private sector engagement – must be accelerated. We should ramp up efforts to work with and help strengthen country efforts that are committed to aligning the SDGs to their planning and budgeting across government offices, not in a stove-piped way, but in a holistic effort so that countries can more effectively decouple environmental degradation from economic growth. In all, it is time to accelerate and support innovations – from emerging technologies, younger populations, and vulnerable communities – to help us design the solutions critical for creating tipping points we need to push our trajectories in a positive direction.
There was a reason all countries around the world came together to create the SDGs: to create a plan of action for people, planet, and prosperity. The challenges facing the world are complex and intertwined and require complex solutions. This year gives the opportunity to align our efforts as we swiftly move into the 10-year countdown and the “decade of delivery.”