The Virus and the Global Goals: What Could COVID-19 Mean for Sustainable Development?

by | Apr 7, 2020


Suddenly, in just a few short weeks in the spring of 2020, everyone’s horizon has shrunk and shortened. Do we have enough food? Is our family safe? What does this mean for our jobs?  Will we be able to pay our bills? And then, the dreaded next layer down: will someone we love die from this pandemic? Will I die from this virus?

Against all that, plans for a “decade of action” advancing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) may seem, well, pretty much beside the point. A tough row to hoe just got a whole lot tougher. How do the Global Goals stack up against a Global Pandemic?  

In these uncertain times, aside from all the terrible COVID-19 news, however, there is a noticeable theme among pundits and experts scoping the future. What will it look like? Will we go back to life as it was before the virus? Alternatively, will our lives be forever transformed, and if so, how? Is this an opportunity for transformative change? For a reset?

In that vein, I briefly offer three future scenarios. I argue there may be no more urgent wake-up call to robustly implement the SDGs once we have moved beyond the immediate emergency response and are focused on recovery.  

Let me begin with the worst-case scenario in which the worldwide devastation in terms of human life and economic downturn is such that the SDGs are largely abandoned. For those who survive, the stark rise in poverty and decline in living conditions render the SDGs simply out of reach even for the highest income countries.  Authoritarians take advantage of the (partial) collapse of open societies. For those in the Global South, the gains made on poverty reduction since 1990 are essentially erased and not easily recovered. Those that had been previously engaged in advancing the SDGs prior to the virus pivot away, either focused on tending their own gardens (literally or metaphorically) or to other issues dominating the grim societal aftermath. 

A middling scenario might be that we more or less go back to the level of SDG implementation we saw prior to the virus. Countries, cities, universities, civil society and the parts of the private sector that had engaged before the virus changed our lives pick up more or less where we left off. If anything, linking sustainability to reducing inequality gets a boost, as does a wider recognition that development happens everywhere. As the New York Times reported recently, referring to scientists around the world working collaboratively on a vaccine, “the hot zone is no longer an impoverished village in the developing world. It is their hometowns.”

A better case scenario might be that the pandemic, once we are past the emergency response, drives a surge of collective action and elevates the issues that are at the core of the SDGs enabling the type of transformation envisioned by the Global Goals.

For those of us who see the continued value-add of the framework, we are mighty fearful of the worst-case scenario, can imagine the middling scenario, but must do everything in our power to help make the better case scenario reality. Specifically, those of us not on the front lines of response, lucky to be (still) working, no less from a home while caring for loved ones, need to use this time to think about what an SDG reset could look like in 2021 in practical terms. What are the opportunities to elevate the issues that animate the framework, and in the process, think through what this would mean in terms of changes in public policy? Out of crisis may come opportunity.  

Exactly why and precisely how?

This virus, like nothing else, has demonstrated just how much we are of one planet.  That concept—we are all global citizens—is the bedrock of the SDGs with its aim of a more peaceful, prosperous planet to benefit people through partnership. In many countries, we are living through a collective action exercise not seen since World War II. For most of us that means actively changing behaviour and making sacrifices all together at the same time like never before in our lifetime. Just how deep and lasting an impression this collective action will have is unknown, but presumably the longer it goes on, the stronger the impact. 

Moreover, while the virus is blind to ethnicity, we know already that the outcomes will affect communities in vastly different ways with inequity being a driver of worst cases. Because of this fact, if we can galvanise public demand and political will, the pandemic might indeed offer the opportunity to build back better.

This better case scenario is not meant to down play the many critical questions we do not have answers to, such as: how long will this go on? How many will perish? How deep will the economic impact be? Which institutions will be demolished and which will survive?  

On top of those uncertainties lie the pre-existing challenges to SDG implementation. Knowledge and literacy of the SDGs before this crisis was low. Vast majorities were not aware that the world made commitments in 2015 to create a more peaceful, prosperous planet. With horizons shrunk down to meeting our daily needs, ten-year timelines and ambitions to deliver “the SDG effect” have become vaguer.

Load onto that already freighted reality the pre-existing skepticism, cynicism, and the sheer difficulty of achieving many of the goals, and it all looks grim. Then there is the resource gap, growing steadily for some of the goals even before the virus’ onset and now almost totally overshadowed by the immediate public health and economic crises.

Not surprisingly, the UN views the SDG framework as still relevant, arguing, “a hard truth is that we could have been better prepared for this crisis. The MDGs and the SDGs could have put us on track towards a world with access to universal health coverage and quality health care and more inclusive and sustainable economies.”

Not yet articulated, however, is the likely necessity to recalibrate (but not renegotiate) the SDGs in the post-COVID-19 era. For those already steeped in the SDGs, the numerous advocacy campaigns will need to be re-thought and re-tooled.  While this suggestion will strike some as heresy, it may make more sense to conceive of the SDGs as higher-level norm-setting goals driving policy pivot points rather than as wonky targets and indicators that, even in the best of times, were viewed by some as unrealistic or off-putting.  

This era, instead, could enable the broadening of constituencies that demand change along the lines envisioned by the SDGs. For example, in less than three weeks in the United States, we have witnessed the through line of inequality, health outcomes, job security, and poverty—all issues addressed by sustainable development. 

Demonstrating the interdependent aspects of the SDGs in ways that people and policy makers can relate to could help everyone understand the crisis and needed responses.  What would it mean to come out of this crisis and actually systematically elevate a 21st-century conception of sustainable development—both internally and externally—as a public policy and national security priority? One in which the creation and support of peaceful, just, and inclusive societies were a central focus. What would be the budget and personnel implications? How would it change the conversation to have sustainable development experts at the table in the White House Situation Room, for example, with the same senior rank and respect as those from the Department of Defense?   

As conversations around recalibration and relevance occur, so too must there be a consideration of the intergenerational consequences of this virus. The drumbeat heard steadily over the last year about environmental justice and the burden on youth from climate change just got that much louder. Cohort 2030—the generation born after 1980 that has the most to gain or lose from how the SDGs are implemented—has now taken on additional psychological and economic burdens. Their future is perhaps the most uncertain as the luckiest of them graduate (with virtual commencements) into an economy the likes of which we have not seen in modern times. 

At least one member of Cohort 2030, writing recently in the New York Times, suggests that today is precisely the time to think radically differently about a variety of societal, economic, and political issues. I agree that the pandemic could lead to long-standing behaviour change and that could in turn help deliver the SDGs.

Do not misread me. I am fearful of the virus. I do not see, however, another post-COVID-19 plan B other than through an elevation of the concepts underpinning sustainable development. Now is the time to think practically about how to advance what were previously considered either radical shifts in policy or pigeon-holed issues of comparatively marginal importance. Once we are up and out of the house, we will need to make this agenda accessible for a world that will need deep, profound, and sustained recovery.

Author

  • Sarah E. Mendelson, Distinguished Service Professor of Public Policy and Head of Carnegie Mellon University's Heinz College, Washington, DC. Ambassador Sarah E. Mendelson served as the US Representative to the Economic and Social Council at the United Nations until January 20, 2017. Confirmed by the Senate in October 2015, she was the USUN lead on international development, human rights, and humanitarian affairs. There she oversaw campaigns to get country-specific resolutions passed in the General Assembly and to get NGOs, including the Committee to Protect Journalists, accredited to the UN. She led efforts to elevate the issue of combating human trafficking and was senior lead for the President’s Summit on Refugees.


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