Saturday, December 2, 2023

Maintaining the momentum of achieving SDG targets post-COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic, in the short term, is expected to have the potential to cause severe negative impacts on most SDGs, specifically SDG 1 (ending poverty), SDG 2 (ending hunger), SDG 3 (achieving health and wellbeing) and SDG 8 (decent work and economic growth).

The 2020 Sustainable Development Report

Today we are facing an implausible pandemic that has affected the lives of the entire population. The economy is slowing, if not stagnating; it is like an invisible hand suddenly pressing the pause button.

The pandemic has also put the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) global agenda in jeopardy. Even before COVID-19 struck, many had cast doubt over whether all the goals would be achieved in 2030 as targeted when the SDGs were launched during the United Nations General Assembly in September 2015.

Economics professor William Esterly from New York University quipped that SDGs could be abbreviated to “senseless, dreamy, garbled”. In one of its reports, The Economist describes SDGs as “sprawling and misconceived, […] unfeasibly expensive” costing US$2 trillion to $3 trillion per year and are impossible to realize. In fact, many say the SDGs are utopian and ambitious.

A year before the pandemic, the lack of global commitment to SDGs was beginning to be felt, particularly in terms of advocacy and media communication. A World Bank study (2019) showed that 31 percent of its “knowledge products”, which include recommendations for the SDG action plan, had never been downloaded and 87 percent had never been cited.

In a 2018 report titled “How the Indonesian Media Deals With SDGs”, University of Indonesia (UI) lecturer Irwansyah claims that not all SDGs are understood by the local media and only a few are framed based on public policy concerns. He concludes that the Indonesian media is not well informed about SDGs and the goals are not considered an interesting news topic.

Today, the media is more interested in political issues, especially in the time of COVID-19. SDGs have disappeared from the news, overshadowed by coronavirus headlines.

Looking at the performance of Asia-Pacific countries over the last five years, the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UN-ESCAP) reported that in line with the current trajectory, the region will not achieve any of the 17 SDGs by 2030. Progress exists but at a sluggish pace, with efforts to meet over a half of the goals stagnating or even moving to the opposite direction.

In Indonesia, not all provinces have regional action plans to meet SDGs, let alone include them in their middle and long-term development plan. At the national level, some targets have not even been determined.

Based on monitoring conducted by the SDGs Center of Padjadjaran University, progress had been made up 2018 in achieving SDG target indicators. The SDG target score increased in 28 out of 34 provinces that year.

The arrival of COVID-19 has surely slowed down the country’s bid to meet its SDG targets. Almost all goals will be directly or indirectly affected, given that each goal does not stand alone but is interconnected with another. The UN SDGs report 2020 stated that now due to COVID -19 crisis, efforts to achieve the coals are even more challenging.

COVID-19 is impacting health, the economy, education, poverty alleviation, gender equality, the environment, climate change and other issues to be addressed under the SDG agenda. A quick simulation by Andi Sumner et al. (2020) in 138 developing countries and 26 developed countries shows that even in a moderate scenario, COVID-19 has added a poor population of 85 million people. While SMERU Research Institute found about 8.5 million Indonesians would plunge into poverty due to the pandemic.

The delay in achieving SDGs is unavoidable as states have reallocated their budgets to mitigate the impacts of the pandemic. A study by the United Nations Department of Economics and Social Affairs (UNDESA) shows there has been a change in the quality of the environment amid COVID-19, but it may not last long as large-scale recovery measures post-pandemic may warm the planet again.

The role of nonstate actors such as the private sector is difficult to predict, given that the pandemic has severely affected businesses.

The pandemic, however, is not an excuse to stop efforts to achieve SDG targets by 2030. COVID-19 is instead offering opportunities for us to do more to fulfill the goals. For one, the health crisis has taught us how to live a healthy life, to care for and share with others — the renewed mindset we need the most to achieve SDG targets.

The pandemic has also proven that everybody is equal. COVID-19 affects the young and old, poor and rich, men and women; the pandemic has put us all on the same boat.

Other blessings in disguise of this pandemic are the rise of global cooperation and strengthening of  science-based decision-making, both of which provide an ideal opportunity for states to achieve their SDG targets.

The question is: How can we maintain this momentum? First, it is important for all actors to improve the communication strategy of SDGs and step up their campaigns. Second, there is a need to reset national and regional SDG targets for all indicators. Third, identify the right policies and suggestions needed to achieve the SDGs. This will require the government to determine the level of urgency, with priority given to the low-hanging fruit. Fourth, renew political will and commitment.

Fifth, develop knowledge, capacity and innovation to implement SDGs. Sixth, seek more funding sources for SDGs through partnerships, philanthropy, corporate social responsibility and synchronization of a national SDGs financing hub and the SDG Indonesia One platform.


Prof. Zuzy Anna is director of the SDGs Center at Padjadjaran University, Bandung, West Java.