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Sustainable Development Goals and the Pandemic
By: Ruth Segal
Last updated: Wednesday, 10 November 2021
The 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) form an ‘integrated and indivisible’ framework of goals and targets to guide all countries towards a sustainable and just future. SSRP’s research is examining the interconnected nature of the SDGs. It explores how actions taken to achieve one SDG could affect the achievement of others, either positively or negatively. Understanding these interactions might help policy makers choose actions which address several SDG targets at once, or act to mitigate the impact of negative interactions. Given limited resources across all countries, such targeting could help policy makers save resources and achieve SDG targets more efficiently.
But in the light of the COVID-19 pandemic, is the SDG framework still relevant? Perhaps, in the current context of dealing with immediate crisis, the longer-term ambition of the SDGs looks like a luxury. Alternatively, perhaps the SDGs provide the ideal framework to help identify actions to respond to the pandemic and create a more resilient, sustainable and just future.
The pandemic will obviously make it harder to achieve some SDGs, most obviously SDG3 (ensure healthy lives). In most countries, actions taken to stop the spread of the virus are directly affecting several others, such as SDG4 (access to education), SDG5 (gender equality), SDG8 (decent work) and SDG2 (food security). At the same time, the lack of progress so far in addressing other SDGs is a compounding factor in the severity of the pandemic. For instance, lack of access to clean water (SDG6), precarious employment (SDG8) and poverty (SDG1) all leave some communities much less able to manage the impacts of the pandemic than communities with more resources.
In this context, the SDG framework may be a useful starting point for considering the ripples out from the health sector onto other areas of life. Some interactions are already visible: the shut-down of economic activity has had a positive environmental impact in many places, including reducing air pollution. Other interacting impacts are foreseeable: global economic slow-down is likely to have a big impact on the economies of low-income countries that may be less directly affected by COVID-19.
However, COVID-19 has affected different countries and communities very differently. Actions to stop the spread of COVID-19 that are appropriate in one context may do a great deal of harm in another. Complete lock-down measures taken in many European countries may have devastating effects on poor communities if applied in low-income countries where much larger proportions of the population depend on daily labour and work in the informal sector, and where social safety net systems are extremely limited.
Although COVID-19 has affected both industrialised and low-income countries and there has been much talk of ‘we are all in this together’, that is patently not the case. More than anything, the pandemic has thrown into stark relief our failure to address SDG10: inequality. In rich and poor countries alike, inequality has exacerbated the impacts of the pandemic. In India, migrant workers have been left without work or shelter; in Brazil, indigenous communities, already marginalised, are not being protected from the virus; in the UK, death rates in deprived communities are more than double those in rich areas; and in the USA, African Americans are disproportionately affected by COVID-19. The interaction of SDG10 with all others suggests that, in responding to the pandemic and in working towards achieving the SDGs as a whole, we need to keep SDG10 as our central focus.
The SDG agenda could provide tools for considering how impacts interact and therefore what actions to take to reduce impacts. Identifying synergies to improve efficiency of actions to achieve SDGs is more relevant than ever, given the likely strains on resources post-pandemic.
But the key question revealed by the pandemic, if we didn’t know it before, is achieving goals for whom? The pandemic has affected different groups in society in very different ways. And actions to achieve SDGs can have very different impacts on different groups. This means that our future research on SDG interactions must take into account these differential impacts. We need to take into account the perspectives of different stakeholders, making explicit who gains and who loses from particular policy responses. We need to take a context-specific approach and explicitly examine the vulnerabilities of different groups to failures to achieve different SDGs. We need to consider how actions to address SDGs might adversely affect specific vulnerable groups; and ensure that we always consider how those actions interact with achieving SDG10.
Written by Ruth Segal, Research Fellow in the School of Global Studies.
Ruth's research in the Sussex Sustainability Research Programme (SSRP) aims to test and apply a methodology for identifying synergies and trade-offs between SDGs. She will work with colleagues in Ghana to apply the methodology to help identify priority areas for policy action to achieve SDG targets.
This blog is part of the
SSRP Forum: the Pandemic and Sustainability
This forum aims to contribute to the analysis of the impact of the pandemic on sustainability and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and to offer policy recommendations on how to respond to this unprecedented challenge.
The spread of coronavirus (COVID-19) presents us with an unprecedented challenge. We see losses of human life around the world, while one can hardly think what will happen if and when the pandemic reaches poorer countries with weaker economic and health structures. We see countries shutting down their economies to avoid the spread of the virus, as well as employing unprecedented measures of social distancing and population lockdown. We see whole economic sectors and households entering the intensive care of public financial support. In less than a month, the pandemic has redefined the priorities, parameters and boundaries of ‘what is possible’ in much of the world that we constructed since the Second World War.
The most urgent question is how to deal with the humanitarian crisis currently evolving and prevent it from getting out of control at a global scale. But a question we must also face is how the currently unprecedented mobilisation of public resources will be used to support our transition to a sustainable future, rather than a return to a socio-environmentally unsustainable past. One can hardly overstate the urgency of both these tasks. We in the Sussex Sustainability Research Programme (SSRP) community aim to contribute to this ‘mobilisation’ effort by setting up this Forum which aims to bring together experience, knowledge, ideas and recommendations to inform public responses to the pandemic and the implementation of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) at both local and global levels.