How big is the SDG backslide? Gates Foundation presents new data

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The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation headquarters. Photo by: ganphotography / Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND

SAN FRANCISCO — The COVID-19 pandemic has led to a 7% increase in extreme poverty, with an additional 37 million people living below $1.90 a day, according to a new report from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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The fourth annual Goalkeepers report, which launched on Monday ahead of the United Nations General Assembly, draws on new data to provide what the Gates Foundation describes in a press release as “the most current global dataset for how the pandemic is affecting progress toward the Global Goals.”

In addition to quantifying the impact of COVID-19 on the Sustainable Development Goals, Bill and Melinda Gates called for global collaboration on, and equitable delivery of, COVID-19 diagnostics, vaccines, and treatments in order to end the pandemic and get the SDGs back on track.

In its first three Goalkeepers reports, the Gates Foundation outlined steady progress on the SDGs, from reductions in malnutrition to improvements in literacy. But the 2020 report illustrates how COVID-19 has both stalled and reversed progress. For example, the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, the Gates Foundation’s data partner in the Goalkeepers report, found that COVID-19 will cause vaccine coverage to drop to levels that were last seen in the 1990s.

“In other words, we’ve been set back about 25 years in about 25 weeks,” Bill and Melinda Gates note in the report, speaking to vaccine coverage, which they call “a good proxy for how health systems are functioning.”

“The importance of the goals, if anything, is reinforced by the pandemic. After all, the pandemic has in almost every dimension made inequity worse.”

— Bill Gates, co-chair, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

On a conference call with reporters on Thursday, Bill Gates said he had just spent three hours on the phone with Nigerian billionaire Aliko Dangote about the ripple effects of COVID-19 in Nigeria.

“Other than South Africa and some countries in Northern Africa, the actual number of infections and deaths has not been large in Africa,” he said. “Sadly, as our report documents, there’s probably more negative effects on health because of the disruption to the health system including malaria bed nets, HIV drugs, TB drugs, and routine immunization or measles campaigns.”

In Africa, where most primary health care systems fell short of where they should be even before the pandemic, there is a particularly urgent need for progress on the SDGs to resume, Bill Gates said.

The Gates Foundation has also spent time examining the implications of COVID-19 on agriculture and food security, said Rodger Voorhies, president of the Gates Foundation’s Global Growth & Opportunity Division.

In sub-Saharan Africa, the COVID-19 economic crisis is building on worsening climate stresses, as well as the locust infestation, to create unprecedented threats to the livelihoods of smallholder farmers, he said.

Due to the economic shocks of COVID-19, the number of people suffering from food insecurity is expected to increase by 83 to 132 million, Voorhies said, adding the Gates Foundation is still trying to get a grasp on the impact of the pandemic on hunger and nutrition.

While the Goalkeepers report is filled with charts of how the world is backsliding on nearly every SDG indicator the Gates Foundation measures, COVID-19 is likely to accelerate progress in one area: financial inclusion.

“Faced with the urgent need to get cash to people quickly while helping them maintain social distance, more than 130 governments have created or improved digital cash transfer programs,” the report explains.

As countries make these transactions easier for communities with high levels of poverty, it is critical they seize this moment to ensure that rising bank account ownership leads to meaningful financial inclusion, particularly for women, Voorhies said.

“How do we build back in a way that really targets the most vulnerable?” he asked. “We say in my group: ‘Everyone benefits from an economy that includes everyone.’ How do we turn that into a reality?”

The Goalkeepers report includes models demonstrating how, if countries buy up COVID-19 vaccines in order to protect their own people, they will extend the life of the pandemic globally.

Northeastern University ran two scenarios: one where 50 high-income countries received the first 2 billion doses out of 3 billion doses and another where all countries received the 3 billion doses proportional to their populations and regardless of their ability to pay.

The simulations conclude that twice as many people could die of COVID-19 if vaccines are not distributed equitably.

Global progress and projections for vaccines. Source: Goalkeepers Report

In the report, Bill and Melinda Gates describe the Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator, a global collaboration focused on the development and distribution of tools to fight the pandemic, as “the most serious collaborative effort to end the pandemic to date.”

During the press call, Bill Gates applauded commitments by French President Emmanual Macron, German President Angela Merkel, and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and said the ACT Accelerator will be close to the funding it needs for procurement “once the U.S. shows its interest.”

Gates emphasized the need for more tools to fight COVID-19, but added that once those tools are available, the question becomes “how do we get the manufacturing and generosity up?”

Already aspirational, some SDG targets may need to be redefined, while others may be entirely out of reach — but the goals remain a critical framework for cooperation, Bill Gates also explained.

“The importance of the goals, if anything, is reinforced by the pandemic,” he said. “After all, the pandemic has in almost every dimension made inequity worse.”

But Bill Gates expressed concern about donor financing for the SDGs as countries turn inward to deal with the health and economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

About the author

  • Catherine Cheney

    Catherine Cheney is a Senior Reporter for Devex. She covers the West Coast of the U.S., focusing on the role of technology, innovation, and philanthropy in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. And she frequently represents Devex as a speaker and moderator. Prior to joining Devex, Catherine earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Yale University, worked as a web producer for POLITICO and reporter for World Politics Review, and helped to launch NationSwell. Catherine has reported domestically and internationally for outlets including The Atlantic and the Washington Post. Outside of her own reporting, Catherine also supports other journalists to cover what is working, through her work with the Solutions Journalism Network.