How off track are the SDGs, exactly? We don't know, but it might not matter

The SDGs require renewed support and financing, experts say ahead of the United Nations General Assembly. Photo: Amanda Voisard / UN Women / CC BY-NC-ND

NEW YORK — The pandemic has set the ambitious, but shaky, Sustainable Development Goals even further off track for completion by 2030. But exactly how badly has COVID-19 derailed progress?

Devex @ UNGA 75

How is COVID-19 affecting progress on the SDGs? Will online meetings mean greater international representation? Our reporters are covering the all-virtual 75th United Nations General Assembly to find out.

As the U.N. General Assembly meets for its 75th session, delegates will be taking stock at a number of forums and high-level meetings looking at how the pandemic has impacted the 17 goals and their 169 targets, which measure indicators on gender equality, education, food insecurity, poverty, health, climate action, and more.

“The SDGs represent the values that we have for humanity as a whole. Although some of the numeric targets, you may want to go back and say, ‘OK, this is no longer realistic because at a minimum you’re going to have two to three years before you can get back on track,’ 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 told reporters in a call on the SDGs last week.

Insufficient official data sources and continued social distancing requirements make it challenging to capture, in real time, a detailed and accurate picture of the SDGs, development experts say. But an exact answer might not be necessary, since the backsliding trend is clear, and solutions for regaining momentum remain unchanged, development experts explained.

What we know

Even before the pandemic, not a single country was on track to complete the SDGs within the decade, given rising rates of inequality, food insecurity, and climate change.  

“I think we should acknowledge that it wasn't like we were on a perfect path in the first place. I think the COVID crisis has thrown us further off track, but it is difficult to measure yet, by how much? We don't simply know about the future trajectory of the virus, the speed and nature of vaccine development, and also what that might mean for economic recovery,” said Suma Chakrabarti, chair of the board of the Overseas Development Institute and former president of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development.

But a few things are clear, Chakrabarti explained. The International Monetary Fund forecasted in June that an economic recovery will be more gradual than earlier forecasted.

“The consensus is that a lot of the things that we care most about are going backwards, and those are basic health indicators, vaccine rates, some disease prevalence rates, education, gender-based violence.”

— Claire Melamed, CEO, the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data

“We know there is not gonna be a quick, reshaped economic recovery,” said Chakrabarti, referencing a “scarring of economies'' that have occurred during the pandemic. Rising debt is another concern.

“We also know that the fiscal situation in every country has gotten worse because countries that are already short of revenue anyway, but they're going to have smaller economies and less domestic revenue than was projected before the crisis,” Chakrabarti continued.

“Which means the cost of servicing that debt goes up, and there's less money available for spending on public goods that you need for the SDGs.”

More investment from the private sector, and a rethinking of how development financing is structured should be considered, Chakrabarti said.

“If I looked at the numbers before COVID hit, I was actually particularly worried on a couple of fronts. I already thought that private financing wasn't flowing to the extent that we had all hoped for ... And aid budgets were under pressure in the West, particularly. So it wasn't exactly a rosy picture,” Chakrabarti said.

What little data there is to emerge since the outbreak has shown a marked backsliding.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation outlined in a recent Goalkeepers report that when it comes to development and poverty trends, “we’ve been set back about 25 years in about 25 weeks,” as Devex reported. Their findings show that the pandemic has led to a 7% increase in extreme poverty. The U.N. has also estimated that the pandemic is reversing decades of progress, and that an estimated 71 million people will be pushed into extreme poverty in 2020.

“The consensus is that a lot of the things that we care most about are going backwards, and those are basic health indicators, vaccine rates, some disease prevalence rates, education, gender-based violence,” said Claire Melamed, CEO at the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data.

“There are lots of indicators that we care about that the real-time data, while not perfect, is certainly good enough to say with some confidence that they're going backwards,” Melamed continued.

Data gaps

A United Nations and World Bank survey of 122 national statistical offices this year showed that 65% of the offices were partially or fully closed in May, and 96% stopped face-to-face data collection. But there were also already significant data challenges and gaps when it comes to tracking the SDGs prior to the pandemic, according to Maryam Rabiee, TReNDS manager at the Sustainable Development Solutions Network.

“What the pandemic did is shed light on those challenges at a very large scale to a wider audience, not just people in the data community,” Rabiee said. “Anyone who is following how the pandemic was spreading and the impacts it was having on different socioeconomic issues may suddenly realize these issues of timeliness — data not being up to date for all countries at the same scale or rate and the lack of data at a disaggregated level.”

The pandemic, and the increased need to assess people’s sudden change in lifestyles, could spark a shift away from traditional methods of collecting data, Melamed explained. The global partnership has seen a “big flurry of interest” in rapid surveys during the pandemic, she said. Ghana and Namibia are countries that quickly organized a rapid survey program to help answer questions about, “Are families getting enough to eat? Are they getting a regular income?” Melamed said.

Melamed said she expects there to be more growth in rapid surveys and an openness to using new data sources, like satellite imagery and phone records, that could provide timely information.

The pandemic also came shortly before many countries were gearing up for their 2020 census data collection, relying on in-person enumerators. That method is no longer feasible in many places, Melamed said.

“Data is never going to be the most sexy area of policymaking. It's always felt like a separate thing, you know, do you want to invest in data or do you want to invest in health? What COVID has shown us is that investing in data is investing in health and you cannot have a good health system, cannot have rapid response, cannot protect people unless you know who you are trying to protect and what's wrong,” Melamed said.

About the author

  • Amy Lieberman

    Amy Lieberman is the U.N. Correspondent for Devex. She covers the United Nations and reports on global development and politics. Amy previously worked as a freelance reporter, covering the environment, human rights, immigration, and health across the U.S. and in more than 10 countries, including Colombia, Mexico, Nepal, and Cambodia. Her coverage has appeared in the Guardian, the Atlantic, Slate, and the Los Angeles Times. A native New Yorker, Amy received her master’s degree in politics and government from Columbia’s School of Journalism.