Photo by: Ciaran McCrickard / World Economic Forum / CC BY-NC-SA

UNITED NATIONS — Progress on the Sustainable Development Goals remains uneven, and is not moving fast enough to meet the ambitious 17 goals on poverty, health, and equality by 2030, the United Nations said this week.

The U.N. released its annual checkup report on the SDGs on Wednesday, accompanied by a call from U.N. Chief António Guterres that, “we must inject a sense of urgency” in making good on the ambitious 2030 development agenda. 

While, overall, people are living healthier and better lives, violent conflicts and climate change have contributed to the rise of world hunger and the forced displacements of millions.

All evident progress is too slow, Francesca Perucci, the chief of the Statistical Services Branch at the U.N. Statistics Division told Devex.

“Almost all areas where you see progress, if you look at the rate, or the pace of progress, it is never sufficient to meet the targets,” she said.

According to the report, the proportion of families living on less than $1.90 per person each day more than halved, from 26.9 percent in 2000 to 9.2 percent in 2017. Approximately 11 percent of the world’s population, or 767 million, live below the extreme poverty threshold as of 2013, when the most recent estimates were made. By comparison, in 1990, 1.85 billion people, or 35 percent of the population, lived below this threshold.

The maternal mortality ratio has declined by 37 percent since 2000, and under-5 mortality rates dropped even more, by almost 50 percent, within that time frame.

But the number of people who are undernourished is on the rise, following a steady decline: There were 815 million people worldwide not getting enough nutritious food in 2016, up from 777 million in 2015. High food prices in places such as Yemen and 25 other countries may contribute to the food insecurity, the report documents.

This downward food insecurity trend places goal 2, to “end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture,” out of reach.

The first goal, to “end poverty in all its forms everywhere,” will also likely be eclipsed. Economic losses and destruction from climate change and environmental disasters are one factor: Disasters such as the hurricanes that hit the Caribbean and the United States cost a record-setting $300 billion in 2017.

Other issues are also at play.

“You see countries facing mounting challenges, like fast-changing climates and urbanization,” said Yongyi Min, the chief of the Sustainable Development Goal Monitoring Section at the U.N.

“We see a lot of progress has been made and that is one key message. The other key message is, in many areas, progress not sufficient, particular for the poor and the most vulnerable people. For example, the youth unemployment rate is three times [that] of the adult unemployment rate,” she continued. “Women have had some improvement in different areas, but women and girls still face challenges in all areas. We see a lot of discrepancy between the rich and poor.”

There is also a big gap between rural and urban communities. Progress has not yet reached the people who “most need it,” Min explained.

Unsafe drinking water, unsafe sanitation, and lack of hygiene continue to be major contributors to global mortality, resulting in 870,000 deaths in 2016. In 2015, 29 percent of the global population lacked safely managed drinking water supplies, and 61 percent lacked safely managed sanitation services.

What is more, the household government data that supports the SDGs report is likely not fully representative of the scope of the struggles for the most vulnerable populations, who are often not counted in surveys.

Data gaps exist when it comes to counting elderly people as household surveys tend to cut off for people over 65 years, migrants, people living with disabilities, and people living in rural areas, Perucci says.

Some of the SDGs’ 169 indicators — known as “tier three” — have also yet to be finalized after several years of negotiation and are not being tracked. In many cases, governments do not have the methodology systems in place to measure the average income of small-scale food producers for example, or the proportion of children achieving a minimum proficiency level in reading and mathematics by the end of lower secondary school.

All of the indicators should be finalized by 2020, Perucci said.

“You can estimate the number, but you cannot measure all of the factors that you use to monitor progress on the 17 goals. The data is not there,” she explained.

“We provide a global snapshot and also the fact that everybody recognizes that data is important, that the agenda cannot be implemented without it. There is not enough being done and there is not strong enough political commitment [to strengthen this]. There is still a disconnect between this wide recognition of the agenda that data is fundamental, but at the same time, we don’t see fast enough progress.”

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.