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Ruth Segal, Research Fellow in the School of Global Studies at the University of Sussex

26 May 2020, 8:23 UTC Share

Sustainable Development Goals and the Pandemic

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.

The Sussex Sustainability Research Programme 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 could help policymakers choose actions which address several SDG targets simultaneously, or act to mitigate the impact of negative interactions. Given limited resources across all countries, such targeting could help policymakers save resources and achieve the goals 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) leave some communities much less able to manage the impacts of the pandemic.

In this context, the SDG framework may be a useful starting point for considering the ripples from the health sector onto other areas of life. Some interactions are already visible: economic shutdown has had a positive environmental impact in many places, including reducing air pollution. Other interactions are foreseeable: global economic slow-down is likely to have a big impact on low-income country economies less directly affected by COVID-19.

However, COVID-19 has affected countries and communities very differently. Appropriate actions to stop the spread of COVID-19 in one context may do a great deal of harm in another. Lockdown measures taken in many European countries may have devastating effects on poor communities in low-income countries where many people depend on informal work with extremely limited social safety nets.

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, marginalised indigenous communities are not being protected from the virus; in the UK, death rates in deprived communities are more than double those in wealthy 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. We must take into account these differential impacts on SDG interactions. 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 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.

Ruth Segal is a Research Fellow in the School of Global Studies at the University of Sussex researching SDG synergies and trade-offs with the Sussex Sustainability Research Programme. The programme provides critical research for achieving global goals for humanity and the environment. It builds on Sussex’s distinguished record in sustainability science and worldwide leadership in development studies.

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