Collage of photos from FAO (left to right from top to bottom): farmer from DR Congo, a child eating rice, farmers from Kenya, and from Viet Nam. Credit. IDN-INPS - Photo: 2019

UN’s Sustainable Development Goals Remain Largely in Limbo

By Shanta Roy

NEW YORK (IDN) – When a High-Level Political Forum (HLPF) concluded its four-day ministerial meeting assessing the current status of the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), one irrefutable fact stood out: despite “encouraging progress”, many of the goals were lagging far behind in their implementation since they were adopted by the General Assembly back in 2015.

After four long years, the UN’s much-touted development agenda, described as a panacea for some of the world’s socio-economic ills, remains in limbo.

As UN Secretary-General António Guterres pointedly declared July 16: “the global picture (on SDGs) is unsettling”. “With just 12 years left to the 2030 deadline,” he warned, “we must inject a sense of urgency.”

The reasons for the “unsettled” state of affairs are many and varied: extreme poverty rates are falling, but not fast enough to meet the 2030 goals; inequality between and within countries is “disturbingly high”; global unemployment levels have dropped since 2015 while wage growth has stagnated; and 4.0 billion people worldwide lack access to social protection.

The worst of all, said Guterres, “no country in the world is on track to attain gender equality by 2030, and women continue to be hampered by discriminatory laws.” And people are rightly questioning a world where a handful of men – there is not one single women in them – hold the same wealth as half of humanity, he complained.

Besides the decline in development aid and the lack of political will, the UN’s development agenda is also facing new additional challenges, including widespread civil wars and military conflicts, natural disasters triggered by climate change and growing inequalities worldwide—all of which are hindering the achievement of the 17 SDGs.

The Asia-Pacific region, with the world’s two most populous nations, namely China and India, has remained most vulnerable.

Asked if climate change and natural disasters have impacted SDGs in that region, Armida Salsiah Alisjahbana, UN Under-Secretary-General and  Executive Secretary of the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP), told IDN Asia-Pacific is “the most disaster-prone in the world, accounting for over 50 per cent of the global disasters between 2000 and 2019.”

The total number of people affected by disasters in the region has remained well above the global average over the past decade and climate change is increasing the intensity and frequency of natural disasters, as well as the areas these affect, she added.

Alisjahbana said ESCAP’s Asia-Pacific Disaster Report 2019, which will be released in August, highlights the risk of disasters is increasing. If no action is taken, economic losses will outpace the region’s economic growth.

“These are forecast to be equivalent to 2.4 percent of regional GDP per annum until 2030. With the inclusion of slow-onset disasters, annualized economic losses in the region are set to more than quadruple to USD$675 billion compared to previous estimates.”

Areas susceptible to climate change-related disasters, such as the transboundary river basins in South and South-East Asia, are often home to a high concentration of vulnerable, poor and marginalized people, she pointed out.

“This creates a real barrier to sustainable development and transmits poverty and disempowerment from one generation to the next. To combat this trend, we need risk informed policies and investments across borders”.

Meanwhile, the HLPF conducted a review of lessons learned on the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals through the Voluntary National Reviews (VNRs) carried out during the past four years. 

In total, 102 countries presented their reviews since 2016, with another 40 countries presenting for the first time. In addition, seven countries presented their second review at this year’s Forum.

Asked if some of SDGs have been undermined by civil wars and military confilcts, particularly in Africa and the Middle East, Oli Henman, the Global Coordinator of Action for Sustainable Development, told IDN ongoing military conflicts have a direct impact in limiting the achievement of the Goals.

He said they critically reduce development opportunities in countries in conflict and they also affect other countries in terms of displacement of peoples and regional instability, such as in the Middle East and Central America.

“The goals cannot be achieved without a concerted global effort towards peace,” Henman declared.  

Emmanuel Ametepey, from Youth Advocates Ghana, who participated in the HLPF, said the drive to reach the SDGs is careening off course, “Just four years ago all UN member states signed-up to a radical new agenda by 2030,” he said. “Ten years might sound like enough time, but we are already falling badly behind. Young people are ready to take the lead.”

Catherine Njuguna, Act Alliance youth ambassador, said more people across the world are suffering as a result of the increases in extreme weather events, rising inequality and crackdowns by government on human rights. “Young people are bearing the brunt of it all,” she added.

Reaffirming the spread of natural disasters, particularly in Asia, UN Deputy Spokesperson Farhan Haq told reporters July 16 that, in Bangladesh, more than 270,000 people have been affected by rain and landslides, with 14 people reportedly having been killed. The UN and humanitarian agencies are standing by to provide support if required.

In India, more than 1 million people have been affected and 11 killed, with more than 16,000 people having been evacuated. UNICEF has been coordinating with State authorities and local partners to provide technical assistance.

Meanwhile, in central and eastern Nepal, more than 60 people have been killed and some 80,000 displaced. Local authorities and humanitarian agencies have been delivering relief items and medical assistance.

In 2017 alone, economic losses attributed to disasters were estimated at over $300 billion, according to a report from the UN’s Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA) released to coincide with the HLPF.

Adding to the growing problems, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) released a report on July 18 that says the world is off track to meet most of the targets of the SDGs related to hunger, food security and nutrition. 

FAO analysed major global data from up to 234 countries and territories and found that hunger is on the rise, with 820 million people being undernourished today. 

It also found that small-scale food producers earn about half of what larger food producers earn, that 60 per cent of local livestock breeds are at risk of extinction in 70 countries and that one third of fish are now estimated to be overfished. [IDN-InDepthNews – 23 July 2019]

Collage of photos from FAO (left to right from top to bottom): farmer from DR Congo, a child eating rice, farmers from Kenya, and from Viet Nam. Credit. IDN-INPS

IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate. –

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