11 November 2020
Three SDG Logics for Transformation Beyond COVID-19
Photo by Elton Sa on Unsplash
story highlights

The SDGs provide three distinct “logics” that could help make societies more equitable after COVID-19.

For example, by the systems logic, we should pursue more targeted economic approaches that consider net impacts.

To move beyond COVID-19 and towards sustainability and resilience, we must avoid a parsimonious approach of focusing on separate elements of the 2030 Agenda at the expense of others.

By Jan Anton van Zanten and Rob van Tulder

Will COVID-19 push the SDGs to the back of the global agenda, or will it underscore the persistent need for sustainable development? The answer depends in part on how the 2030 Agenda survives this “stress test” of its first five years. In our latest article, published in Journal of International Business Policy, we look into this question, and suggest three ways for the SDGs to help make societies more equitable after COVID-19.

COVID-19: A Stress Test for the SDGs

COVID-19 is exposing the true relevance of the SDGs. Before the pandemic, assessments on how the world is doing on achieving the SDGs already painted a bleak picture of widening inequality, more hunger, alarming erosion of ecosystems and biodiversity loss, and continued global warming.

Prioritizing economic growth over social inclusion and the environment undermines the “systems logic” of the SDGs.

COVID-19 further deteriorates progress: the resulting economic crisis is estimated to push 400 million people into abject poverty, meaning they will have to get by on less than USD1.90 a day. Moreover, the disruption of food value chains is estimated to double the number of people likely to face acute food shortages to 265 million. And as the virus is particularly affecting people living in poverty and those with underlying health conditions, COVID-19 is expected to exacerbate inequality.

Scientists have suggested that two-thirds of the SDGs are unlikely to be met amid a pandemic, and countries therefore should better define their priorities, and focus on a few broad strategic goals rather than all 17 SDGs. The editorial team of Nature added that it now is time to revise the SDGs to make them more achievable. This criticism echoes an early critique from the Copenhagen Consensus group that the 2030 Agenda has too many goals and too few priorities.

Others are not so sure. One group of scientists stated, also in Nature, that “great feats are rarely a product of lowered ambition” and the pandemic only “reinforces why the goals were established in the first place: to chart a better course towards common economic, social and environmental ambitions that will guarantee humanity’s long-term future.” The UN itself underscores this position and has not suggested revising or narrowing the sustainable development agenda. On the contrary, it has doubled down on the SDGs, asserting that they are “vital for a [COVID-19] recovery that leads to greener, more inclusive economies, and stronger, more resilient societies.”

Therefore, although it is good to remain critical about the design of the SDGs, they are likely to represent the best framework for navigating societies through the pandemic, and towards resilience and sustainability. COVID-19 is truly a stress test for the SDGs in general, and its universal and integrative ambitions in particular.

The Three-Part Logic of the SDGs

We argue that the SDGs provide three distinct “logics” that could help make societies more equitable after COVID-19. After the SDGs were adopted in 2015, a wave of reports, road maps, websites, and research papers investigated how the Goals could best be achieved. This has increased the world community’s intelligence on how to create more sustainable and resilient societies.

In our paper, we identify three types of logic illustrated by the SDGs: (1) a governance logic, (2) a systems logic, and (3) a strategic logic. These could facilitate a sustainable transformation during this crisis and beyond. But each faces significant hurdles.

Three SDG logics for transforming towards resilient and sustainable societies

Source: van Zanten & van Tulder (2020)

First, according to the governance logic of the SDGs, progress takes place by setting policy goals at the macro level, creating policies to achieve them, and measuring progress over time. The 2030 Agenda provides 17 SDGs with 169 targets and 232 approved indicators to guide this process. Policies are increasingly being formulated to achieve these. Vast data gaps in measuring progress remain, but they are gradually filled.  

The way many governments have been dealing with the COVID-19 crisis, with ad hoc and fragmented approaches, has actually created a key hurdle for effective action. Short-term priorities may get in the way of maintaining the needed longer-term focus. In our paper, we discuss the diverging approaches of the EU (more holistic) and US (more fragmented) in setting longer-term policy objectives and their influence on the SDGs.

Second, the SDGs’ systems logic works through the interactions between SDGs, in which contributions to one SDG can advance progress on another SDG or target, but they can also undermine progress on other targets or goals. Tackling sustainable development challenges requires targeting the interactions between the SDGs rather than focusing on individual goals. A quick analysis issued by the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs in July 2020 shows both the impacts of the pandemic on many SDGs, and that the SDG framework can help map wider systemic effects of a crisis.

The main hurdle facing this logic is that SDGs that drive economic growth are given priority over SDGs aimed at social inclusion and environmental sustainability. It would be useful to pursue more targeted approaches that look into the net impacts of each type of economic activity.

Third, the SDGs feature a strategic logic. This works by actively involving private companies in sustainable development. Most major companies have responded supportively to the adoption of the Goals and begun to incorporate them in their operations and communications. Yet companies face a real hurdle in moving from intention to realization: they need to improve their impacts. Crossing this hurdle requires companies to integrate the SDGs into their entire organization, rather than positioning the goals in CSR or communications departments, and to measure and report on the results.


Milton Friedman once famously said: “Only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around.”

In our paper, we argued that there are a number of interesting and relevant ideas constituting our SDG intelligence, that can help us move beyond COVID-19 and towards sustainability and resilience. We only must avoid a parsimonious approach of focusing on separate elements of the 2030 Agenda at the expense of others, to ensure we do not throw away the child (the collective intelligence build-up) with the bathwater (crisis management). [Publication: Beyond Covid-19: Applying “SDG logics” for resilient transformations]

The authors of this guest article are Jan Anton van Zanten, PhD researcher at Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University, and SDG Strategist at Robeco Institutional Asset Management, and Rob van Tulder, Full Professor, International Business-Society Management at Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University, and Academic Director, Partnerships Resource Centre. The views expressed in this paper are not necessarily shared by Robeco.

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