1 February 2021
Development Goals Can Work, Even Amid Crisis, But We Need to Measure Better
UN Photo/Cia Pak
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Five years into the 2030 Agenda, the use of global goals as a measurement framework for development is being tested.

Despite the world being off-track on the SDGs, however, they may still offer the bet option for an effective global response to COVID-19.

In order to direct targeted action to the most vulnerable, data on people’s challenges must be disaggregated by gender and age, among other factors.

An IISD policy brief looks at the evolution of global goals as a measurement framework for development, and the state of play for successor to the Millennium Development Goals’ (MDGs) – the Sustainable Development Goals. This current framework is being tested amid a global pandemic, but the author suggests that the Goals may still prove to be the best option for making progress that benefits everyone.

The brief titled, ‘What the World Learned Setting Development Goals,’ by Paola Betelli, is part of the ‘Still Only One Earth’ series being released by the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) in the lead-up to the 50th anniversary of the Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment. 

Data based on national averages misses opportunities to identify challenges needed to fully implement the 2030 Agenda.

The MDGs made history as the first time-bound UN development goals, with 2015 set as their deadline. Betelli writes that the MDGs became “the world’s central reference point for development cooperation,” and sparked a significant rise in official development assistance. Measurable progress resulted, including significant declines in extreme poverty and the global under-five mortality rate and maternal mortality ratio. The goals had shown the value of giving the international community something tangible to rally around, and that “what gets measured gets done” as the goals were integrated into countries’ development plans and budgets.

Where the MDGs did not succeed was in making progress evenly across regions and countries, leaving many groups of people behind. As the end of the MDGs’ lifespan approached, Colombia proposed developing a new set of goals to succeed the MDGs, and UN Member States agreed on the need for a series of goals, targets, and indicators that would address the comprehensive vision of sustainable development. They developed these goals in a lengthy negotiation process that ended with the adoption of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, and agreed to establish a follow-up and review mechanism – the UN High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF) – to keep implementation on track. 

Betelli explains that in 2020, four years into the SDGs, governments’ progress was uneven, with worrisome trends emerging in the areas of poverty, food insecurity, inequality, and environmental protection. COVID-19 now has worsened development indicators and reversed years of progress on poverty, hunger, gender equality, healthcare, and education. The virus and related impacts are harming the world’s poorest and vulnerable the most. Amid other examples if this impact, Betelli reports that the global gains in reducing child labor are likely to be reversed for the first time in twenty years.

Despite this seemingly insurmountable obstacle to achieving the 2030 Agenda, the brief argues, “In reality, the only way out of the crisis is through its application.” Why?

  • The SDGs and the 2030 Agenda are “well suited to act as a roadmap to coordinate global responses to a crisis,” and pursuing them “will keep governments focused on what is needed for recovery: inclusion, equity, growth, resiliency, and sustainability.”
  • A focus on multiple SDGs – not only SDG 3 (good health and wellbeing) – will reduce the effects of a future zoonotic disease outbreak, potentially avoiding another devastating pandemic.
  • The pandemic is demonstrating that the 2030 Agenda “was accurate in its original multidimensional, integrated, and universal vision grounded in equity, inclusiveness, resilience, and justice.” By accounting for the complex links between issues – and the risks to all human wellbeing when some are left vulnerable – it provides the best guide to recovery.

The policy brief emphasizes an important caveat to the ability of the SDGs to lead the way out of this and future crises. In order to direct targeted action to the most vulnerable, data on people’s challenges must be disaggregated by gender and age, among other factors. As Betelli explains, data based on national averages misses opportunities to identify specific challenges that must be addressed if we are to fully implement the 2030 Agenda. Disaggregated data would enable effective measures to be shaped, targeting action to areas in most need of attention to effectively achieve the 2030 Agenda. 

The ‘Still Only One Earth’ policy briefs assess successes and shortcomings of five decades of global environmental policy, focusing on biodiversitywildlife tradesustainable energyfinance and technologyclimate change, and plastic pollution, among other issues. [Publication: What the World Learned Setting Development Goals] [Still Only One Earth policy brief series

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