By the SDG Lab at UN Geneva

Since 2015, the international community has had a plan in place—the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development—designed to preempt, tackle, and solve the very system failures, inequalities, and disparities that the global COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare. Inadequate health systems, unequal wealth distribution, hunger, the climate crisis, and gender gaps led to the universal adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the embrace of the ‘leaving no one behind’ principle.

The driving motivation for the SDGs is the fact that no single country, on its own, can solve humanity’s myriad challenges. From the climate crisis and gender inequality to ocean pollution and decent work for all, the 17 SDGs of the 2030 Agenda were developed to provide countries a clear roadmap for a better future—an inclusive and prosperous world for people and the planet.

What if achieving the SDGs is what the world needs – not only to recover from the current crisis – but to better respond to the next one?

Yet, six years later, the pandemic has made it shockingly clear that the world is nowhere near achieving the 2030 Agenda’s goals and targets. If anything, the effects of COVID-19 have set many countries back, erasing hard-won gains. For the first time in two decades, poverty is likely to significantly increase as tens of millions of people slip back down the economic ladder, as reported by the World Bank Group earlier this year.

So, where do we go from here? Could COVID recovery plans be the impetus to put the 2030 Agenda on metaphorical steroids and accelerate sustainable development, as some have posited? What if the reverse is also true—that achieving the SDGs is what the world needs not only to recover from the current crisis, but to better respond to the next one?

At the SDG Lab, we believe the latter question must be unpacked—and that delivering on the 2030 Agenda in a post-COVID period requires more emphasis on three key enablers of the Agenda: innovation, collaboration, and integration. As the three major paradigm shifts that underpin the SDGs, these approaches and actions could serve as powerful levers to the current pandemic recovery.

Why? If we take the aspect of integration, many institutions whose core mandate is to deliver outcomes on a few specific SDGs would hugely benefit from being more aligned with all the other goals. If the goals are integrated and universal, so must be the policies, programmes, systems, and governance structures that are set to address them. For instance, an institution working to improve water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) services must include other factors in its work, like knowing how gender, pollution, and health can promote or hamper access and availability to essential WASH services.

As the fight against COVID-19 exemplifies, effective pandemic response goes well beyond the health sector. Understanding the unequal ways in which COVID is affecting people and tackling the crisis necessitates a comprehensive socio-economic approach alongside robust public health measures to reach all corners of society and leave no one behind. The same model applies to the SDGs.

Through the SDG Lab’s activities, we attempt to reinforce this approach: shifting mindsets toward greater integration and collaboration is required to accomplish the monumental task that the 2030 Agenda demands. And buttressing all this is innovation, and not merely as a means to an end, but rather as a red thread that sustains and drives a partnership. For this reason, the Lab is focused on finding compelling incentives for collaboration between institutions that, historically, have been structured and designed in a siloed manner.

In 2019, for example, the Lab responded to a recurring demand by many SDG actors on how to direct more resources to the SDGs. The Lab convened individuals from Geneva’s finance and development communities to understand each sector’s needs and everyone’s knowledge of what finance actually represents in the context of the SDGs.

From this initial dialogue and a series of follow-ups, several ideas emerged, reflecting some alignment of interests and motivations. While encouraging collaboration and convening disparate actors is time-intensive, this informal Geneva finance collaboration has led to meaningful projects and events, such as the Building Bridges Week, the Pipeline Builder pilot, and the concept of a Swiss centre of excellence on blended finance.

These projects have several qualities in common: one, they aim to foster cooperation between seemingly separate worlds—finance and development; two, they underscore the interdependence of each field; three, they foreground mutual interests to integrate diverse sectors of expertise and avoid overlap; and four, these projects demonstrate the value of broadening the definition of innovation to include processes and approaches and not just products or services.

Bringing innovation, collaboration and integration into COVID-19 recovery plans is fundamental to emerge from this crisis and, subsequently, to achieve the 2030 Agenda. From CEOs to governments to international organizations and civil society organizations, we don’t need to reinvent the wheel. The SDGs are the common roadmap and the only sustainable and robust way forward.

This guest article is authored by the SDG Lab at the UN Office at Geneva: Nadia Isler, Director; Edward Mishaud, Senior Adviser; Sydney Alfonso, Partnerships Officer; and Davide Fanciulli, Junior Project Consultant.