Does the number 2030 ring a bell for you? It is the promised year of prosperity and peace, and the end of hunger and poverty around the world. Many governments around the world are promising their citizens to make drastic changes, adopt better solutions, and come up with real tangible outcomes by 2030. More importantly, the UN has set 2030 to be the year sustainable development goals are achieved. This global agenda or blueprint is made of 17 goals that, if realized, can contribute to a much better state of the planet and the peoples, socially, environmentally, and economically. However, all the promises, aspirations and hopes aside, will 2030 really be the special year it’s claimed to be?
Alan Fowler, Honorary professor chair in African Philanthropy at the Wits Business School, says that long-term development efforts across the globe may not be paying off as hoped after all. “Even before COVID-19, tracking the sustainable development goals has not shown encouraging signs of high development performance,” says Fowler.
In a webinar hosted by the John D. Gerhart Center AUC, Fowler explained that after 60 years of trying, not much is expected to happen in the next few years. What made the situation even trickier is the COVID-19 crisis which caused a remarkable global setback.
The UN says that the SDGs are the “blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all”. It has 17 goals for sustainable development and they are to end poverty and hunger, reinforce health, education, and gender equality, as well as ensure clean water is made available, along with clean energy sources, economic growth, better infrastructure, and reduced inequality. They also include making cities more sustainable and boost responsible consumption and production patterns, climate action, marine life and wildlife preservation, and peace and justice support, in addition to creating partnerships for the goals to be seamlessly achieved.
A large part of achieving these goals depends on providing development aid to countries that need it. And as hopeful as these SDGs sound, there is an unpleasant discovery. “One third of the way into our sustainable development goals (SDG) journey, the world is not on track to achieve these global goals by 2030,” says the UN SDG Report of 2021.
In addition to COVID-19 having been a major obstacle in the way of making global progress in terms of development, the Russia-Ukraine war that erupted in February of this year has put even more pressure on the world’s resources and governments’ ability to keep up with change, hence, disrupting the process of development and development aid globally.
UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed said in a video message to the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe Regional Forum for Sustainable Development 2022 in Geneva in April of this year, “Our ability to achieve the SDGs we set ourselves in the 2030 Agenda hangs in the balance. The war in Ukraine is causing human suffering on a massive scale. Over 4 million refugees from Ukraine have fled to neighboring countries and more than 6 million are internally displaced, with figures rising every day. This is the worst refugee crisis in Europe since the Second World War. It is affecting this region at its heart, but the ramifications are global. Across the world, supply chains have been disrupted. The prices of food, energy, transport and other essential supplies have skyrocketed. We now face the real risk of growing hunger on an unprecedented scale”, ReliefWeb reported.
Alan Fowler explains why this affects development on a global level and whether it means development aid is not working. “The answer is in chains and hourglasses. If we look at the practice of international development, how it’s done and how it works, you can look at it in relation of two things: a relationship of chains and hourglasses,” Fowler said. In that context, chains represent supply and value chains, and hourglasses represent the way resources move from countries that provide development aid to countries that receive it.
“Chains work on the basis of tensions. In the aid system we have a chain of resources from those who have these resources to those who do not have them. From an economic point of view, there’s a Northern (overseas development assistance) supply, and there’s a chain that moves from that point to the demand for development systems, we can call it “the southern demand”. There is an unlimited demand for supply but, unfortunately, a limited availability,” Fowler explained.
Rich countries require supply aid because at the end of the day, aid is an instrument of foreign policy, and therefore how they decide how much aid to give and to which countries it is directed is essentially politically-driven.
In the hourglass system we have got resources at the top and they’re aggregated. The process of how these masses of money are disaggregated into micro amounts of money can be unreliable on the long term, according to Fowler. This makes the success of the development process uncertain in some cases.
A brief example of how the efforts towards development are hindered, though not completely stopped, is World Bank data showing that the global population grew from 5.3 to 7.5 billion from 1993 to 2017. Yet, over the same period, the number of people living in extreme poverty fell from 1.9 billion to 689 million. “If that trend had continued beyond 2017, SDG target 1.1 (ending poverty) would be met in 2024, six years early. Unfortunately, projections suggest this outcome will not be achieved. Even under reasonably optimistic scenarios developed before the COVID-19 pandemic, 6.1 percent of the world’s people would likely have still been living in extreme poverty by 2030, ” according to the World Bank.
Additionally, the Asia and the Pacific SDG Progress Report, 2020 says, “Despite significant progress on some goals such as quality education (Goal 4), without extra efforts, the region is likely to miss all 17 goals by 2030. In particular, the region needs to reverse trends on responsible consumption and production (Goal 12) and climate action (Goal 13) where the region is going backwards. For most of the indicators for which data is available, the region is likely to fall short of the targets set for 2030. For 20 per cent of those indicators, conditions in 2030 will be worse than they were in 2015 unless immediate actions are taken to reverse current trends”.
However, if you think the situation is extremely gloomy, there is still a silver lining. The UN Deputy Secretary-General reminds those concerned that while the scale of the challenges is enormous, efforts will not stop to achieve the vision of a better future for all. “Achieving the SDGs was never going to be easy. It is even more difficult now. But it is still possible. Implementing the SDGs will require policy choices aligned with the 2030 Agenda, a priority focus on keeping 1.5°C alive, and a clear emphasis on leaving no one behind,” says Amina Mohammed.
Moreover, the Asia and the Pacific SDG Progress Report, 2020 demonstrates that, despite everything, the region is making good progress on SDG targets related to economic growth, and “real GDP per capita growth in the region was more than double the world average in 2017”.
While the development goals are delayed and development aid seems to be taking a hit, there is still a chance to get everything back on track. The Stockholm Environment Institute (SIE) suggests that there are a few things that can be done to combat this slowdown and do some damage control. Setting priorities is the first step. “Should the SDG agenda aim mostly for the easiest goals to achieve? Or should it instead target the SDGs that are the most difficult, those that have a long way to go to reach their aims? We must choose. We believe in setting realistic targets,” it said.
The second step is to focus on harnessing the environmental dimension of the SDGs to better serve global efforts, and the third is to understand that SDGs are integrated and work as an indivisible system.
“Simply lamenting that the world is unlikely to reach the goals in 2030 fails to acknowledge just how far these goals have taken us. So many changes have been achieved, and too much popular support exists to completely reverse progress. So let us not let the opportunity for real change slip away,” the SEI said.