UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres prefaces the new UN report on the status of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) at their midpoint with some despairing language. “Progress on more than 50 per cent of targets of the SDGs is weak and insufficient; on 30 per cent, it has stalled or gone into reverse,” he notes. Guterres blames “The COVID-19 pandemic and the triple crises of climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution… Russia’s invasion of Ukraine… [and a] collective failure to invest.” Surely these problems have all slowed development progress, but we were off track prior to COVID-19, not least because the SDGs set targets that required revolutionary change without sparking any of it. The good news is that there is considerable evidence of progress nonetheless. The bad news is that the prospects for more rapid progress still depend on changes that look increasingly unlikely to happen.
The Goals were massively ambitious
From what we have seen so far, it might be surprising how little COVID-19 may matter to missing some of the SDGs. For example, the report blames COVID for shifting the forecast for the 2030 global poverty rate from 6.5 to 6.8 percent of the planet’s population. We were meant to go from a 10.8 percent poverty rate in 2015 to zero in 2030, so the pandemic is predicted to responsible for us being short of 63 percent of the progress we said we’d make rather than 60 percent of that progress. And that reflects the fact we were already massively off course before the pandemic hit, which in turn reflects that the SDGs were massively ambitious. For a whole range of targets, they demanded simply historically unprecedented progress for a whole bunch of countries to meet them.
There hasn’t been much effort to meet them
It isn’t that we don’t have the scientific knowledge to achieve most of the Sustainable Development Goals. For at least a subset of SDG targets that I looked at with Dev Patel in 2017, there were lower-middle-income countries already (reportedly) meeting them, suggesting (for example) it was quite possible to bring the maternal mortality ratio to under 70 in a country with a GDP PPP per capita of $2,850. That said, even assuming rapid economic growth, movement of all countries to the “policy frontier” of best performance at a given income, and continued global technological progress, we forecast that 44 countries with populations of more than one million people were going to fail to meet the SDG target on secondary education, for example. And it has been accepted since the start that, alongside policy and institutional reform unprecedented in its scale and scope, meeting the SDGs would take international financing in the trillions.
There aren’t great measures of the policy and institutional reform needed to meet the SDGs at the country level, but suffice it to say it doesn’t seem like there’s been a massive revolution in the quality of government worldwide since 2015—as might be reflected in a sudden drop in the percentage of people reporting they have to pay bribes for services, for example, or a dramatic increase in the quality of medical care or schooling. Global tax revenues went up from 14.1 percent to 15.8 percent from 2015 to 2021 and expenses have climbed considerably, but it isn’t clear how long that will outlast the pandemic or translate into faster development progress.
And when it comes to international finance we absolutely, positively know there hasn’t been the required revolutionary change. Instead we’ve seen Olympic-level backsliding on the commitment to “new and additional” climate finance repeated in Paris in 2015 combined with a stagnant level of declining quality development assistance actually reaching low- and middle-income countries. A number of donors including the UK, Sweden, and Norway have gone backward in terms of aid commitments. There absolutely no sign yet of the trillions in finance repeatedly promised. Instead, donors pretend they have found a magic money tree in the private sector that will shower investment funds on infrastructure health and education. As this was always more a political ploy than an empirically reasoned position, it should come as no surprise it hasn’t worked out, with international private finance for infrastructure declining since 2015, and remaining (even more) marginal in other investments needed to meet the SDGs. All of that is to say nothing of the waning commitment to global solidarity displayed by behavior at the World Trade Organization or over COVID vaccines, and the snail’s pace reform in international institutions from the multilateral development banks through the UN Security Council to better reflect the global balance of demographic and economic power.
There’s still progress
The good news is that despite the pathetic global effort to meet the challenge of historically unprecedented progress set by the SDGs, the latest UN report suggests that there has been progress since 2015, nonetheless. In health: stunting declined from 24.6 percent of kids affected to 22.3 percent worldwide; under-five mortality fell from 4.3 to 3.8 percent of those born worldwide; and HIV incidence has fallen 27 percent. In education, upper-secondary school completion rates have risen from 53 to 58 percent. In infrastructure, access to improved sanitation has increased from 73 to 81 percent of the world’s population, and the proportion of the world practicing open defecation has fallen from 10 to 5 percent; access to electricity has risen from 87 to 91 percent; and in just a seven-year period, one in seven of the world’s population gained access to a bank account. Looking at equality, the percentage of women in the world’s parliaments climbed from 22 to 27 percent. Regarding sustainability, the share of renewable energy climbed from below 17 to above 19 percent; and domestic material consumption per capita declined. And conflict-related deaths worldwide fell from 68,000 in 2015 to 20,000 in 2022. Other SDG targets have seen slower progress or have even reversed, as Guterres points out. Nonetheless the overall picture is of a world where more people have access to the basics of a good life.
And failing to meet the SDGs doesn’t mean the SDGs are a failure
Back in 2015, when world leaders gathered at the UN to take a victory lap on agreeing the Sustainable Development Goals, few mentioned anything concrete about what they planned to do to deliver on them. Nothing has changed since. And that shouldn’t come as much as a surprise—the same thing happened with the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The planet ended up missing all but one of the MDGs, despite the fact that UN statisticians ignored the language of the 2000 Millennium Declaration and gave the world ten extra years to make progress, backdating the start date to 1990. It is too late to try the same trick with the SDGs, so we’ve got far more targets than the MDGs, that are even more ambitious, to achieve in three-fifths of the time. Under the circumstances, it is difficult to imagine our success rate will look better.
That doesn’t mean the SDGs themselves are a waste of time or a failure. It is impressive that the world managed to agree so many indicators of progress, and even if they only make a very marginal difference to actual rates of change on those indicators, that would still be worth all of the summiteering and exhortation (something that at least is arguably true of the MDGs—certainly they didn’t appear to have the negative impact that critics including me had feared). But, for good or ill, the SDGs make very clear how far humanity is from where it could be, and from where its collective leaders suggest they want to see it. The world is still getting better, but it is a global moral failing that it isn’t getting better considerably faster. And there doesn’t seem to be much evidence that failing will be resolved any time soon.
CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.
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