The 2020 UN report on Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) has spotlighted some underlying issues and a few newly recognized setbacks in attaining the set objectives by 2030. The report suggests that while there were a few visible achievements, we were still far from achieving the set goal by 2030. To list a few:
- The Global Economic Growth was slowing down–GDP per capita growth was 2.0% between 2010-2018, while only 1.5% in 2019
- The share of the urban population living in slums rose to 24% in 2018
- Food insecurity rose from 22.4% in 2014 to 25.9% in 2019
- Pre-COVID-19 and school closures, over 200 million children were expected to still be out of school in 2030
- Natural disasters including massive wildfires, droughts, hurricanes, and floods affected over 39 million people in 2018
- For 4 of the 17 goals, less than 194 countries have internationally comparable data
- As of 2017, 2.2 billion people lacked safely managed drinking water, and 4.2 billion lacked safely managed sanitation
- As of 2016, investment in fossil fuels was higher than that in climate activities by a hundred billion
Are we passing through this pandemic only to enter a much-trouble world?
The COVID-19 pandemic forced us to look at our otherwise slow pace from a broader context and understand how far behind we are. Urban areas are the major hotspots, with the vulnerable and poorest at the top in the long list of adversely affected. SDG 1- No Poverty, SDG 5–Gender Equality, and SDG 8–Decent Work and Economic Growth are all falling apart.
In 2020, according to the UN, 71 million people shall be pushed back into extreme poverty, forcing them to live on the minimal or negligible available resources, including basic services like water, sanitation, and shelter, which, even before the pandemic was a matter of concern. With people pushed in hardship, their capability to feed themselves and their families, access the health and education infrastructure, and deal with the pandemic shall be restricted. The growing slum population and communities locating in cheaper housing conditions might prove a significant hurdle in achieving sustainable communities.
A sharp upsurge in working poverty may result due to the COVID-19 pandemic. By 2019, 22% of the youth were unemployed and not engaged in education training. The pandemic and the consequent global recession have caused millions to lose jobs, and young folk are now competing not only with their age group but likewise with experienced adults who are looking for a job simultaneously. Besides, the gender disparity in workplaces stays high. Women representation remains at 25% and 36% in the National parliaments and local governments, while 70% of health and social care workers are women. Women have continually faced biased attitudes, domestic obligations, and added struggle to reach leadership positions compared to their male counterparts. We should ponder why we can trust women with saving lives but make them constantly struggle to be leaders, to guide and run our societies and nations?
The emerging themes calling for immediate attention
Amidst the current COVID-19 pandemic, cities face additional challenges in keeping up with fundamental living standards. How then will our countries focus on the pre-assigned targets and goals “to end poverty and set the world on a path to peace, prosperity and opportunity for all on a healthy planet” for the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development?
The pandemic increased a spike in ill health from infectious diseases but likewise interrupted childhood immunization efforts globally. Extended school closures are keeping 1.57 billion students out of school, 23.5% of whom depended on school meals. Approximately 132 million more individuals may suffer from undernourishment because of COVID-19. Domestic violence against women and children rose in many regions. Child labour is likely to increase owing to the weakened economic productivity of parents in the lower strata. Moreover, to overcome the current economic crisis and desire for prosperity, there are chances that cities may lose sight of important aspects concerning sustainability and climate change. It is crucial to monitor such actions so we can correct ourselves before it is too late.
Over the past decade, countries made a little—if not significant—an improvement on different frontiers. The rising chaos and uncertainty because of the pandemic, however, hinder the growth. The health systems in most countries were on the verge of failure, and merely a few of them had an immediate response strategy in hand. A topic for concern is the unavailability of any data and report to mark the progress on several goals when countries’ success rate in achieving the SDGs is already low. Technological advancements are seen in a new light. There is a window for introducing alternative approaches and means of data collection that cover the larger population share compared to the present.
The pandemic also gave rise to additional issues, which were otherwise seen as the development process’s positive aspects. The tourism and the aviation industry that have been prominent income generator now face reduced capacity and usage. Second, the pre-COVID nature of workplaces and a sudden change to remote / work-from-home has not been beneficial to all. People engaged in the primary and secondary sectors and the informal economy face risks of decreased trade and inability to find alternatives. As of 2018, 789 million people lack electricity, and by 2019, less than 1 in 5 people use the internet in LDCs, both of which are undeniably essential tools for working remotely. 1.6 billion persons earn their livelihood through an insecure informal economy, whose incomes dropped by 6% in the first month of the crisis.
Authorities are re-thinking cities in all dynamics, and urban planning has a significant part to play. We must assign financial aid to the developing regions and LDCs smartly. Resource allocation amongst the cities should be in the right sectors and for justifiable purposes. Smart and livable cities have been the golden concepts for a long time, but now is the time to make them a reality. The initial objectives should serve the lower-income groups and families who have inadequate housing and basic infrastructure and cannot access proper food and nutrition; followed by those who suffer from being on the other side of the spectrum, enabling them with necessary tools to work, earn and survive through the changing times.
Looking on the bright side
The lockdown, amidst the pandemic, allowed us to turn a new leaf. A 6% drop in greenhouse gas emissions for 2020 is expected–though short of 7.6% annual required reduction, yet a step closer.
Remote working might have reduced commuting needs; however, the tight-packed nature of travelling on public transport for even smaller distances can cause a shift to private vehicles and pose a threat to address the pollution and climate issues. Many countries have shown a successful strategy to promote walking and cycling for day-to-day activities. Adequate and convenient public transportation was yet not at its best before the pandemic hit. Hardly half the world’s urban population has convenient access to public transportation, according to 2019 data. Now there is an unusual challenge of considering the social-distancing aspect for transportation modes. There still exists a considerable fraction of the society that cannot commute only by foot or bicycles. It is imperative to develop safe, quick, and affordable solutions for individuals and the government.
The SDGs may stand out independently, though they are all interconnected. These are also the sectors that can change the course of development that our cities shall take. The altered 2020 targets are in accord with the building pressure and issues for the pandemic and the added potential to start afresh. It includes increased access to information and communications technology, developing a global youth employment strategy, and increased capacity-building support to developing countries. We must not lose sight of the goal and change our old ways of planning for the cities and their people.
[Note: The numbers and graphs used in this article are from the Sustainable Development Goals Report 2020 by UN]