© Alexandra Rosen
© Alexandra Rosen

The COVID-19 crisis reverses progress on SDGs

The COVID-19 crisis is reversing progress on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). All reports tell the same story. While the virus has impacted everyone, the poorest and the people left the furthest behind have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic. The latest UN SDG report estimates that 71 million people are expected to be pushed back into extreme poverty in 2020. This is actually the first rise in global poverty since 1998. It threatens the achievement of not only SDG 1 ‘ending extreme poverty by 2030’ but also the development cooperation objectives of the European Union to eradicate poverty. The year 2020 was declared the “Decade of Action” as a reaffirmation of the global commitment to the 2030 Agenda. Instead, the COVID-19 crisis is setting back progress on poverty, healthcare and education. And developing countries are the worst affected.

Even before the pandemic, the world was off-track to meet the SDGs

Inequalities were blighting the world well before the outset of COVID-19. The pandemic has however brutally exposed and exacerbated various forms of inequalities within and among countries. We also know that EU efforts to reach the 0.7% goal of Official Development Assistance (ODA) of the Gross National Income (GNI) is not advancing as fast as it should. According to CONCORD Europe’s 2020 AidWatch report, the EU will not meet the aid target before the year 2070. And now, the COVID-19 crisis is widening the financing gap of developing countries. The increasing needs and declining resources have been magnified by the pandemic.

The EUs response to the COVID-19 pandemic: where are the SDGs?

The European Commission declared at the beginning of this year that “we will put the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals at the heart of our policymaking”. Then, the crisis hit Europe. The EU deployed a rapid response, including a wide range of measures to contain the spread of the coronavirus: support to national health systems and countering the socio-economic impact of the pandemic by taking measures at both national and EU level. As an attempt to give a coordinated European answer to EU partner countries, the EU also adopted the ‘EU Global Response to COVID-19’. EU Member States scaled up their efforts, mobilising up to almost €36 billion through the Team Europe initiative. But all of a sudden, the references to the 2030 Agenda were not there anymore. What happened to putting the SDGs at the centre of EU action?  

Let recovery plans be guided by the 2030 Agenda

Aligning COVID-19 recovery plans with the SDGs is possible. But it won’t happen automatically. According to the OECD, it needs “cross-sectoral actions and mechanisms to manage unavoidable trade-offs between  short   and   long-term   priorities,   and   between   economic,   social   and environmental  policy  goals”. In practice, this means that the EU should analyse conflicts of interests at the start of any initiative and put EU domestic priorities aside when they clash with global sustainable development. This is what Policy Coherence for Sustainable Development (PCSD) is all about. If we do not understand how the world is deeply interlinked, efforts to build back better will not succeed. We cannot be short-sighted in our policymaking. PCSD helps us to understand that all policies should work towards achieving the long-term goals of the 2030 Agenda which will reduce poverty and inequality globally. This, in the end, is also better for Europe. 

How to bring the SDGs back from hiding

So what is needed for the EU to put the 2030 Agenda at the centre of efforts to recover from the COVID-19 crisis?

  • Now is certainly not the moment to play down support for the SDGs. The EU must build strong political commitment to Agenda 2030 and leadership at the highest level. In this context, we welcome that Commission President Ursula von Der Leyen is ultimately responsible for the implementation of the goals. The EU must however adopt a strategic long term vision for how it intends to meet the SDGs within the next 10 years.
  • We cannot only look at EU development cooperation policies when talking about supporting sustainable development across the world. EUs external action, beyond development cooperation, has an impact on our partner countries. Take for example the EUs trade or agricultural policies. The upcoming Trade Strategy (to be put forward by the European Commission early next year) is a key opportunity for the EU to strengthen its policy integration and to ensure a strong whole of government approach. This means ensuring that EUs trade policy will not undermine partner countries ability to achieve sustainable development. 
  • Finally, we must not forget to include and engage key stakeholders, involving also Civil Society Organisations, in policy making. With their expertise on key sectors and deep knowledge of the local reality and dynamics, development CSOs are well placed to complement governments’ actions and work in the interest of the well-being of local communities and marginalised people. At the same time, CSOs must actively advocate for PCSD and put pressure on national governments and EU institutions to strengthen policy integration and analyse and assess policy impacts.

About the author

Alexandra Rosen is a policy and advocacy coordinator at CONCORD Europe and leads CONCORD`s workstream on Policy Coherence for Sustainable Development. CONCORD is the European Confederation of Relief and Development NGOs and with its members represents more than 2600 NGOs.

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