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Let’s get the SDGs back on track

How can the world renew its global commitment to improving the state of sustainable development? In the wake of the recent 75th UN General Assembly, this perspective piece from SEI Latin America and Asia suggests three ways to move the 2030 Agenda forward and reverse current, downward trends.

Perspective contact

Natalia Ortiz /

2020 launched the Decade of Action to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030, its target date. To reach this milestone, the world will have to speed up and ramp up responses to great challenges – which now include the coronavirus pandemic, one of the world’s worst public health and socioeconomic emergencies.

As the SDGs 2020 Report makes clear, the world is not on track to achieve the goals by 2030. Even before the COVID-19 outbreak, progress had been spotty. Now, with the pandemic continuing, progress has stalled, and, in some cases, decades of progress have been reversed.

In Asia, the latest report by the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) shows the progress has deteriorated on five key SDGs: SDG 2– Zero Hunger; SDG 8 – Decent Work and Equitable Economic Growth;  SDG 10 –Reduced Inequality;  SDG 11 – Sustainable Cities and Communities and SDG 15 – Life on Land.

Latin America also lags in meeting the SDGs. Four years after the approval of the 2030 Agenda, the average of the SDG Index in the region stands at 63.1, indicating modest advances in the goals set. Progress in the region has also been threatened by increases in unemployment, inequality, poverty, and hunger – a combination that may lead to more of the social conflict and unrest already surfacing in countries such as Colombia, Ecuador, Bolivia and Chile.

Massive protests against the governments broke out in Latin America during 2019. Photo: JMFREDES

The recent 75th UN General Assembly underscored the need to renew the world’s commitment to improving the global state of sustainable development. The question now is how. What will get the 2030 Agenda back on track? What can a world battling a pandemic do to move forward? How can recovery advance, not undercut, the goal of sustainable development?

Three ways to get the SDGs back

Photo: Mat Reding/Unsplash

1. Set priorities

Should the SDG agenda aim mostly for “low-hanging fruit”, 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. The world needs success stories.

Underperformance has the potential to render goals irrelevant, and to leave people with lingering feelings of underachievement that fail to galvanize needed action. Smart prioritizing and strategic synergies would allow people to focus on achievable goals to give a legitimate sense of victory. Targeting could also aim to address key goals that struggle to be met in current development pathways.

Sustainability itself, much like universal human rights, is more a value than an accomplishment – a direction rather than a concrete target. In fact, one could argue that sustainability and growth are contradictions; there are those who feel that with the presence of growth, sustainability cannot ever be achieved. Nevertheless, the pursuit of the goal is important, even though the full achievement might always be on the horizon.

2. Focus on harnessing the environmental dimension of the SDGs

A recent study of 30 countries showed that only 20% of them mention biodiversity as a national priority in their reports of SDG progress. The Global Biodiversity Outlook concluded that biodiversity is declining, and that none of the Aichi Biodiversity Targets will be met.

Other reports confirm that the planet will not be able to meet 35 of the 44 SDGs because the loss of species and soil degradation. This loss slows progress on the wider sustainability agenda – particularly on targets related to ocean health, well-being, economic equity, clean water and the responsible use of resources. Moreover, this loss may also undermine efforts to address climate change.

However, during the course of this year, South America has shown the start of joint solutions and diplomatic actions such as the resolution from the Permanent Commission of the South Pacific (CPPS), a body that brings together the coastal countries of South America, to prioritize the development of a work plan on sustainable fishing, and so, to contribute to achieving (SDG) 14 to conserve and sustainably use the ocean and its resources.

These types of actions are mandatory if the world is to secure the environmental dimension of the 2030 Agenda and thus, support the progress of socio-economic targets.

3. Understand how the SDGs work as an indivisible system, and look for synergies

A danger of prioritizing individual SDGs is that the world may lose sight of the integrated character of the 2030 Agenda. One way of reducing the risk of advancing some goals at the peril of others is to keep an eye on potential synergies and trade-offs. It is crucial to mainstream “systems” thinking, and to make use of the methods and tools that are being developed to help decision-makers understand the impact of their prioritization choices.

SEI’s Synergies Approach allows us to systematically review all these potential interlinkages and to prioritize the SDG targets and goals that can pull others forward, with as few trade-offs as possible. For example, Mongolia used this approach to assess interactions between sustainability targets. draft its Voluntary National Review on SDG implementation. Its review, submitted to the 2019 UN High-level Political Forum in New York, has even been officially mandated as a tool for evaluating the coherence of new and existing development policies.

Want to learn more?

SDG Synergies is a practical tool for understanding how groups of policy areas and targets interact, using systems thinking. Designed by researchers at SEI originally to support governments in implementing the Sustainable Development Goals, SDG Synergies could be invaluable within and beyond the field of sustainability.

A final thought…

Simply lamenting that the world is unlikely to reach the goals in 2030 fails to acknowledge just how far these goals have taken us. Sustainability has become a bon mot in every part of society.  Today, researchers and activist groups are not the only ones preaching the sustainability gospel. In many parts of the world, the sustainability agenda has reached all levels of government and policy planning. It is telling, for example, that in the most recent Thailand elections, all parties supported some type of environmental and social equality agenda.

Even if progress stalls – or reverses – along the path as the world pursues these goals, new ambitions are now in place. Too many changes have been achieved, and too much popular support exists to completely reverse progress. So, let us act jointly. Let us not let the opportunity for real change slip away.

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