Let’s Get the SDGs Back on Track: Insights from Latin America and Asia

Let’s Get the SDGs Back on Track: Insights from Latin America and Asia 

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In Asia, countries from the lower-middle income ranges, such as Viet Nam, Myanmar, and Lao PDR have a long way to go towards SDG achievement, but the agenda remains a high priority for Asia-Pacific governments.

In Latin America, pandemic could generate the largest recession the region has experienced since 1930, but governments should not lose sight of environmental commitments as they develop emergency recovery measures.

We have identified three ways to get back on track in the SDGs Decade of Action, including a focus on well-performing SDGs for a sense of victory.

By Clemens Grünbühel, Ivonne Lobos Alva, Kuntum Melati, and Natalia Ortiz Díaz

The year 2020 marks the start of the Decade of Action and the countdown to the ten years we have left to transform our world and deliver the Sustainable Development Goals. It is a crucial period to speed up responses to the world’s greater challenges, now amid the coronavirus pandemic, one of the worst public health emergencies of our times with critical socioeconomic impacts.

The UN’s 2020 SDGs report announces that the world is not on track to achieve the goals by 2030. Before the COVID-19 outbreak, progress had been bumpy and then, the pandemic abruptly disrupted implementation towards many of the SDGs. In some cases, it has turned back decades of progress.

The environmental dimension of the 2030 Agenda needs to be secured, to support the progress of socio-economic targets.

The ongoing 75th UN General Assembly represents an opportunity to renew our commitment to improving the global state of sustainable development. But how do we get the 2030 Agenda back on track? The next ten years will require global efforts to focus and set priorities to avert falling short. This article explores perspectives from Asia and Latin America, and provides three concrete options to revert current downward trends.

Asia: Boosting Focus on Priorities

In Asia-Pacific, none of the 17 SDGs is tracking to be met by the 2030 deadline. The latest progress report on regional SDG baselines highlights that countries in the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) are already lagging. The report shows that progress on five Goals has deteriorated: SDG 2 (zero hunger); SDG 8 (decent work and economic growth); SDG 10 (reduced inequalities); SDG 11 (sustainable cities and communities) and SDG 15 (life on land).

In the last Thailand elections, all parties supported some type of environmental and social equality agenda. However, nobody wants to pursue a set of unachievable goals. So, we need to focus on what can be achieved in the remaining decade. But focus on what? 

Speaking at the UNGA’s 75th general debate on 22 September 2020, China announced a pledge on “green recovery” aiming to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060 and peak its emissions before 2030. We look forward to seeing details from the region’s greatest emitter on how they will lead by example in adapting their policies and practices.

Earlier this year the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) published a report titled, ‘Fast-tracking the SDGs: Driving Asia-Pacific transformation.’ The authors categorize countries into four groups based on their efforts to undertake transformative change:

  • Fast risers (progress rapid but still a long way to go),
  • Sprinters (racing ahead),
  • Aspirants (slow rates of change), and
  • Last milers (good track record but slowing progress).

Interestingly, the report shows that countries from the lower-middle income ranges, such as Viet Nam, Myanmar, and Lao PDR are somewhat dominating as aspirants and fast risers, i.e. far from SDG achievement, while OECD and other high-income countries such as Singapore and New Zealand are in the sprinters and last-milers categories.

These results show that the development agenda remains high on the agenda of Asia-Pacific governments. While the region is industrializing rapidly, inequalities are rising, the rural-urban divide is increasing, poverty is rampant, and food and nutrition security remain yet to be resolved.

Latin America and the Caribbean: The Ultimate Dilemma

In June 2020, Alicia Barcena, Executive Secretary of the UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) announced the results of an analysis of progress using 72 statistical series for the for the region’s SDG indicators. She reported that of the 72 indicators, the region: has reached the target for four; ; is on the right track for 15; needs more public policy intervention for 8; requires strong public policy intervention for 13; is stagnant for 27, and is in decline for 5.

This bleak outlook is worsened by the expected effects of COVID-19. Estimates indicate the pandemic will generate the largest recession the region has experienced since 1930, with a projected growth of -5.3%, which would generate almost 12 million more unemployed and an increase of almost 30 million people in poverty.

Governments are rightly aiming to develop emergency recovery measures. However, they should not lose sight of environmental commitments and fall prey to the old dilemma: making a false choice between socio-economic relief and protecting the environment.

Furthermore, the stability of the region is at risk. An increase in unemployment, inequality, poverty, and hunger are ingredients for more social conflicts and unrest. We are already witnessing this in ColombiaChileBolivia, and Ecuador. In these four countries, massive protests against the governments broke out in 2019, and, in some of them, the police and military forces took to the streets to stop the demonstrations, resulting in dozens of deaths, hundreds of injuries, and social and political chaos. This has quieted down during the strict quarantines, but as isolation measures have softened, people have returned to the streets to protest the economic actions taken by governments and the lack of response to the ravages of the pandemic.

The potential instability ahead clearly reminds us that a resilient, inclusive, low-carbon economy must be the linchpin of post-Coronavirus economic recovery.

How Do We Get Back on Track?  

We have identified three ways forward.

Smart prioritizing and strategic synergies: Should we go for low-hanging fruits or push the underperforming SDGs? We believe in the need to set realistic targets as constant underperformance threatens to make the 2030 Agenda irrelevant. There is a need for success stories and not just the lingering feeling of underachievement. In this sense, smart prioritizing and strategic synergies would allow us to focus on well-performing SDGs for a sense of victory, but also on key Goals and key targets that are badly struggling, to spark a significant change to development pathways.

Focus on harnessing the environmental dimension of the SDGs: A recent study shows that only 20% of countries analyzed mention biodiversity as a national priority in their SDG progress reports. The Global Biodiversity Outlook 5 declares that biodiversity is declining and that none of the Aichi Targets will be met, thereby threatening SDG achievement and undermining efforts to address climate change. The environmental dimension of the 2030 Agenda needs to be secured, to support the progress of socio-economic targets.

Aim to understand how the SDGs work as an indivisible system: A danger of prioritizing is that we can 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 amplification effects. It is crucial to mainstream systems thinking into SDG planning and to make use of the methods and tools that are developed to help policy developers understand the impact of their prioritization choices. SEI’s Synergies Approach allows policymakers to systematically review all potential interlinkages and to prioritize SDG targets and goals that can pull others forwards, with as little trade-offs as possible.

A Final Thought

Regardless of the current lamenting on how we will not be able to reach the goals in 2030, we do have to acknowledge how far they have taken us. Sustainability has become a bon mot in every part of society. Today, not only researchers and activist groups preach the sustainability gospel, it has reached the highest levels of government policy planning, it is part and parcel of business and city plans. Even habitual challengers, like the coal mining industry, are jumping on the sustainability bandwagon.

Let us act jointly and smartly, and not let the opportunity for real change slip away.  

This guest article is authored by: Clemens Grünbühel, Senior Research Fellow, Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) Asia; Ivonne Lobos Alva, Research Fellow, SEI Latin America; Kuntum Melati, SDG Research Associate, SEI Asia; and Natalia Ortiz Díaz, Communications Officer, SEI Latin America.