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What are the SDGs and is there progress?

This blog is written to inform readers of the state-of-play of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The content, in-the-main is sobering. However, in following blogs we will write about what SMEs can do in their day-to-day operations to help the world to reach some of the goals. 


In 2015 the United Nations General Assembly instituted the 17 SDGs via its 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, a plan of action for people, planet and prosperity. The 17 goals include 169 targets to be achieved by 2030.

The 2030 Agenda replaces the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) framework which included 8 goals. Progress towards achieving the goals was partial. Successes included:

The reduction of extreme poverty (people living on $1.25 per day) fell from 1.9 billion people in 2000 to 836 million in 2015.

Primary school enrolment in developing countries rose from 83% to 91%.

Enrolment of girls to boys in primary school in developing countries rose from 74 girls to every 100 boys to 103 girls for every 100 boys.

Maternal and infant mortality have dropped significantly.

Between 1990 and 2015, 2.6 billion people gained access to improved drinking water (the target was to reduce the proportion of people without access to safe drinking water by half and it was achieved).

In 2020, the UN prepared an update report on the progress towards the achieving the 17 SDGs and it is found at https://unstats.un.org/sdgs/report/2020/The-Sustainable-Development-Goals-Report-2020.pdf.   A summary of that report is as follows:

Goal 1: End poverty in all its forms everywhere

Progress has slowed, especially since the COVID pandemic. The current percentage of the global population living on $1.25 or less a day is 8.8%, with the 2030 level predicted to be 6%.

The gender gap in working poverty had almost been bridged, but evidence is emerging that women are being disproportionally affected by the pandemic. Young workers are exposed to poverty more systematically than adults, a result of inadequate earnings and deficits in job quality. In 2019, 12.8 per cent of workers between the ages of 15 and 24 lived in poverty, compared with 6.3 per cent of workers over the age of 24.

As at 2016, 55 per cent of the world’s population – about 4 billion people – did not benefit from any form of social protection. This situation has exacerbated poverty issues in the pandemic. 

Goal 2: End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture

Since 2014, the global prevalence of undernourishment (chronic food insecurity) has remained virtually unchanged at slightly below 9 per cent. However, the total number of people going hungry has slowly increased for several consecutive years. Almost 690 million people were undernourished in 2019, up by nearly 60 million from 2014.

An estimated 25.9 per cent of the global population – 2 billion people – were affected by moderate or severe food insecurity in 2019, an increase from 22.4 per cent in 2014. The impacts of the pandemic are not known but predicted to be severe. 

Stunting caused by malnourishment fell from 23 per cent in 2015 to 21 per cent in 2019. That still represents 144 million kids.

In 2019, 5.6 per cent (or 38 million) children under age 5 worldwide were overweight. Overweight and wasting often coexist in a population and are considered the double burden of malnutrition.

Goal 3: Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages

Until the end of 2019, advances in many areas of health continued, but the rate of progress was not sufficient to meet most Goal 3 targets. The COVID-19 pandemic is throwing progress even further off track. The rapid increase in COVID-19 cases is causing a significant loss of life and overwhelming many health systems.

The chances of reaching this goal by 2030 are slipping away.

Goal 4: Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all

Before the coronavirus crisis, projections showed that more than 200 million children would be out of school, and only 60 per cent of young people would be completing upper secondary education in 2030.

Before the coronavirus crisis, the proportion of children and youth out of primary and secondary school had declined from 26 per cent in 2000 to 17 per cent in 2018. Despite some progress, 258 million children and youth were still out of school in 2018, of which three quarters lived in sub-Saharan Africa and Southern Asia. With the school closures caused by the pandemic, that percentage is predicted to increase.

Goal 5: Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls

International commitments to advance gender equality have brought about improvements in some areas: child marriage and female genital mutilation (FGM) have declined in recent years, and women’s representation in the political arena is higher than ever before. 

But the promise of a world in which every woman and girl enjoys full gender equality, and where all legal, social and economic barriers to their empowerment have been removed, remains unfulfilled. In fact, that goal is probably even more distant than before, since women and girls are being hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. The crisis is creating circumstances that have already contributed to a surge in reports of violence against women and girls and may increase child marriage and FGM.

Goal 6: Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all

The coronavirus crisis has brought to the fore the critical importance of water, sanitation and hygiene for protecting human health. Despite progress, billions of people across the globe still lack these basic services. Immediate action to improve access to water, sanitation and hygiene services is required to prevent infection and contain the spread of COVID-19. 

Water is essential not only to health, but also to poverty reduction, food security, peace and human rights, ecosystems and education. Nevertheless, countries face growing challenges linked to water scarcity, water pollution, degraded water-related ecosystems and cooperation over transboundary water basins. In addition, funding gaps and weak government systems hold many countries back from making needed advancements. 

Unless current rates of progress increase substantially, Goal 6 targets will not be met by 2030. If unmitigated, water scarcity could displace an estimated 700 million people by 2030.

Goal 7: Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all

The world continues to advance towards sustainable energy targets, although efforts are not of the scale required to achieve Goal 7 by 2030. Some progress has been made in improving energy efficiency and expanding access to electricity. However, millions of people across the globe still lack this basic service, and progress on clean cooking fuels and technologies has stagnated, affecting the health of billions of women and children in particular. 

The COVID-19 pandemic is highlighting the urgent need for affordable and reliable energy – for hospital and health facilities to treat patients, for communities to pump clean water and access vital information. The good news, however, is that the proportion of the global population with access to electricity has increased from 83 per cent in 2010 to 90 per cent in 2018. Still, 789 million people lacked electricity in 2018.

Approximately 2.8 billion people remain without access to clean cooking solutions, a number that has stayed roughly the same over the past two decades. 

The rise in international financing for renewable energy is encouraging, but only a fraction of it is reaching the poorest countries. This needs to change.

Goal 8: Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all

After the global economic downturn in 2009, the world as a whole witnessed rising labour productivity and improved unemployment rates, despite large disparities across regions. Ten years later, in 2019, the global economy again slowed, with the lowest growth since 2008–2009. 

The coronavirus in 2020 has caused abrupt and profound changes, slowing the economy even further. It is having an adverse impact on the world’s labour markets, particularly on workers in informal employment, the self-employed, daily wage earners and workers in sectors at the highest risk of disruption. 

In fact, we can expect the biggest increase in global unemployment since World War II. At the same time, the crisis poses a serious threat to the occupational safety and health of workers and may increase the risk of child labour. Urgent policy measures are needed to support businesses, boost labour demand and preserve existing jobs – especially for the most vulnerable – to achieve full and productive employment and decent work for all women and men

Goal 9: Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovation

Promoting inclusive and sustainable industries and continuing to invest in physical infrastructure, innovation and research are vital to long-term economic development. Investment in research and development (R&D) globally, and financing for economic infrastructure in developing countries has increased. What’s more, the intensity of global CO2 emissions has declined, and impressive progress has been made in mobile connectivity. 

However, the growth of manufacturing has decelerated and industrialization in less developed countries (LDCs) is still too slow. The pandemic has dealt a severe blow to manufacturing and transport industries, causing disruptions in global value chains and the supply of products as well as job losses and declining work hours in these sectors. Goal 9 is looking more and more unattainable.

Goal 10: Reduce inequality within and among countries

Despite some positive signs – such as lower income inequality in some countries and preferential trade status for lower-income countries – inequality in its various forms persists. 

The COVID-19 crisis is making inequality worse. It is hitting the most vulnerable people hardest, and those same groups are often experiencing increased discrimination. The wider effects of the pandemic will likely have a particularly damaging impact on the poorest countries. If a global recession leads to reduced flows of development resources, that impact will be even more severe.

Goal 11: Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable

Over 90 per cent of COVID-19 cases are occurring in urban areas. The pandemic is hitting the most vulnerable the hardest, including the 1 billion residents of the world’s densely populated informal settlements and slums. 

Even before the new coronavirus, rapid urbanization meant that 4 billion people in the world’s cities faced worsening air pollution, inadequate infrastructure and services, and unplanned urban sprawl. Safe public transportation, reliable basic services and open public spaces are especially important now to ensure the health and livelihoods of urban dwellers. Successful examples of containing COVID-19 demonstrate the remarkable resilience and adaptability of urban communities in adjusting to new norms. 

Cities will emerge from the pandemic, but whether they are prepared for the next crisis will depend on how much they can advance data-driven inclusive and sustainable urban development. Positively, there are signs of revised urban planning that includes more open spaces.


Sadly, global progress has been reversed in reducing the share of slum dwellers, whose vulnerability has been intensified by the pandemic. Also, only half the world’s urban population has convenient access to public transportation, according to 2019 data from 610 cities in 95 countries.

Goal 12: Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns

Consumption and production drive the global economy, but also wreak havoc on planetary health through the unsustainable use of natural resources. The global material footprint is increasing faster than population growth and economic output. Improvements in resource efficiency in some countries are offset by increases in material intensity in others. Fossil fuel subsidies remain a serious concern. An unacceptably high proportion of food is lost along the supply chain. And waste, including additional medical waste generated during the pandemic, is mounting. The pandemic offers an opportunity to develop recovery plans that will reverse current trends and shift our consumption and production patterns to a more sustainable course. A successful transition will mean improvements in resource efficiency, consideration of the entire life cycle of economic activities, and active engagement in multilateral environmental agreements.

The world continues on a path of using natural resources unsustainably. Growth in the generation of electronic waste far outpaces its rate of recycling, a significant proportion of food is lost along the supply chain before it reaches the consumer and despite the growing urgency of the climate crisis, Governments are still subsidizing the fossil fuel industry.

Goal 13: Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts  

Governments and businesses need to redefine their relationship with the environment and make systemic shifts and transformational changes to become low-greenhouse-gas emission and climate-resilient economies and societies.

Agenda 2030 also incorporates the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030 which outlines seven clear targets and four priorities for action to prevent new and reduce existing disaster risks: (i) Understanding disaster risk; (ii) Strengthening disaster risk governance to manage disaster risk; (iii) Investing in disaster reduction for resilience and; (iv) Enhancing disaster preparedness for effective response, and to “Build Back Better” in recovery, rehabilitation and reconstruction.

Goal 14: Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development

The proportion of fish stocks within biologically sustainable levels decreased from 90% in 1974 to 66.7% in 2015 and 65.8% in 2017. Despite this continued deterioration, the rate of decline has slowed in recent years. While encouraging, this will not be enough to prevent a medium-term collapse of certain global fisheries unless measures are more widely adopted to restore stocks to biologically sustainable levels. 

Goal 15: Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss

Globally, one fifth of the Earth’s land area (more than 2 billion hectares), an area nearly the size of India and the Russian Federation combined, is degraded. Land degradation is undermining the wellbeing of some 3.2 billion people, driving species to extinction and intensifying climate change. 

From 2000 to 2015, global trends in land cover indicated a net loss in natural and semi-natural classes of land. These losses resulted from direct and indirect factors, including deforestation, unsustainable agricultural practices and urbanization, as well as land tenure and poverty. Land use change, a key driver of land degradation, is also one of the primary transmission pathways for emerging infectious diseases.

As for species extinction, globally the risk has worsened by about 10 per cent over the last three decades, with the Red List Index declining from 0.82 in 1990 to 0.75 in 2015, and to 0.73 in 2020 (a value of 1 indicates no species are at risk of extinction in the immediate future, while a value of 0 indicates all species are extinct). This translates into more than 31,000 species threatened with extinction due primarily to habitat loss from unsustainable agriculture, deforestation, unsustainable harvest and trade, and invasive alien species. If current trends continue, the Red List Index will drop to or below 0.70 by 2030.

Goal 16: Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels

At least 106,806 civilian deaths were recorded by the United Nations in 12 of the world’s deadliest armed conflicts between 2015 and 2017. This translates to an average of 11.9 civilian deaths per 100,000 population each year; one in eight of those deaths was a woman or child.

Oh some good news, the global rate of intentional homicides has declined slowly – from 6.8 per 100,000 population in 2000 to 5.9 in 2015 and 5.8 in 2018. This translates to approximately 440,000 homicide victims worldwide (81 per cent male and 19 per cent female) each year.

Goal 17: Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development

Support for implementing the SDGs has been steady but fragile, with major and persistent challenges. Financial resources remain scarce, trade tensions have been increasing, and crucial data are still lacking. The COVID-19 pandemic is now threatening past achievements, with trade, foreign direct investment and remittances all projected to decline. 

The pandemic also appears to be accelerating existing trends of global value chain decoupling. One of the few bright spots at this time is the increased use of technology as people flock to the Internet to work, shop and connect with others, but even this draws attention to a still-enormous digital divide.

 

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