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Those UN Development Goals? We’re Six Decades Behind Schedule

The United Nations’ global targets to eradicate poverty, fight inequality, protect the environment and deliver peace and prosperity for all have slipped more than 60 years past their 2030 deadline, a Washington, D.C., think tank has warned.

Not helping matters? The Covid-19 pandemic, which threatens to delay the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) by a further “lost decade,” according to the Social Progress Imperative (SPI), which assessed the social performance of 163 countries over the past 10 years based on 50 criteria falling under the metrics—referred to as “dimensions”—of basic human needs, foundations of wellbeing and opportunity.

The organization’s 2020 Social Progress Index, which was unveiled by the Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations at a virtual event last week, concluded that the world will not achieve the SDGs until at least 2082, and that’s without accounting for the economic fallout of the coronavirus crisis, which could push their fulfillment to 2092 at the earliest.

The data, SPI noted, shows that higher levels of social progress are associated with lower rates of the Covid-19 contagion after accounting for gross domestic product and regional differences. The link between the two proved strongest for the index’s “opportunity” dimension, which includes scores for “access to higher education” and “equity and inclusion.” This suggests “inclusive, tolerant and better-educated societies are better able to manage the pandemic,” the organization added.

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Even without the additional complication of Covid-19, SPI’s data revealed that the world’s progress, which went up from 60.63 points out of 100 in 2011 to 62.24 in 2020, is “still not enough” to hit all 17 SDGs. “Worrying”  declines over the past 10 years in personal rights, which fell 5.17 points between 2016 and 2020, and inclusiveness, which dipped 3.48 points between 2011 and 2020, have followed the rise of populist and authoritarian governments, it said.

The United States, per the index’s calculations, is the only G7 country to “go backward” on social progress and one of three countries, along with Brazil and Hungary, to have declined over the past decade.

The world rated worst on environmental quality (36.87 points) and inclusiveness (39.25), both of which lagged “far behind” other index components. Spotty performance and “virtually no” progress on environmental quality, SPI said, represents a “particular problem given climate change and ecological collapse.”

Not all was doom and gloom, however. The best-performing categories were nutrition and basic medical care (84.64), shelter (77.09), water and sanitation (74.72) and access to basic knowledge (75.18). Moreover, the world saw dramatic improvements in access to information (+21.61) due to investments in technology and communications infrastructure in the developing world. Access to advanced education (+7.45), shelter (+6.10) and water and sanitation (+5.57) also improved over the past 10 years.

But overall, the planet, now deep in the throes of a global health disaster, has far—and perhaps further—to go.

“The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed vulnerabilities and flaws throughout our society. Covid-19 has bred on poverty, racial injustice and gender inequity,” SPI CEO Michael Green said in a statement. “These problems will worsen as a result of the pandemic, through its impact on education, on healthcare, on work and basic safety nets. In sum, the world faces a potential lost decade of progress towards the UN Sustainable Development Goals. This is a unique moment to use these challenges as an opportunity for systemic change and to make real social progress.”

The index arrived nearly two months after the United Nations Global Compact, together with risk-management firm DNV GL, announced that only 84 percent of companies participating in the Global Compact are tackling the SDGs, 46 percent are “embedding” them into their core business, and just 37 percent are designing business models that address key social and economic issues.

“With less than 4,000 days remaining until the 2030 target, the change we need to see…will not happen through incremental improvements and adjustments to ‘business-as-usual,’” said Lise Kingo, CEO of the UN Global Compact, at the time. “Companies need to step up and transform their business models to turn policy commitments into action that can lead to actual performance improvements.”