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Wouldn’t it be nice to live in a world with no poverty, no discrimination, clean energy, and peace for all mankind? Fear not, such a world is in the making! Well, at least in its planning stage… 

In 2015, the UN adopted the SDGs, Sustainable Development Goals, as a “universal call to action to end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure that by 2030 all people enjoy peace and prosperity”. Together they represent 17 goals, 17 areas of action, each interconnected, all contributing to power-sustained social, economic, and environmental development, particularly for those who are furthest behind. 

We gave ourselves 15 years to accomplish all of this. Right now, we are roughly midway through this ambitious deadline. How are we doing so far?  

Meeting the goals

The 17 SDGs are divided into 169 targets. Meet the targets, and we meet the Goal they belong to. Seems easy, right? Let’s take a look as to how much we have accomplished up until now… 

The question that now presents itself is whether or not we are currently up to date. Well, the truth is that when the goals were first agreed upon, no one thought of the possibility of a pandemic of the caliber of the Spanish Flu or the Plagues of many centuries ago imposing a worldwide lockdown and an almost total shutdown of the world economy. Oops. Or that one of the largest suppliers of grain in the world would be invaded by its neighbor with imperialistic tendencies, who happened to be the top energy supplier to several European countries. Double oops. Or that the Taliban would return, the USA would drop out of the Paris Agreement for a few years, or… You get the picture. The last few years have been filled with “once in a lifetime” and “unthinkable” events, that, due to their unpredictable nature which has made them unable to be accounted for in advanced, have hindered progress in an already superhuman task. 

Every year, the UN releases a report reflecting the respective SDGs’ progress. Unfortunately, the 2022 report has some not-so-fantastic news… 

Checking the numbers

Progress on each Goal, and on each of its individual targets, is tracked by 232 unique indicators, whose new version was launched in 2018. If we want to know how far down the road we are, those are the numbers we should be looking at. 

According to the previously mentioned Sustainable Development Goals Report of 2022, the COVID-19 pandemic was the event that had the greatest impact on the progress in all SDGs. And, of course, largely not in a positive way.  

Take the 10th SDG – Reduced Inequalities, for example: The pandemic caused the first increase in between-country income inequality in a generation! Indeed, for the first time in this generation, the gap between rich and poor countries widened, instead of decreasing, as it had been the pattern in the past years. Between 2017 and 2021, inequality in country incomes rose by 1.2%, while the projection with no COVID would have been a 2.6% decrease. Another 4 years of progress were wiped out in the 1st SDG – No Poverty. 2020 marked the first time in the 21st century where the working poverty rate actually rose, from 6.7% to 7.2%. It may not seem like a big change, but those tiny 0.5 percentage points represent 8 million additional workers who crossed the line into poverty (close to the current total population of Portugal!). To add to the problem, widespread high inflation, coupled with the Ukraine War, are most definitely not helping the recovery, with many significantly sized economies having been affected due to a large dependency on Ukrainian grain and/or Russian energy. The Russian invasion threw Europe and its surrounding areas into disarray, sending waves of repercussion throughout the world.  

If poverty rates are not doing well, it should come as no surprise that world hunger is following in its path. Hunger is particularly troubling in young children. Have you ever heard of stunting? It is the impaired growth and development of children due to malnutrition, meaning that a child simply does not have enough food to adequately grow, bearing lasting consequences in health and cognition. In 2020, 149.2 million children under the age of 5 suffered from stunting. The SDG agenda aimed at a 50% reduction in this number by 2030 – that appears to be an impossible feat unless the rate of decline doubles, which, given rising food prices and inequalities, doesn’t seem likely. Think of how this impacts the future. World Health (SDG 3 – Good Health and Wellbeing) will surely suffer, adding to the setback we already saw during COVID (which, as a disease, primarily impacted health). 

But let’s not be so gloomy! If the pandemic had such an impact, the solution should be as simple as directing all effort towards recovery, and reversal of the impact will follow, right? Unfortunately, it is not that easy. Efforts to recover economically imply a heavier reliance on cheap energy, resource exploration, and production, much of it highly polluting. In 2021, as the economy re-heated, so did the planet: energy-related CO2 emissions were the highest ever. SDG 13 – Climate Action progress is stumped. Countries are not contributing the yearly 100 billion they committed to for climate action (less than 80% of the goal is met). And just because the world is recovering, it doesn’t mean everyone is doing so at the same rate. Progress on the 9th SDG – Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure is mixed: total global manufacturing caught up with the setback from the crisis, but Least Developed Countries (LDC) still haven’t! The Sustainable Development Goals seem to have been left behind amidst recovery efforts. 

But not all is bad news. The 17th SDG – Partnerships for the Goals, has seen some progress, although not in all fronts. Official Development Aid reached an all-time high in 2021 (largely from COVID-related aid). Internet access and use also saw a significant increase during the pandemic. Pleas and efforts towards Global Peace grew as well, although the balance for the 16th SDG – Peace, Justice, and Strong Institutions is largely negative: we are seeing the largest number of violent conflicts since World War II, thus reflecting hardly any progress towards peaceful coexistence. 

Is there still hope?

These news are definitely rough to hear. All the progress we were making, the difficult yet sure steps we were taking towards our ultimate goal of a better world, were wiped out in just a couple of years. So, one may start to wonder, is it still worth it? The SDGs were already immensely ambitious, and the setbacks of recent years seem to mean we will not be able to achieve them, and definitely not by 2030. Should we just give up? 

Hey, not so fast! Just because we’re falling behind, doesn’t mean we can’t finish the race. Setting a high bar means incredible high results, even if you never reach the mark exactly. The SDGs are not just a wish, they’re the standard the members of the United Nations hold themselves to. Even if we fall short of perfection, we have an obligation to continue to strive towards it. 

In 2015, countries committed themselves to improve the world. The task requires all citizens to embrace that mission, and the Sustainable Development Goals are the targets we should aim for to accomplish it. So go ahead. Spread the message. Act. Change the World. 

You can find the 2022 Sustainable Development Goals Report here.  

Sources: United Nations, United Nations Development Programme, OECD, Our World in Data, World Health Organization, SDG tracker.

Joana Brás

Leonor Cunha

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