Expert voices Vol 24, No. 07 - July 2020

SDGs still offer best option to reduce worst COVID-19 losses

Countries will be better placed to recover from the human and economic devastation caused by COVID-19 by accelerating efforts to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), according to a new policy brief released by UN DESA. Although we may not know the full impact of the health crisis on the SDGs until months from now, UN DESA Voice spoke with the brief’s authors Shantanu Mukherjee and Astra Bonini about some initial sobering assessments.

Looking at COVID-19 and the SDGs, what are some of the ramifications we are starting to see?

“We can see that extreme poverty is rising for the first time in 20 years, a doubling of acute hunger, an economic recession far worse than the 2008-2009 global fi­nancial crisis, widening learning gaps with millions more children out of school, and deepening inequalities across multiple dimensions.

Approaches to respond and recover from this crisis, must prevent these outcomes and enable a robust trajectory towards sustainable development. “

What must be done to lessen the negative impacts from this health crisis?

“First, we have to protect progress already made towards eradicating extreme deprivations by supporting those at immediate risk of poverty, hunger and disease; facilitating their safe return to work and education, and access to health care; and eliminating social or legal barriers for marginalized and disadvantaged groups.

Second, we need to direct COVID-19 response stimulus packages toward the universal provision of quality essential services to build long-term resilience including by ensuring access to health care, education, social protection, water, sanitation, clean energy and the Internet. Additional support for the deployment of services in poorer coun­tries needs to be made available.

Finally, response strategies must reverse trends toward the degradation of nature which marked the pre-pandemic world. With oil prices plunging, and jobs being lost, steps can be taken to support transitions for workers to greener sectors, zero out fuel subsi­dies and introduce carbon taxes. A bet­ter understanding of the zoonotic origins of disease outbreaks can help support changes in human activity that threaten biodiversity.”

Could the SDGs be left behind in this process?

“No, achieving the SDGs through these transitions is possible and within reach by re-invigorating global part­nerships for development (SDG 17). The United Nations is committed to facilitating a global response that leads towards this end and turns this moment in history into an inflection point for humanity to overcome hardship and transform together toward a more sustainable future.”

The policy brief authors Shantanu Mukherjee and Astra Bonini both work in UN DESA’s Division for Sustainable Development Goals.

Access the new policy brief “Achieving the SDGs through the COVID-19 response and recovery”on the dedicated web portal on UN DESA’s COVID-19 response.

Photo by Asantha Abeysooriya on Unsplash

A vaccine will not end the pandemic unless everyone can get it

Nearly every day brings news of promising developments in the unprecedented global quest for a vaccine to COVID-19. Yet, finding an effective vaccine will not put an end to the pandemic unless countries can agree to cooperate on its development, production and distribution and ensure it is affordable and accessible to all, warns Sakiko Fukuda-Parr, Professor of International Affairs at The New School and Member of the UN Committee for Development Policy.

If scientists announced tomorrow that they have found an effective and safe vaccine to COVID-19, what do you think would happen?

“Even when an effective vaccine is developed, it will not end the pandemic unless it is within reach of all people in all countries. And without production at scale, countries and pharmacies will be competing over scarce supplies. As the Financial Times wrote last week, ‘the ugly battle between nations over limited supplies of tests and personal protective equipment will be a sideshow compared to the scramble over a vaccine.”

Is there anything countries can do now to avoid this dog-eat-dog scenario?

“In a strong show of global solidarity, governments of the world at the World Health Assembly last week overwhelmingly adopted a resolution calling for universal, affordable access to COVID-19 vaccines and treatments. But this commitment itself will not be enough to make universal vaccine a reality. International cooperation is needed to finance research and development, and free up vaccines from monopoly pricing, exclusive production, and nationalistic distribution.

This will be difficult, and mired in the politics of contestation over intellectual property and sharing of knowledge in the pharmaceuticals sector. The World Health Assembly resolution makes an important commitment to use the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) flexibilities that allow countries to import or produce vaccines for wide distribution at low cost. But there was also pushback from those who argued that patent protection was needed to incentivize private investment.”

How do you expect the situation to evolve from here?

“The language adopted stops short of the call, supported by many countries of the North and South, for a broader sharing of knowledge and eliminating monopolies on the essential vaccines and medicines to end the pandemic. The contestation will continue and compromises will be found. The urgency to end the pandemic, a precondition for economic revival, is an opportunity to mobilize new alliances and new multilateral action.”

To learn more, read Development Policy and Multilateralism after COVID-19 by the UN Committee for Development Policy

Can we flatten the curve without flattening the economy?

With around half of all the world’s population now under some sort of lockdown, sheltering from the deadly coronavirus, how can we keep the global economy from collapsing and save tens of millions from losing their jobs and falling into poverty? We ask UN Chief Economist and Assistant Secretary-General at UN DESA, Elliott Harris.

UN DESA is closely monitoring the COVID-19 crisis’ impacts on social, economic and sustainable development, sharing findings in a series of policy briefs. What do the findings tell us so far? 

“The crisis is having a deep and negative effect on public health all around the world as infections soar and death rates mount. The containment measures that are imperative from the public health perspective have generated an unprecedented contraction in economic activity, threatening jobs and income, and the survival of millions of smaller enterprises. But the crisis does not affect all equally—it threatens to widen some of the inequalities that already exist between and within countries, and the poorest and most vulnerable are most exposed to the adverse effects, while least able to deal with them.”

Flattening the curve without flattening the economy – what action is needed to set the world on track towards a sustainable recovery?

“The first imperative is to halt the spread of the virus. At the same time, emergency economic and financial stimulus measures must be put in place to prevent the deep economic contraction from leading to widespread bankruptcies, unemployment and deep-reaching, permanent adverse social outcomes. The immediate measures should also be formulated with an eye to the recovery and contribute to a more sustainable and resilient future. For example, the social protection measures put in place in the emergency response should be maintained and integrated into a comprehensive and permanent social protection system that will strengthen the resilience to future shocks.”

UN DESA will soon be releasing policy briefs taking a closer look at the impact of COVID-19 on Small Island Developing States as well as countries in Europe. Can you give us a sneak preview of some of the main findings and recommendations from these two analyses?

“Small island developing states (SIDS) are particularly vulnerable, both to the health and the economic crisis. Their relatively weak public health systems leave their populations exposed to the virus, while the global recession threatens their economies, heavily dependent on imported food and fuel and other essential consumer goods. The tourism sector, which is a major source of foreign exchange earnings and domestic employment in many islands states, is also being hit hard by the pandemic. The recovery of SIDS will depend on how quickly global transportation, tourism travel and overall economic activity returns to normal.

Europe bore the brunt of the pandemic in March, in terms of new infections and deaths, but aggressive containment measures seem to have slowed the spread of infections in April. The lockdowns will nevertheless cause a very severe contraction of European GDP in 2020. Wide-ranging stimulus packages have been introduced in many countries, which may contain some of the economic damage. As it represents one third of the global import demand, over half of total official development assistance and 28 per cent of remittances, a prompt and comprehensive recovery in Europe will be essential for the global recovery, and a rapid return to a sustainable development trajectory.”

UN DESA’s policy briefs can be accessed on the department’s dedicated web portal on the response to the global COVID-19 pandemic.

Trust in institutions in time of a global pandemic

When a crisis strikes, trust in public institutions can mean the difference between life and death. The success or failure of our fight against the current coronavirus pandemic hinges on whether people heed their governments’ recommendations, warnings and public health announcements. How can institutions build the trust and authority necessary to guide the public through the times of crisis? We asked Abdelhak Saihi, member of the UN Committee of Experts on Public Administration.

Most of our modern-day institutions are not used to dealing with crises of such magnitude as the COVID-19 pandemic. How were they able to adapt so quickly?

“Historically, multiple and diverse crises have rattled and bewildered public institutions, often forcing them to live up to their responsibilities. Some have used their experiences in the face of crises as a springboard to evolve, just like a living organism. By questioning their working methods, crises are often an opportunity for reflection and adaptation. The best practice for dealing with crises comes from facing a crisis with flexibility and intelligence. How institutions achieve that is a very important question, worthy of further studies and analysis.”

What qualities should public institutions have to respond to a crisis effectively?

“I would highlight three main elements: Firstly, a public institution should be open and focused on the citizen. It should take concrete steps to demonstrate its good will and build trust.

Secondly, the institution should be strict about its quality control to ensure an optimal management of quality services for the public.

Thirdly, a public institution should continuously adapt the kinds of services rendered to the citizens as requirements of optimal management evolve.

Fulfilling these conditions, a public institution is able to gain the confidence of its citizens and provide them with quality services.”

How can institutions build trust and rapport with the people they serve?

“Gaining the trust of the public is a two-way street. If a public institution is accustomed to top-down communication, it should work on becoming more attuned to the voices of the public and their grievances.

To build trust of the citizens it serves, an institution should support them, respond to their concerns and attend to their real needs – within its area of responsibility.

The crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic can become a learning experience, from which public institutions must draw the necessary lessons.”

Forests – a lifeline for people and planet

We all rely on forests. They generate the oxygen we breathe, provide water to quench our thirst and livelihoods to some 1.6 billion people worldwide. They play a critical role for a healthy climate, and ultimately, for our survival. Yet, they continue to be under threat. Ahead of this year’s International Day of Forests, we spoke with Mita Sen in the UN Forum on Forests in UN DESA, about the state of our world’s forests and what must be done to protect them.

Why are forests so important for our life here on Earth?

“It is difficult to picture life on Earth without forests and trees. Forests sustain our lives in so many ways, from the air we breathe and the water we drink to the food we eat and the wood and paper products that we use every day.

Over 1.6 billion people depend on forests for timber, food, fuel, jobs, and shelter, but all of us depend on forests in one way or the other. Forests provide critical ecosystem services that affect our climate, rainfall patterns, and watersheds, at the same time they are also home to 80 percent of all land-based biodiversity. According to some estimates, the economic value of ecosystem services provided by the world’s forests could be worth as much as US$16.2 trillion annually.”

What is the state of the world’s forests?

“The good news is that over the past 25 years, the annual rate of net global deforestation has slowed by more than 50 percent. This is due to governments and stakeholders working to sustainably manage forests, along with investing in restoration and afforestation of degraded forests and land.

The bad news is that despite these efforts, forests continue to be under threat. Annually, over 7 million hectares of natural forests are still lost, mostly through conversion to other land uses – such as large-scale commercial agriculture and other economic activities. Forests are being negatively impacted by land degradation, ecosystem fragmentation, invasive pests, diseases, and frequent forest fires – many of which are exacerbated by the effects of climate change.”

What action is needed to further protect them, and how can people help the world’s forests?

“In terms of action at the UN level, the UN Strategic Plan for Forests 2030 provides a blueprint for action, through a set of six Global Forest Goals and 26 associated targets to be achieved by 2030, which are voluntary and universal. The vision is for a future world in which all types of forests and trees outside forests are sustainably managed. The only way we will get there is if we increase and promote sustainable management of forests, while at the same time working collectively to halt deforestation and forest degradation.

At the UN we work by bringing together governments and all stakeholders – to foster sharing knowledge and collective and coordinated action. But people everywhere can help, the first step is to make informed green choices in your daily lives – this could include purchasing products sourced from sustainably managed forests, buying local, or supporting your community’s green spaces. Any action you can take that reduces your carbon footprint, ultimately helps forests.”

This year’s celebration of the International Day of Forests focuses on forests and biodiversity. What more can you tell us about the Day?

“The International Day of Forests is observed annually on 21 March, and this year’s theme focuses on promoting awareness of the interconnections between forests and the biodiversity that they support. The 2019 landmark report from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services sounded the alarm that the health of our ecosystems is declining at unprecedented rates and the rate of species extinctions is accelerating. If we wish to take action to turn the tide, sustaining forests are a critical part of the equation.”

For more information: International Day of Forests

Photo courtesy of IISD/ENB

Shifting gears toward sustainable transport

Trains, bike paths, ships, roads – we all rely on transport to get to school or work, and to get the food and products we need to live. But we could be moving people and goods in a smarter, greener and more inclusive way. To help us get there, the second Global Sustainable Transport Conference this May in Beijing will bring together governments, the private sector, academia and civil society to rethink the way we move people and goods and consider innovative ways to improve our transport systems. We spoke with Julie Powell, a Sustainable Development Officer in UN DESA’s Division for Sustainable Development Goals about what to expect.

What do we mean when we say sustainable transport?

“Transport enables the mobility of people and goods. It enhances economic growth and livelihoods while improving access to services, such as health, education and finance. It strengthens connectivity at all levels, helping integrate economies, improving social equity, enhancing rural-urban linkages and building resilience.

At the same time, transport can have negative environmental, social and health impacts, such as road crashes and contribution to greenhouse gas emissions. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the transport sector accounts for around a quarter of all energy-related CO2 emissions.

Sustainable transport seeks to alleviate these negative impacts and provide services and infrastructure for the mobility of people and goods in a manner that is inclusive, safe, affordable, accessible, efficient and resilient. UN DESA is part of the Sustainable Mobility for All initiative (SuM4All), which defines four main objectives of sustainable transport: universal access, efficiency, safety and green mobility. As you can see, sustainable transport is not an end in itself, but rather a means to help all people achieve a better life, both for this generation and the next.”

What are the major obstacles in achieving sustainable transport, and some good ways for working around them?

“The challenges related to achieving sustainable transport are multiple and can differ from country to country. Global megatrends, such as population growth and increased urbanization, will exacerbate these challenges and pose many new ones. This is also true for climate change, which increases challenges related to resilience.

At the same time, we need to be proactive in ensuring access for all. In order to meet the increasing and changing transport demands, while preserving the planet for current and future generations, we will have to change the way we see, plan, develop and use our transport systems. This will ideally not only affect our own behavior, but also the way we establish policies, develop technologies and design our cities, supply chains and overall transport systems.”

How can sustainable transport accelerate progress on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and climate action?

“Advances in sustainable transport are crucial for reaching many of the SDGs and will give a significant boost to climate action, given the sector’s contribution to climate change. Some SDGs are directly connected to sustainable transport through targets and indicators, such as SDG target 3.6 on road safety, SDG 9.1 on infrastructure and SDG 11.2 on providing access to safe, affordable, accessible and sustainable transport systems for all and expanding public transport.

Many others are also connected through the enabling role of sustainable transport across the 2030 Agenda. Progress can only be accelerated if the systems that connect across the goals and targets of the SDGs are transformed in ways that resolve trade-offs and deliver on the potential synergies, as recently emphasized in the Global Sustainable Development Report 2019. Only continued collaboration by all stakeholders can move the sustainable transport agenda forward.”

How will the second Sustainable Transport Conference move us in the right direction?

“The second United Nations Global Sustainable Transport Conference is a unique opportunity to underscore the importance of sustainable transport for the SDGs and climate action. As a Secretary-General’s Conference, it will bring together key stakeholders from governments, the UN system and other international organizations, the private sector, and civil society. This will reflect the diversity and complexity of the transport sector and offer an occasion for vivid exchange of ideas and solutions.

The Conference will be an opportunity for policy dialogue as well as forging partnerships and initiatives to advance sustainable transport worldwide, especially in the context of the Decade of Action. It will shine a spotlight on the needs and challenges of vulnerable groups and developing countries, including least developed countries, landlocked developing countries and small island developing states.

Apart from plenary sessions and parallel thematic sessions, the Conference programme will also comprise a Minister’s Forum, Business Forum and a Science, Engineering and Technology Forum. All stakeholders will be encouraged to register measurable, bold commitments toward building the sustainable transport systems we need. We expect participants to scale up the existing partnerships for sustainable transport and build new, durable partnerships.

For more information:

Second Global Sustainable Transport Conference

How unequal are we?

Economic inequality is often blamed for the growing waves of discontent around the world. But is the voice of the street right ? Are the rich growing richer and the poor getting poorer? Is the one per cent of top earners owning ever more of the world’s wealth? We ask Marta Roig, lead author of UN DESA’s upcoming World Social Report.

How do we know if the world is becoming more or less equal?

“Today, people are more educated, healthier, better connected and even richer, on average, than ever before. But average measures, including GDP or GDP per capita, are no longer sufficient to assess people’s well-being.

More and more people around the world agree that income inequality is a big problem and that it should be reduced. Income disparities create unequal opportunities, prevent some people from reaching their full potential and, as we are witnessing, breed frustration and discontent.

Despite persistent data limitations, the metrics that are available do confirm that income and wealth inequalities are very high and, in many cases, continue to grow. As the data improve, they increasingly back people’s perceptions that our world is growing more unequal.

For instance, in almost all countries that have them, distributional accounts data suggest that income is increasingly concentrated among top earners. Unfortunately, many developing countries still do not have the necessary data to assess whether this is a universal trend.”

Different studies on inequality sometimes come to dramatically different conclusions. What can we say with certainty about inequality?

“Inequality has many dimensions. Conclusions depend, in part, on the focus of different studies. The forthcoming World Social Report shows, for instance, that inequalities may be declining in basic indicators such as child health or primary education, but they are still growing in more advanced achievements, such as secondary education. Inequalities between urban and rural areas may be falling while disparities among ethnic groups continue to grow.

Despite these differences, all sources of data lead to some common conclusions: First, income inequality levels are at a historical all-time high. And secondly, income inequality levels and trends vary significantly across countries and regions. Latin America and Africa are still the regions with the highest levels of inequality but have seen income inequality decline since the late 1990s. In developed countries and in the two most populous countries in the world, China and India, inequality has grown.”

Why does the choice of indicators matter when we evaluate inequality trends?

“When it comes to income inequality, different indicators lead to different conclusions. The average Gini coefficient of income inequality within countries has slightly declined since the mid-1990s. At the same time, the share of income going to top income earners has grown in countries with data.

This is in part due to differences in data sources. The Gini coefficient is a summary measure of inequality and therefore allows us to make general conclusions on inequality trends. The Gini is based on survey data. Surveys contain a lot of information but are not well suited to capture the very high or very low incomes. Recent efforts that combine data from different sources, such as surveys, tax records and national accounts give us a better picture of income concentration at its extremes.

But the integration of data from different sources and the additional indicators they give us—like the share of income earned by the bottom 10 per cent or top 1 per cent of the population—are not available for many developing countries. And in countries with data, researchers still disagree on how to best combine these different sources. In addition, one single indicator (like the share of income of the top one per cent) alone, does not provide full information on the income distribution, while the Gini coefficient does.

All in all, each measure has pros and cons. When possible, it is important to rely on more than one indicator of inequality. Different indicators are not fully comparable and cannot be easily interchanged with another.”

We are entering a decade of action to achieve the Global Goals. What type of action do we need to prioritize to reduce inequalities by the targets set for 2030?

“Clearly, no single set of policies is applicable to all countries and contexts. The forthcoming World Social Report highlights three building blocks of a coherent and integrated policy strategy to reduce inequalities: First, promoting equal access to opportunity for instance, by ensuring that education helps to reduce inequalities rather than reinforces them. Secondly, promoting redistribution, including strengthening social protection systems, ensuring the availability of universal programmes. Thirdly, tackle prejudice and discrimination.

The UN has advocated for measures under each of these building blocks for decades. Inaction is not due to lack of sound technical advice or even, in most cases, adequate capacity. But politics matter. Many inequality-reducing measures challenge the status quo, and thus are likely to encounter resistance. Understanding the political constraints to reducing inequality and devising ways to overcome them is key to breaking the current stalemate.”

 

Read the UN DESA Social Development Brief on Income inequality trends

 

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