Feature Vol 24, No. 09 - September 2020

New global dialogue series to help navigate options to recover better

Life as we know it has been turned upside down. Societies have been virus-stricken, with hundreds of thousands losing their lives. Health care systems are under pressure, the global economy is in decline and vulnerable groups are seriously affected. The ravage of COVID-19 is extensive. To help the world navigate towards a sustainable recovery, UN DESA’s experts have closely monitored the situation and shared policy recommendations. These will now be shared globally through a series of online dialogue events.

Throughout the crisis, to support the Secretary-General’s effort and initiatives,  UN DESA has generated timely analytical work and the policy advice through a series of policy briefs. Policymakers have been able to learn about the impacts of the virus on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the global economy and on particular groups of society. To highlight the findings of these policy briefs and other reports, UN DESA has just launched a new ‘Global Online Dialogue Series’.

The series kicked off in July, after the High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development, with the launch of a new volume, “Recover Better: Economic and Social Challenges and Opportunities,” from the High-level Advisory Board on Economic and Social Affairs (HLAB).

The upcoming session in September will focus on youth. The event, “Navigating uncertainties: An intergenerational dialogue on the impact of COVID-19 on youth employment,” offers young people an opportunity to discuss the socioeconomic impacts of the pandemic during a period of their lives when many things are already in flux. Members of older generations will also share their experiences of making the school-to-work transition.

The discussions will draw from the 2020 UN World Youth Report, the Secretary-General’s recent policy brief “Education during COVID-19 and beyond,” and the work of the HLAB. Online participants are welcome to share questions during the event and ahead of time on social media. The results of this dialogue —and future sessions on digital governance, climate action and demographic change—will inform UN DESA’s future policy briefs on the economic and social effects of the pandemic.

All sessions in the online dialogue series will be open to the public. Information about future events and registration will be available on UN DESA’s website.

“No one is safe, until everyone is”

Amid a global health crisis and widely varying government responses, the UN High-level Advisory Board (HLAB) on Economic and Social Affairs – a group of 16 former heads of states, ministers, eminent economists, and social scientists – offers a set of new solutions for governments to build back better, greener and fairer after COVID-19. The Board members launched a new volume of essays, “Recover Better: Economic and Social Challenges and Opportunities,” during an online dialogue on 22 July 2020.

The event explored different pathways for rebuilding economies and the role of international cooperation.

The seven essays in the compilation explore the implications of digital technological advances and promote regulatory practices that ensure that these generate more job opportunities, particularly for lower-wage workers. In their essays, the Board members also urge methods of economic rebuilding that reduce inequalities, manage the environment sustainably and promote multilateral cooperation.

“The topics could not be more timely and relevant for a post-COVID-19 world, which is certain to be much more digital than before,” said Liu Zhenmin, UN Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs.

Alicia Bárcena, Executive Secretary of the UN Economic Commission of Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), also contributed an essay to the volume and participated in the event. As the market is not going to equalize society, she said, we need state intervention and a new social and political compact altogether.

Several Board members suggested innovative ways for the UN system to provide additional support in the COVID-19 recovery. Former President of Chile, Ricardo Lagos, proposed an internationally binding agreement on pandemics, similar to the climate COP, under the auspices of the WHO, to improve multilateralism and avoid the worst effects of future pandemics. President Lagos also suggested that UN DESA could work together with the UN’s regional economic commissions to develop regional-specific, integrated COVID-19 recovery policies in line with the SDGs.

Merit E. Janow, Dean of the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University, said that the World Bank and IMF remain critical institutions and should be utilized where they work best, for instance, with providing emerging markets access to capital. Expanding digital access is one of the best hopes for extending financial support, delivering government services and supporting education, she added.

Overall, Nobel Laureate Joseph E. Stiglitz of Columbia University said that we should use this moment to “create a new world that, when we emerge from the pandemic, is a world that is more in accord with our views of what our society should be like …. [with] a greener economy, an economy marked by greater equality, social justice, racial justice, a more knowledge-based economy.”

Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed shared a similar sentiment in her video message, saying that we need to “rebuild our economies sustainably and inclusively.” “Remember, we are in this together,” she said. “No one will ever be truly safe until everyone is safe.”

The new essay volume, “Recover Better,” is available online now. You can watch the online discussion with the Board members on UN DESA’s Facebook page.

Together, we can help the world recover better

The COVID-19 crisis is taking a grim toll on human lives across the globe. Although the complete impact is yet to be fully comprehended, the risk the pandemic is exposing for gains made towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is becoming evident. What this global emergency is also revealing, is that these 17 goals are, in fact, our best option to recover better and to overcome similar crises in the future.

“Progress towards the SDGs now could serve as a ‘policy vaccine’ that would soften the worst effects of the virus, the full, devastating scale of which we are yet to learn,” said UN DESA’s Under-Secretary-General Liu Zhenmin in a recent opinion piece. “With all this havoc, achieving the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is more urgent than ever.”

This year’s virtual High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF) on 7-16 July, thus takes place at a critical juncture in history.

“We should discuss how to build back better, greener and fairer. We must get back on track,” said the President of the Economic and Social Council (UN ECOSOC) Mona Juul, as she briefed about the Forum. “The HLPF will be a moment to demonstrate our commitment to a multilateral response, international cooperation and solidarity. […] Let us be innovative and ambitious!”

The Forum will discuss ways to address the impacts of COVID-19 in a way that puts us back on track to accelerate progress towards the SDGs during the decade of action. It will focus on the pandemic’s impact on the SDGs, acceleration measures, including local action, efforts to leave no one behind, countries in special situation and finance, as well as technology and innovation.

The Economic and Social Council, for its part, will bring together UN system key messages on leaving no one behind through efforts to overcome the COVID-19 human crisis and build back better. It will meet on 6 July as part of its Integration Segment, to produce policy recommendations, which will feed into the HLPF thematic reviews.

As one of the Charter organs of the UN, ECOSOC will also make a substantive contribution to the 75th Anniversary commemoration by holding a dedicated high-level leaders dialogue on 17 July, during its High-Level Segment, on the topic of multilateralism and the United Nations of the future. This meeting will reflect on the kind of multilateralism needed today to deliver an effective response to global crises such as COVID-19 and long-term challenges such as climate change. Another one-hour session will focus on the vision and scenarios for the future of the SDGs following the COVID-19 crisis.

The second week (14-17 July) will conclude with the adoption of the Ministerial Declaration, which will provide political guidance on the review and implementation of the SDGs.

Countries encouraged to register new SDG Acceleration Actions 

This year, 47 countries will present their Voluntary National Reviews (VNRs) at the HLPF, sharing efforts to work towards realizing the goals while responding to the pandemic.

Ahead of the Forum, the ECOSOC President has also called for countries and other international actors to commit to new SDG Acceleration Actions and to announce them at the event, adding on to the more than 150 commitments registered so far on the online SDG Accelerations Actions platform set up by UN DESA to capture new, ambitious initiatives and actions voluntarily undertaken by governments and any other non-state actors – individually or in partnership.

Any new action, or an action that builds on existing efforts  related to the achievement of one or more of the 17 SDGs, or addressing the interlinked nature of the 2030 Agenda, could be considered as an SDG Acceleration Action.

Special events at virtual HLPF 

During the HLPF, 204 virtual side-events and an online exhibit, featuring Member States, the UN system and Civil Society will take place. At the same time, 17 VNR Labs will provide an informal platform for experience-sharing and reflection on themes cutting across the Voluntary National Reviews and allowing to dig further into the VNRs of three countries. A virtual SDG Media Zone will moreover be bringing together influencers, policy experts and other personalities to engage the public in the important discussions taking place at the Forum.

As in previous years, UN DESA is also partnering with agencies and entities, organizing a number of virtual special events to spur SDG action, including the Higher Education Sustainability Initiative (HESI) event on “Learning back better to support the green recovery” on 8 July; the third Local and Regional Governments Forum on 13 July; an event with the Chief Sustainability Officers on “Building back better: navigating business risks and opportunities in a post COVID-19 world” on 14 July; and a new event to highlight SDG Acceleration Actions, “SDG Acceleration Actions to build back better” on 14 July.

In addition, UN-Water will host a high-level launch of the SDG 6 Global Acceleration Framework on 9 July. UN DESA and UNITAR are also organizing a series of SDG Learning, Training and Practice Capacity-Building sessions from 7 to 13 July. FAO and the Interparliamentary Union will also be holding virtual side events.

For more information:

The 2020 High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development takes place under the theme “Accelerated action and transformative pathways: realizing the decade of action and delivery for sustainable development”

ECOSOC Integration Segment

ECOSOC High-level Segment

SDG Acceleration Actions

Special events at HLPF

On the frontlines: serving the public during a pandemic

With its empty streets and shuttered businesses, the ‘city that never sleeps’ has been on pause since a COVID-19 lockdown came into effect in mid-March. Yet every night at 7 pm, New York City springs back to life as people take to their balconies, windows and rooftops clapping, cheering, and singing. The same scene plays out in London every Thursday, as it does across Spain, Italy, Republic of Korea, Colombia, India, Peru and many other places across the world.

What began in Wuhan in January as a gesture of solidarity and support for those fighting the pandemic has grown into a global movement of people showing their appreciation to the workers and public servants continuing to provide essential and often life-saving public services throughout the global COVID‑19 pandemic.

Many of these public servants work on the frontlines as nurses, doctors, and first responders actively fighting the disease, and risking their own lives in the process. Others still, such as sanitation workers, correctional officers, postal workers, teachers, social welfare officers, transport workers and others, continue to work tirelessly to ensure that public services that impact every aspect of our lives can continue.

The pandemic has underscored the fact that our lives and livelihoods depend greatly on the ability of our public servants to meet the challenges posed by such crises. Yet many of these public servants have been working under dangerous conditions, often lacking the basic protective gear that helps ensure their safety and the safety of others. While the United Nations has no official statistics, the International Council of Nurses data suggests that rates of COVID-19 infection among nurses are above 20 per cent in some countries—much higher than in the general population.

More must be done to ensure that public servants are better equipped to provide essential services without unnecessary risk to their own lives. While the world continues to direct much deserved applause to frontline public servants during the pandemic, one of the best ways to show appreciation is for governments to enhance institutional resilience and preparedness for future crises, and in doing so, to better safeguard and invest in its key resource: public servants.

23 June is United Nations Public Service Day. This year the United Nations is recognizing the public servants who have been putting their lives on the line during the global COVID-19 pandemic. Join us for a virtual event celebrating them on 23 June 2020, 9 am (EST). Learn more and see how to join here.

COVID-19: Are we all in this together?

Hollywood celebrities, sport stars, politicians and millionaires – nobody seems to be safe from COVID-19. But depending on where you live and what you do for a living, you may run a higher risk of contracting the virus. And if you do, the quality of care you receive and, indeed, your chances of survival may depend on the thickness of your wallet.

A new policy brief just released by UN DESA found that coronavirus cases and deaths are not equally distributed. The brief also details how countries can turn the COVID-19 crisis into a transformative moment for reducing inequality for generations to come”.

Whether in developed or developing countries, people living in poverty and members of other disadvantaged groups are more likely to become infected. Social distancing is not an easy feat for people who live in small, crowded dwellings, slums, prisons or refugee camps.

Many low-wage workers cannot afford to stop working or do not have the option of working from home. Frequent handwashing is not an option for the three billion people without handwashing facilities at home. Access to information is also uneven, not least because of the persistent digital divide.

Once exposed, people in disadvantaged groups are at a higher risk of dying, either because they do not have access to health care or because they cannot afford it. In addition, the incidence of pre-existing conditions that increase the fatality risk is higher among such groups. For example, although persons of African origin comprise only 13 per cent of the United States population, they account for over one third of all known COVID-19 cases in that country.

The abilities to cope with the health, economic and social consequences of the pandemic are unequally distributed as well. People without savings or access to social protection are more likely to fall into poverty or sink into deeper poverty due to the health shock or as a result of the economic downfall. As a result, many are left to choose between health and economic welfare—or, worse yet, between illness due to the virus and illness due to hunger and malnutrition.

Although the COVID-19 crisis is still unfolding, there is every reason to believe that poverty and inequality are growing. These negative social effects could last for years, even after the health crisis ends and once economic growth returns. They could even leave a mark on future generations. But they do not have to.

The long-term outcomes of the crisis will depend on our policy response. Historically, policies implemented in the aftermath of pandemics and other major crises often helped reduce inequality and reshaped the world for the better. The UK, for example, launched a public housing programme after World War I and the US instituted a social security system during the Great Depression.

The world is once again at a historically critical juncture. An insufficient response to this crisis can put countries on downward pathways, deepening inequality, intensifying public discontent and weakening trust in institutions.

At the same time, the tragedy of COVID-19 is ushering in a fresh awareness of the social and economic risks we run with deficient social protection systems and inadequate public services. The crisis also demonstrates the indispensable role of collective action and global collaboration.

This new mindset can transform our world, making the COVID-19 pandemic a watershed moment in history, after which the world collectively embarked upon building more equitable societies and aligned its policies with the aspirations of the Sustainable Development Goals.

Access the new policy brief on COVID-19 and inequality on UN DESA’s dedicated web portal for COVID-19

Only bold action can curb the economic fallout from COVID-19

Empty streets, shuttered shops, overflowing hospitals. The entire world is at war with an invisible enemy – the novel coronavirus. With a vaccine to protect against the disease still a distant possibility, our best weapon remains staying away from each other. But while social distancing saves lives, it drags down the global economy and threatens jobs.

The World Economic Situation and Prospects Monthly Briefing issued today by UN DESA found that the COVID-19 pandemic could shrink world economic output by 0.9 per cent in 2020, instead of growing 2.5 per cent, as previously projected. By comparison, the world economy contracted by 1.7 per cent during the global financial crisis in 2009.

“Urgent and bold policy measures are needed, not only to contain the pandemic and save lives, but also to protect the most vulnerable in our societies from economic ruin and to sustain economic growth and financial stability,” said Liu Zhenmin, UN Under-Secretary-General and head of UN DESA.

The UN DESA Briefing warns that millions of low-wage workers – in both formal and informal sectors – will suffer the most as they typically work in close proximity with others but often lack minimum social protection. The economic fallout could be even larger if restrictions on movement of people and range of economic activities extend beyond June and if fiscal responses fail to support income and consumer spending, especially those most affected by the pandemic.

But just how big a blow the virus will deal to our economies also depends on us and our policies. A well-designed fiscal stimulus package that prioritizes health spending and provides income support to households most affected by the pandemic would help to minimize the likelihood of a deep economic recession.

“While we need to prioritize the health response to contain the spread of the virus at all cost, we must not lose sight how it is affecting the most vulnerable population and what that means for sustainable development,” said Elliott Harris, UN Chief Economist and Assistant Secretary-General for Economic Development. “Our goal is to ensure a resilient recovery from the crisis and put us back on track towards sustainable development.”

Stay updated on the impact of the novel coronavirus on economic, social and sustainable development through the new UN DESA web portal just launched.

When everyone is counted, everyone counts

Since ancient times, governments around the world have counted their populations. By counting everyone, communities can determine the needs of their people; where to build homes, schools, hospitals and where to invest in food supply, jobs and transportation. In this way, societies can progress. During the 2020 round of censuses, the majority of countries carry out their census. This year, censuses are scheduled to be carried out in 68 countries and territories. UN DESA and the UN Statistical Commission stand ready to support, making sure that the data collected, is data we can trust.

Data and statistics are essential at all levels to understand the world we live in. Official statistics collected via national statistical offices in every corner of the world help us keep track of our progress in meeting the promise of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) agreed upon by all UN Member States in 2015.

“We all know that timely, relevant and disaggregated data is central to achieving the SDGs,” Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed said recently when the Data for Now initiative was launched to ensure that quality and timely data is available to achieve the goals.

To measure our advancements, the global statistical community has agreed upon on a set of indicators. On 3-6 March, over 120 statisticians from across the world will gather for the 51st session of the UN Statistical Commission at UN Headquarters in New York, where they will review and agree on the revisions to the global indicator framework to further support and boost these SDG monitoring efforts.

“The 2030 Agenda has vast data needs. Ensuring that no one is left behind requires data at an unprecedented level of granularity,” UN DESA’s Under-Secretary-General Liu Zhenmin said when he addressed the statistical community last year. He then also stressed the need for enhanced financing and for strengthening the existing statistical capacity around the world to meet the new demands.

As in previous years, the Statistical Commission will cover a wide range of issues; from the traditional censuses and surveys to discussions on big data and earth observation data. It will look closer at better coordination of the UN statistical system, the future of economic statistics, and a framework for statistical geospatial integration. This year’s event will review civil registration, vital statistics and identity management. Health and gender statistics are two other important areas where new approaches are being undertaken.

The Commission also oversees two major events taking place later in the year: World Statistics Day, to be celebrated on 20 October and the Third UN World Data Forum to be held in Bern, Switzerland, from 18 to 21 October this year, which presents a unique opportunity for major producers and users of data and statistics to collaborate in launching new initiatives and innovative solutions that will deliver better data on all aspects of sustainable development.

On the sidelines of the Commission, UN headquarters will be buzzing with some 70 side events on a variety of relevant data topics. In keeping with the tradition of past years, UN DESA’s Statistics Division is organizing a High Level Forum on Official Statistics on 2 March with a focus on Data stewardship – a solution for official statistics’ predicament?

All these events, along with the hard work and efforts of the large group of statisticians that the UN Statistical Commission represents, boil down to one thing: to make sure we gather data we can trust, for people and planet. Because when everyone is counted, everyone counts.

For more information: 51st session of the UN Statistical Commission

Everyone included – how to end homelessness

Homelessness is one of the crudest manifestations of poverty, discrimination and inequality, affecting people of all ages, genders and backgrounds. Globally, 1.6 billion people worldwide live in inadequate housing conditions, with about 15 million forcefully evicted every year according to UN-Habitat, which has noted an alarming rise in homelessness in the last 10 years.

This month, for the first time ever, the UN Commission for Social Development will discuss the global homelessness crisis and the strategies to put an end to it by the end of the decade. Meeting at the UN Headquarters in New York from 10 to 19 February 2020, the Commission will hear from a variety of speakers, representing not only governments, but also NGOs, businesses, municipal authorities and academia.

The delegates will share their experiences and examples of innovative solutions that have worked in fighting homelessness, such as Finland’s “Housing First” policy, which since its launch in 2008, has reduced the number of long-term homeless people in Finland by more than 35%, nearly eradicating rough sleeping in the country’s capital.

The Commission will also kick off the celebrations of the 25th anniversary of the World Summit for Social Development. Held in Copenhagen in 1995, the summit was a watershed moment in the fight for social justice, agreeing on three key objectives of social development: eradicating poverty, promoting full and productive employment, and fostering social inclusion.

More than 100 presidents, royals, prime ministers and other heads of state and governments and over 14,000 other delegates adopted the Copenhagen Declaration on Social Development, which emphasized that eradicating poverty is not only an ethical, but also a social, political and economic imperative. The 186 participating countries also agreed to “place people at the centre of development by ensuring full participation by all.”

A quarter of a century later, much progress has been made to make social inclusion a reality, but we are still far away from realizing the 10 commitments of the Copenhagen Summit, most of which are now included in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

As we celebrate the 25 years of championing social inclusion, UN DESA will be reminding Member States and other stakeholders that economic growth is necessary but not sufficient to reduce poverty, and that social policy is crucial to achieving sustainable development for all. Building a world we want is only possible when everyone is included.

For more information:

58th Session of the Commission for Social Development (CSocD58)

Celebrating 25 years of Championing Social Inclusion

The state of our world

The world economy has barely had the time to recover from a string of shocks that began with the 2007 financial crisis, and we can already see another global slowdown looming large. At the same time, high economic and social inequalities are fuelling some of the mass protests around the world. As we start a new decade, two reports by UN DESA offer a way out of this bleak situation.

The World Economic Situation and Prospects and the World Social Report, coming out in January, offer a birds-eye view of the economic and social state of our world. Going beyond pulse-taking, the two publications study some of the root causes of the situation today and analyse its implications for sustainable development.

The economic outlook is expected to be downgraded this year with trade tensions and policy uncertainty stifling investment and bringing the growth in international trade to a virtual standstill. At the same time, although the climate crisis is becoming an ever-greater challenge, its risks continue to be underestimated.

The economic growth we have had, has often failed to reach those who need it most, exacerbating inequalities, and fuelling discontent. But macroeconomy is not the only reason to blame for the widening gaps. Rapid technological change, climate change, unprecedented urbanization and international migration are all impacting inequalities between countries and between people in various ways.

And yet, both upcoming reports argue that the world is not locked-in on this road to perdition. “The future doesn’t have to be like this – we have the tools to put out the fires,” said UN Chief Economist, Elliott Harris. “The Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Agreement are our fire extinguishers and all we need, is more political will to use them.”

The two UN DESA reports demonstrate that change is still possible and beneficial to countries, businesses and societies at large. They offer practical options for policymakers, governments and other actors to  change the course of our planet and steer it towards a brighter, more prosperous future for all.

You can follow the launch of UN DESA’s World Economic Situation and Prospects and the World Social Report on UN Web TV. Stay tuned for the launch dates.

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