More from UNDESA Vol 25, No. 02 - February 2021

The pandemic has revealed the true cost of inequality

By Agnes Kalibata, Special Envoy for the 2021 Food Systems Summit

In 2020, the entire world knew what it was to be hungry. Millions went without enough to eat, the many victims of COVID-19 were starved of air, and the lonely and remote were deprived of human contact.

Yet while no one was spared the impact of the pandemic, for many it was a taste of the challenges that those at the bottom of the pyramid have long faced, while the most vulnerable have been pushed even closer to the very limits of existence.

Millions of people in several countries are now facing famine. Hospitals are running out of oxygen. And conflict and violence are making life even more precarious.

The pandemic has revealed the real cost of long-term inequality around the world.

Our food systems nourish 7.8 billion people and counting. It is food that employs more than a billion worldwide in agriculture alone and offers the promise of economic growth and development. And it is food that impacts our very ecosystems, down to the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the climate we enjoy, come rain or shine.

Food systems offer real possibilities we can build on to improve and make them more appropriate for the well-being of people and our planet, but there is much that needs to change if we are to be successful.

COVID-19 has brought to the fore the connection between food, health and quality of life, but also how many of our food systems are failing us, especially where inequality is most prevalent.

Poor diets, leading to obesity, disproportionately affect low-income communities that are already experiencing the worst challenges to quality of life. It is because of inequalities that the impact of COVID-19 is three times worse among low-income communities where conditions directly related to food are more prevalent.

The pandemic has powered an unprecedented global appetite for change, from the movements to secure free school meals for disadvantaged children to agricultural reforms taking place worldwide. The urgency created by COVID-19 has demonstrated how quickly the global community can respond and adapt to existential threats, and it is this energy that must be channelled into transforming food systems to be more inclusive, more equitable and more sustainable.

Even before the pandemic, 2021 was destined to be a “super-year” for food. A year when the right to safe and nutritious food, and the production, consumption and disposal of food finally received the requisite global attention as the UN convenes the world’s first Food Systems Summit.

The change needed will require everyone around the world to think and act differently because every one of us has a stake and a role in functioning food systems. Now, more than ever, national leaders must chart the path forward by uniting farmers, producers, scientists, hauliers, grocers, and consumers, listening to challenges and insights, and pledging to improve each aspect of the food system for the well-being of mankind and our planet.

Policymakers must listen to the millions of farmers and indigenous communities as custodians of the resources that produce our food, and align their needs and challenges with the perspectives of environmentalists and entrepreneurs, chefs and restaurant owners, doctors and nutritionists to develop national commitments that level the playing field.

Progress is already under way. More than 50 countries have joined the European Union and African Union in engaging with the Food Systems Summit and its five priority pillars, or Action Tracks, which cut across nutrition, poverty, climate change, resilience and sustainability. And more than three dozen countries have appointed a national convenor to host a series of country-level dialogues in the months ahead, a process that will underpin the Summit and set the agenda for the Decade of Action to 2030.

Everyone around the world must feel invited and empowered to participate in the Food Systems Summit to start the journey of transitioning to more just and sustainable food systems. It is a “People’s Summit” for everyone, and its success relies on everyone everywhere getting involved through participating in Action Track surveys, joining the online Summit Community, and signing up to become Food Systems Heroes who are committed to improving food systems in their own communities and constituencies.

Too often, we say it is time to act and make a difference, then continue as before. But it would be unforgivable if the world was allowed to forget the lessons of the pandemic in our desperation to return to normal life. The writing on the wall is clear that our food systems need reform now. Humanity is hungry for this change. It is time to sate our appetite.

* The views expressed in this blog are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of UN DESA.

SDG 10 in numbers

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.

Access more data and information on the indicator for SDG 10 in the SDG Progress Report 2020.

Least developed countries in 2021 — progress amidst the COVID-19 crisis?

2021 commemorates the 50th anniversary of the creation of the least developed country (LDC) category by the United Nations. In March 1971, the Committee for Development Policy (CDP) identified the first 25 LDCs, followed by the formal endorsement of the category by the General Assembly in November that year. Currently, there are 46 countries on the list.

In February 2021, the CDP will undertake its triennial review of the list of LDCs to recommend countries for inclusion and graduation. Twenty-four international experts will review the latest available data for 15 indicators for all developing countries. The process also involves analyzing detailed assessments and conducting frank discussions with five countries that could qualify for graduation due to their remarkable development progress in recent years: Bangladesh, Lao PDR, Myanmar, Nepal, and Timor-Leste.

However, the review this year will be different. As the pandemic has plunged the whole world into a health, socio-economic and financial crisis of an unprecedented scale, COVID-19 threatens to have devastating effects on all LDCs and can negatively impact the preparations of the graduating LDCs.

The CDP has carried out a comprehensive study of the impact of the coronavirus crisis on the LDCs as data for the LDC criteria is available only up to 2019. A new set of supplementary graduation indicators for all developing countries, the detailed assessments of the five graduation candidates and country consultations will further enable the CDP to fully incorporate the impact of the pandemic in its review.

Despite facing the long-term impact of the pandemic and the loss of preferential treatment, most of the five graduation candidates continue expressing their unwavering commitment to graduation, recognizing graduation as an important milestone in their development. Their enthusiasm should encourage development and trading partners to engage in active dialogue with these LDCs to provide the support they require to ensure a smooth and sustainable transition in these challenging times. They deserve it.

Learn more about the work of the Committee for Development Policy (CDP) here.

New Year resolution: working together to achieve the goals

2020 was set to be a celebratory year for the United Nations as it turned 75 years old. Yet the globe was turned upside down by a virus which no one was prepared for. The year also marked a ten year countdown to 2030: the deadline to implement the Sustainable Development Goals.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) adopted in 2015 were a culmination of the UN’s seven-decade long experience in development. The 2030 Agenda  signified that development is not just about building more roads or a person’s ability to purchase fancy consumer items, but rather good development that is sustainable is based on equality of opportunity, equal access to quality education, decent work, good health, clean drinking water and good air quality. Unfortunately, during the past five years, we have fallen well short of what was needed to be on track to uphold the pledge towards achieving the seventeen SDGs.
Then the greatest challenges to face the world in the past three-quarters of a century took hold of the globe: the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Nobody was ready for a shock of this magnitude.

People lost loved ones, suffered from the effects of the disease, found themselves unemployed or out of school, and we all stayed isolated and indoors for extended periods of time. The poorest people across the world – those already struggling and relying on assistance, or in need of continuous access to basic services such as healthcare – were the hardest hit.

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted life for everyone, everywhere. Governments were tasked with addressing a health crisis, a financial crisis, a humanitarian crisis, and in some areas, a crisis for the maintenance of peace and human rights.

In 2020 we learned the hard way that when you fail to prepare, you are prepared to fail. We cannot continue to fail. We should, by identifying who is suffering the most, why they are suffering, and what they need in order to recover,  be prepared to manage  another crisis of this magnitude when it comes. The UN will have to meet it when it does.

Despite these challenges, the United Nations continues to do a lot, for instance on the SDG 3: Good Health and Well-Being for all. The UN has already achieved great progress against several leading causes of death and disease. HIV/AIDS and malaria no longer pose widespread mortal threats. Infant and maternal mortality has declined. Life expectancy has increased dramatically. To support the United Nations further, as President of the UN General Assembly, I am launching  a global movement demanding “Vaccines4All”. The virus does not discriminate. Nor should our response. COVID-19 does not care where you live or how much money you have in your pocket. But the people who have less, will need more to get back on their feet.  Countries need to come together to provide vaccines for everyone, everywhere, so that we can all recover better together.

In 1945, the world was torn apart by conflict and only dreamers could imagine a bright future ahead. But those dreamers put their ideas of a better world down on paper, and the Charter of the United Nations provided a compass for humanity. Countries worked together to support peace, the full enjoyment of human rights, and sustainable development. While no system is without flaws, no other institution can rival the United Nations in capacity, legitimacy, or scope. The multilateral system has, and will continue to, enable individuals, communities, and countries to learn from each other, help one another, and make progress together.
Today the United Nations is a hub, convening governments, civil society organisations, scientists and global citizens in order to respond to global issues and recover from COVID-19, so that we are ready for whatever comes our way.
We have a blueprint for success called the Sustainable Development Goals. We have only ten years to deliver on one of the greatest changes to the world, and the decisions made in 2021 will impact generations to come.

A lot of these Goals represent the minimum of what we as humans should strive for: zero hunger; ending poverty; gender equality; peace, justice and strong institutions.

Last year marked the beginning of ‘the roaring twenties’: forest fires raged, a pandemic swept the world, and the world teetered on the brink of famine. In 2021 we will need to meet the needs of 160 million people in vulnerable situations in the world. There is a lot to do and we each have a role to play: as individuals and as a community, both locally and globally. Implementing the SDGs will require us to look beyond our own borders to ensure that we leave no one behind.

This is not a question of what we can do – this is a challenge that we must meet. It is a tall order that requires the world to work together, as nations, united.

In 2021 there is only one New Year’s resolution that has the power to change the world, and that is to work together to implement the Sustainable Development Goals. I believe in the power of humanity to achieve what may seem impossible, just like the founders of the United Nations did in 1945.

In 2030, let us look back and be proud of what we have achieved together.

All 17 SDGs in numbers

While progress has been made over the last five years, the world is not on track to deliver the Goals by 2030. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, progress was visible in some areas: the incidence of many communicable diseases was in decline; the global maternal mortality ratio had declined by 38% and the under-5 mortality rate had fallen by almost 50% since 2000; and over 1 billion people had gained access to electricity between 2010 and 2018.

At the same time, the number of people suffering from hunger and food insecurity was rising, climate change was occurring much faster than anticipated and inequality continued to increase within and among countries.


COVID-19 is having a devastating impact on all 17 Goals and threatening the achievements already made in many areas. The pandemic has overwhelmed health systems, disrupted global value chains and the supply of products, caused businesses and factories to shut down, and severely impacted the livelihoods of half of the global workforce.

An estimated 88 million to 115 million people will be pushed back into extreme poverty and up to 132 million more people may suffer from undernourishment in 2020, erasing the modest progress made in recent years. The pandemic has also caused school closures which kept millions of students worldwide out of school. Hundreds of thousands of additional under-5 deaths will be expected in 2020.

While the virus has impacted everyone, it is the poorest and most vulnerable who are affected disproportionally by the pandemic, including children, older persons, persons with disabilities, migrants and refugees and informal sector workers. Across the globe, young people are also being disproportionately affected, particularly in the job market. Women and girls are facing new barriers and new threats, ranging from a shadow pandemic of violence to additional burdens of unpaid care work. The devastating impacts of COVID-19 demonstrate precisely why we need the 2030 Agenda, the Paris Agreement on Climate Change and the Addis Ababa Action Agenda, and underscore the urgency of their implementation.

Access more data and information on the indicators for all SDGs in the SDG Progress Report 2020.


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