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Coronavirus seen threatening global goals to end poverty, inequality

NEW YORK – Ambitious global goals set out by the United Nations to end poverty and inequality are under threat from the coronavirus pandemic, even as they are most needed, experts have warned.

A 2030 deadline to meet the U.N.’s development goals is at risk as economies suffer in the fight against the virus, public financing dries up and international cooperation wanes, said experts interviewed by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

From ending hunger, gender inequality and violence against women to expanded access to education and health care, the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were approved unanimously by U.N. member nations in 2015, with a 15-year deadline.

“They’re a really incredible symbol of international unity and agreement on what is important for underlying social and environmental and economic health,” said Sara Enright, director of collaborations at BSR, a global nonprofit that focuses on sustainable business strategies.

“Coming into a crisis … I think it’s more important now than ever to have a North Star,” she said.

Earlier critical assessments predicted that conflict or climate change would slow progress, but the pandemic marks the biggest obstacle yet, the experts said.

Reported cases of the coronavirus have crossed 2.3 million globally, according to a Reuters tally.

Businesses have closed, myriad jobs have been lost and global economies have taken an unprecedented blow.

The fallout could increase global poverty by as much as half a billion people, or 8% of the world population, according to research released last week by the United Nations University.

“This really could put us into a very negative spiral,” said Michael Green, chief executive of the Social Progress Imperative, a U.S.-based nonprofit.

“If we then get a breakdown in international cooperation, that’s even worse.”

Experts said nations responding to the coronavirus by tightening borders, bickering over limited resources and blaming one another may not bode well for the international cooperation needed for implementing the global goals.

“My greatest fear is the breakdown in international relations,” said Enright.

“What I fear is as we become more insular, as we become more national in our approaches to the crisis, as we close our borders …. My concern is that that underlying partnership might be in danger.”

The pandemic has exposed failings that the goals were intended to address, said Natasha Mudhar, co-founder of The World We Want, an SDG advocacy organization.

“Countries globally have been exposed to the fragility of their health care systems, the economy and society,” she said.

“Had we worked towards strengthening these, precisely as called for by the SDGs, we would have potentially been better placed to handle the current pandemic crisis.”

Alexander Trepelkov, a top SDG official at the U.N.’s Department of Economic and Social Affairs, said the goals “will be more essential than ever during and after this crisis.”

“The SDGs are a commitment to leave no one behind, and this includes ensuring everyone is able to take measures to reduce their exposure to the disease and have the means to cope and recover,” he said in an email.

Countries that have incorporated the global goals’ inclusive and sustainable values will likely fare best in the pandemic, while those with poor public health systems, vast inequality and weak social nets will struggle, Green added.

“The optimistic scenario is perhaps this is going to be the kick in the pants we need to take some of this stuff seriously,” he said.

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