Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Covid-19 threatens to jeopardise Sustainable Development Goals

In Botswana, like in much of the rest of the world, Covid-19 is extensively undermining efforts to achieve sustainable development goals (SDGs) which are the blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all. According to the United Nations (UN), “SDGs address the global challenges we face, including those related to poverty, inequality, climate change, environmental degradation, peace and justice.”

Through the pledge to Leave No One Behind (LNOB) and endeavour to reach the furthest behind first”, Botswana along with 192 other countries pledged to fast-track progress but goals such as zero hunger, no poverty, economic growth and decent work, sanitation and reduced inequalities could be thrown off track. Last month, a virtual United Nations (UN) meeting confirmed an unwelcome suspicion that the pandemic has turned back the clock and stalled majority of the development goals the world over. Before the arrival of coronavirus in Botswana, living conditions had improved and poverty had also reduced significantly. This decrease was accompanied by a significant decline in both depth and severity of poverty. Now, the little progress the country had made over the decades has been stopped in its tracks.

For SDG 1 which is to end poverty in all its forms everywhere the United Nations says the pace of change with regards to poverty is decelerating and the Covid-19 crisis risks reversing decades of progress in the fight against poverty. Apart from the fact that Botswana is already experiencing soaring unemployment rates, most Batswana who have managed to hold onto their jobs may hobble to return to normal as pay cuts have become a tool for many companies to avoid layoffs. Most companies have also suspended part of their operations due to challenges presented by COVID-19, and this has affected disposable income for most households, threatening to push people into poverty.

A recently released report prepared by the United Nations entitled “The Sustainable Development Goals Report 2020” says that in sub-Saharan Africa SDG 3 which is to ensure healthy lives and promote wellbeing for all at all ages has been severely affected. “Illness and deaths from communicable diseases will spike. Service cancellations will lead to 100% increase in malaria deaths in sub-Saharan Africa,” states part of the report.

SDG 4 which is to ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all has also been affected. The report indicates that remote learning remains out of reach for many and school completion rates will be dampened especially in poor households. What further exacerbates the situation in Botswana is that internet is still very expensive and slow which is stifling digital development efforts.

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development was launched in 2015 to end poverty and set the world on a path of peace, prosperity and opportunity for all on a healthy planet. The 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) demand nothing short of a transformation of the financial, economic and political systems that govern our societies today to guarantee the human rights of all.

A researcher who spoke to this publication, Oaitse Malesu is questioning whether the goals are still suitable for the post-pandemic age. The pandemic has exposed inadequacies in our worldwide framework and almost all world systems from health to economic systems have collapsed.

“The pandemic has demonstrated beyond a reasonable doubt how poverty, weak health frameworks, absence of education and lack of worldwide cooperation can worsen a crisis. The UNDP estimates that global human development—a combination of education, health, and living standards—could fall this year for the first time since 1990, when measurements began,” he says.

However, it is important to appreciate that both the SDGs and the Covid-19 pandemic response are intertwined and therefore cannot be resolved by a half baked approach. “Covid-19 pandemic must not be an excuse to push back SDG blueprint because we cannot overlook the fact that SDGs still offer us the best chance to move ahead,” says Malesu.

As an example, he says while the pandemic has depressingly affected SDGs like SDG 1 (no poverty); SDG 2 (zero hunger); SDG 3 (good health and wellbeing); SDG 8 (decent work and economic growth); SDG 10 (reduced inequalities) it has also brought a relief in areas related to SDG 12 (responsible consumption and production), SDG 13 (climate action) and SDG 14 (life below water).

With sub-Saharan Africa expected to see the largest increase in extreme poverty, Malesu says achieving some of these goals is going to be a tall order. Amongst other things he also says “the rise in domestic abuse in Botswana as a result of the national lockdown has put paid to progress in the goal for gender equality and women’s empowerment. It is worth mentioning that many Batswana women could not even access sexual and reproductive health services.”

On how Botswana should move forward, Malesu says there is need to coordinate with the international community based on sound data and science which is guided by the Sustainable Development Goals. 

However A political commentator, Ronald Dintle who spoke to this publication indicated that SDGs are worthless and ambitious. “Just before the pandemic, there were already signs that the world was fatigued and there was clear evidence of lack of global commitment,” says Dintle.

As an example, Dintle says a 2019 study by the World Bank highlighted that 30 percent of their “knowledge products”, comprising of recommendations for the SDG action plan, were never downloaded and 87 percent had never been cited.

As the world slowly shifts its focus from the traumas of 2020 to the needed actions of 2021, the international community is using the pandemic as a chance to unite in solidarity and turn the crisis into a catalyst to achieve the SDGs. 

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The Telegraph September 23

Digital edition of The Telegraph, September 23, 2020.