Acceleration Is Not a Direction

Here’s what we learned about advancing the 2030 Agenda and what we are taking forward in 2021

By Laurel Patterson, Head of SDG Integration, UNDP

The decade of action to achieve the vision of the 2030 Agenda has commenced: but it hasn’t looked like anything we could have imagined. Our recent research with the Pardee Center at the University of Denver shows that the gap between people living in rich and poor countries is set to increase. Approximately eight out of ten people that could become poor by the end of this decade as a result of the pandemic will live in countries with low or medium human development by 2030 – unless we make an ambitious but feasible ‘SDG Push’. Yes, we demonstrate that an integrated set of investments across governance, social protection, green economy and digitalization could exceed the development trajectory we were on before the pandemic, even when taking COVID impact into account.

So, how do we get there? What will it take to address the unprecedented challenges we’re experiencing today? From restaurant owners to health workers to UN colleagues – 2020 was the year in which we all had to recalibrate our values alongside our business plans to respond to new challenges. Here are three reflections from us in UNDP’s SDG Integration Team on what we learned – and where we’ll put our focus in 2021. 

With support from UNDP Global Environmental Finance (GEF), more than 16,000 hectares of desert in Uzbekistan were restored to help farmers operate and get jobs despite arid conditions. Photo: UNDP Uzbekistan.


There has been no shortage of reflection on systems, uncertainty, and the fact that COVID-19 didn’t expose anything new: it amplified and accelerated the trends put in place by choices we collectively made. Those choices have consequences, and those consequences interact, with cascade effects that push planet and people beyond their ability to cope and bounce back. 

We have previously written about our commitment to integrated approaches to help countries design sustainable pathways out of the crisis. Take the 'SDG Push' scenario in our recent study, which is modeled on 48 distinct parameters. It is their interaction and relationships between those parameters which accelerates progress. In addition to this, we are not arguing that financing alone will lead to progress. Inclusive and effective governance, behavioral change across the board and strategic financial investments are what will make the difference. 

Sawdogo Salamata is using solar streetlights and solar lamp kits to charge a mobile phone on an Internally Displaced People’s site in Pissila, Burkina Faso. Photo: UNDP / Aurélia Rusek.

This is a constantly evolving space. In building viable development futures, we’re also putting the emphasis on policy dialogues, connecting people and perspectives that can drive new insights and collaboration for change. For example, we’re supporting expert dialogues in Nepal to help develop the first long term strategy for integrated natural resource management and in Afghanistan to identify pathways for sustainable growth that supports prosperous peace. In Serbia, we address the challenge of depopulation with an approach that builds actionable policy options by bringing together a diverse range of trailblazers – from technologists to social anthropologists and political scientists. These initiatives intersect and reinforce a set of deep demonstrations in seven countries which are building a new basis for how UNDP responds to complex challenges.

The Youth and Stabilization for Peace and Security in the Far North of Cameroon is a joint project between UNDP, UNFPA, and UNICEF. Among other extremism prevention activities, the project aims to train youth peace ambassadors in Limani, Meme, Amchide, and Kolofata. Photo: UNDP/UNFPA/UNICEF/ Aurélia Rusek.


Navigating uncertainty means making decisions beyond the numbers. However, there is more we can do with data and cutting-edge technology to help policy makers develop sustainable pathways. Over the past year, UNDP has made significant investments to develop digital capabilities and data literacy among staff and partners to analyze synergies and trade-offs across SDGs and optimize investments for sustainable development.

Through practical tools such as International Futures developed by the University of Denver, we can analyze the gender poverty gap, and through the integrated Climate, Land-use, Energy and Water systems (CLEWS) we can help build back greener, such as in Mexico City, where we’re helping the local government boost sustainable energy planning and improve integrated sustainable water management.

Life with COVID-19 in Gaza. Photo: UNDP PAPP / Abed Zagout.

We recently took this work to the next level by launching a new COVID-19 Data Futures Platform which features insights and visualizations, alongside other meaningful analytics based on data from the UN system, nonprofit partners, academia and countries around the world. One of exciting things on this platform is that global studies and reports gain a whole new relevance as you can use the data to simulate scenarios that are more relevant to your specific country context. For example, check what a temporary basic income would cost in your country through the simulator or dive into the long-term impacts of the pandemic on the SDGs in your region.  Keep an eye on this platform for more additions – 2021 will see a global dashboard for vaccine equity and a new fossil fuel subsidy reform simulator, both of which we know are fundamental to building forward better.


Over the past year, many of my colleagues and myself have reflected on how we can help drive true and lasting change, each and every one of us leveraging our unique skillsets and motivations towards awareness based collective action. Building on an experimental dialogue series from this summer where we began a very different learning journey with MIT, we will continue the movement to equip colleagues and partners with capabilities to lead systems change.

Our hunch is that if we collectively situate ourselves as part of the system, we will be better equipped to transform it. This can seem a little radical – but if there is one thing COVID-19 has shown us, our courage and willingness to push boundaries, including those we impose on ourselves – is critical. A vital part of this is humanity’s connection to the planet. As the recent Human Development Report highlighted, COVID-19 will not be the last pandemic facing the world – unless we reimagine our relationship with nature. We protect what we love, and reconnecting to wilderness and its role in systems transformation is something we’re keen to explore. 

A member of the Pangoa cooperative in Pagoa, Peru. Photo: UNDP Peru / Monica Suarez.

To power this type of collaboration-based innovation, we launched a digital engagement platform ‘SparkBlue’ in June. More than 7,200 members have logged in during the first six months to share ideas and co-create in real time. This is critical for the discussions we need to inform our new Strategic Plan: for the first time, we undertook a joint public consultation together with UNICEF, UNFPA and UN Women to build insights into solutions. Add you voice to the discussion taking place right now.

Life during COVID-19. Photo: UNDP PAPP/Ahed Izhiman.

2021 must be a year of practical action. Windows of opportunity close, momentum is lost if not sustained. While there is ample public support for significant change, we have to drive into next year with a willingness to continue to ask tough questions, interrogate past assumptions and approaches, and keep our eyes on the horizon. As much as we can learn from 2020, the action required in this critical decade must compel a level of urgency in our choices.

These are a few key take aways for us this year – what are yours? Join the conversation #IntegratedSolutions.

UNDP’s SDG Integration Global Project is supported through the generous contribution by the Republic of Korea.