Building forward from COVID-19 towards the ambition of the 2030 Agenda

Collective action must focus on the root causes of complex challenges

By Laurel Patterson, Head, SDG Integration, UNDP 
The title of the 2030 Agenda is often overlooked: transforming our world. This was the vision for the agenda agreed on this day 5 years ago. Never before had world leaders pledged common action and endeavor across such a broad and universal policy agenda. 
In the midst of a global pandemic, it’s clear that we are up against enormous challenges, and progress in key areas is slow or regressing, as the recent Sustainable Development Goals report shows. Global Human development, measured as a combination of the world’s education, health and living standards, is set to decline this year for the first time since our measurements began in 1990. Lockdowns are leading to spikes in violence against women and girls. And the number of people facing acute food insecurity will rise to 265 million this year. 

The number of people facing acute food insecurity stands to rise to 265 million in 2020, up by 130 million from the 135 million in 2019, as a result of the economic impact of COVID-19, according to a WFP projection. Photo: UNDP DRC.

In some ways, the 2030 Agenda was made for a challenge like COVID-19: universal and indivisible, it’s a systems approach to the complexity of human development that puts the most vulnerable at its centre. There is however a profound need to rethink the ‘how’ of achieving the SDGs and building forward from COVID-19. 

There are no silver bullets, fragmented actions disperse impact. In this age of emergence, integrated approaches to grand challenges enable us to navigate the complexity and uncertainty that this moment demands us to. Integration means that we see pathways we hadn’t seen before; that we create different and blended ways of working, and that we take bold action based on emerging evidence. Integrated approaches have the potential to move us from simply tweaking our current realities, to questioning norms, connecting unlikely dots, and ultimately creating the conditions for radically different futures.  


This type of systemic change is often only possible through a crisis of the magnitude of COVID-19, as Naomi Klein recently reflected. In fact, a recent Ipsos survey of 21,000 adults from 27 countries shows that 86 percent would like the world to change significantly, and become more sustainable and equitable, rather than go back to status quo. 

The Ipsos survey of more than 21,000 adults from 27 countries finds that 72% would prefer their life to change significantly rather than go back to how it was before the COVID-19 crisis started. Photo: UNDP Turkey/Levent Kulu.

We are working across the UN system on the SDG Moment, an annual reality check on progress towards the SDGs. Together with UN Women and UNEP, we are reflecting on policy drivers of SDG progress, including around energy transition, closing the digital gap, human capital gaps and gender gaps. 

Before COVID, approximately four billion people did not have any form of safety net that could protect against vulnerability, risk or deprivation. Persons without social protection are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19. In 2020, an additional 119 – 124 million people were pushed back into extreme poverty as the pandemic led to the first rise in extreme poverty in a generation.

Publicly funded investments in social protection, which create access for everyone to quality basic services, including universal health care, have helped reduce the impact of COVID-19 on vulnerable populations.  In Colombia, for example, historic investments in social protection provided the foundation for a massive upscaling in coverage – doubling the number of households receiving support and reducing the expected COVID-19 related increase in poverty by 5 percentage points (J Nuñez 2020). 

An integrated social protection system helped 4 million people escape multidimensional poverty in Colombia. Photo: UNDP Colombia / Oscar Bermeo

In Togo, a digital cash transfer programme was built from scratch in just 10 days to serve 12 percent of the population, prioritizing women. 

Creating the fiscal space to invest in social protection is also crucial. We recently found that a six-month Temporary Basic Income would require one-third of what developing countries owe in external debt payments in 2020. 

Explore data visualizations on social protection 

The resurgence of poverty will likely deepen gender poverty gaps, especially for people aged 25 to 34. Our recent study with UN Women and the Fredrick S. Pardee Center at the University of Denver shows that in 2021, it is expected there will be 118 women in poverty for every 100 poor men globally, and this could rise by 2030. 

As governments determine how to invest trillions of dollars to recover from COVID-19, they have an opportunity to invest in a green economy, powered by renewable energy. UNDP is working with UNEP and other partners to accelerate green energy, including by supporting countries on fossil fuel subsidy reforms. Photo: UNDP Yemen.

Women’s economic empowerment is at the heart of poverty reduction and underpins progress across the SDGs. Investments in care services, education and skills are critical for economies of the future. 

Recent estimates from the International Trade Union Confederation show that investment in the care economy of two percent of GDP in just seven high-income countries would create over 21 million jobs, 75−85 per cent of them going to women, given current patterns of employment segregation. For emerging economies, a similar investment would potentially create 24 million new jobs in China, 11 million in India, nearly 2.8 million in Indonesia, 4.2 million in Brazil, and just over 400,000 in South Africa, of which 43−74 percent would go to women. 

Societies benefit when women can access opportunities. Our recent study conducted with the University of Denver shows that investment in women’s empowerment in Egypt can lead to 3.8 million fewer people in poverty by 2030 than would be otherwise expected, showing positive ‘multiplier effects’ of investments in gender equality

Explore data visualizations on gender equality 

Unlocking the potential of millions of women joining the formal workforce builds more resilient households, more equal societies and stronger economies. Photo: UNDP/ Almeras-Martino.

Investments in recovering from COVID-19 also need to focus on sustainable jobs and sectors. Recent findings show that non-fossil fuel technologies create more jobs per unit energy than coal and natural gas. The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) estimates that decarbonizing the world economy by 2050 would boost cumulative global GDP gains by US$98 trillion between now and 2050, quadrupling renewable energy jobs to 42 million, with higher gender parity than traditional sectors. 

Nature-based solutions provide both the way out--and the way forward--from the current crisis. Dollar-for-dollar they deliver more jobs than traditional infrastructure investments, limit the spread of zoonotic diseases, and are the earth's best defense against climate change, with the potential to sequester about two-thirds of the carbon that humans have added to the atmosphere since the 1800s. 

Explore data visualizations on climate action 

Going from ego-system to eco-system will require a change of hearts and minds. A recent analysis by The Food and Land Use Coalition shows that changes made to the way we farm and feed ourselves can unlock $ 4.5 trillion in new business opportunities each year by 2030. Photo: UNDP Guatemala/Juan Luis Sacayón Madrigal


Six years ago, the 2030 Agenda underscored that ‘we the peoples’ is the celebrated opening words of the Charter of the United Nations and ‘we the peoples’ are embarking today on the road to 2030. 

The impact of COVID-19 on development gains has been significant and continue to evolve. Reflecting on our next moves, one of the lessons from the pandemic is the need to address systemic origin of risks – for which the 2030 Agenda provides a powerful blueprint. Our collective efforts must focus on the root causes of complex challenges and address the drivers and obstacles to progress

Let us recommit to a Decade of Action in the words of the 2030 Agenda: We resolve to build a better future for all people, including the millions who have been denied the chance to lead decent, dignified and rewarding lives and to achieve their full human potential. We can be the first generation to succeed in ending poverty; just as we may be the last to have a chance of saving the planet.  

Join us here in the Decade of Action. 

Twitter: ​@pattersonlaurel @SDGintegration

Photo: UNDP Sri Lanka.