COVID-19 is a wake-up call to re-design the contract between people and planet

Integrated approaches are how we can make it happen

By Laurel Patterson, Head, SDG Integration, UNDP

If anyone wasn’t convinced that human action, nature and economies are connected – the COVID-19 pandemic has made that very clear.

In the past months, every corner of the world from Peru to Pakistan has been affected by the virus, underlining our interdependency and the need for a universal development agenda, as spelled out by the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Since March, I’m one of the New Yorkers who have been able to work in self isolation from home, while countless people have continued to operate at the frontlines of the pandemic as essential workers. At UNDP we’re supporting countries to respond to the needs of the most vulnerable so that we leave no one behind in tackling the ravages of COVID-19, and navigate uncertainties so that decisions made today contribute to a future that is green, resilient and inclusive.

2020 has witnessed unprecedented upheaval. In addition to seeing the biggest health crisis in modern time, the pandemic risks pushing half a billion people into poverty. About 1.6 billion workers in the informal economy, most of whom living in developing countries, stand in immediate danger of having their livelihoods destroyed. Intimate partner violence is increasing. Plastic bags are making a comeback, and poaching and deforestation risk seeing a surge as people lack other ways to make a living.

Our socio-economic impact assessments, based on findings from more than 60 countries and 5 regional reports, show that the poorest and most vulnerable are the least able to cope with the impacts, because the world was already on an unsustainable trajectory with rampant inequalities.

Workers in the informal economy are among the hardest hit during the COVID-19 pandemic, with low wages,
little savings and little to no access to social protection. Photo: UNDP Lebanon.

The silver lining: these challenges lay bare our unsustainable way of living, pushing countries and development organizations to re-design the contract between people and planet – once and for all.

Good examples are emerging from across the world of countries that are doing just that. In Ukraine, young people are innovative agents of change for sustainable development, helping to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic. In Paraguay, private finance is connecting with the public COVID response through crowdsourcing campaigns and the region’s first SDG Bonds. And in Libya, public institutions and civil society are boosting capacities to deal with health, jobs and human rights impacts – on top of the pre-existing crises. 

Integrated SDG solutions are being put to practice through a joined-up COVID-19 response in Libya, youth empowerment in Ukraine and Latin America’s first SDG Bonds in Paraguay.

It’s clear that the unstainable world of 2019 is not one we want to go back to. At UNDP, we are aiming beyond recovery, towards 2030, to help create the sustainable future set out by the SDGs. Here are some of the considerations we are focusing on:

  1. Any response to tackle the pandemic must be integrated, addressing the whole web of root causes and impacts, to be effective and sustainable. Deforestation, wildlife trade, air pollution, quality of health systems, access to clean water, social protection, waste management, resilience of economies, and institutions’ capacity to deal with crises, are interconnected issues that played a role in the outbreak, or as effects, of COVID-19.

  2. Some positives are emerging as the world has gone into lock down. This is an opportunity for reflection and reconsideration of choices. Bike lanes are replacing traffic in Bogotá and Mexico City. Delhi and Bangkok are seeing blue skies again. And a recent Ipsos survey shows that there is ample public support for climate action in the aftermath of COVID-19, with two-thirds of adults in 14 countries supporting governments to prioritize climate change during the recovery.  

  3. Traditional development approaches are limited. The crisis shows that trying to contain issues in neat boxes and tackle them one by one doesn’t work. The traditional approach might be easier to plan and evaluate, but it has little to do with messy realities. Linear planning processes won’t cut it: we must learn as we go and go as we learn, creating solutions through iterative processes. Systemic design principles can help us here. My colleagues and I recently made some interesting learnings as we applied this thinking in Serbia to reframe the challenge of depopulation, and in Uruguay to shift the economic base from extractives to knowledge.

Going from ego-system to eco-system will require a change of hearts and minds. In Colombia, millions of people are at risk from climate change impacts. COVID-19 is an opportunity to rethink the economy and question unsustainable pathways. Photo: UNDP Colombia/Mauricio Enriquez

We would like you to join us: through UNDP’s newly launched engagement platform, SparkBlue, we will convene voices from around the world to co-create solutions for COVID recovery and beyond. And over the coming weeks, we will kick off a campaign on Integrated SDG Solutions to share best practices and engage with you around COVID response and other complex challenges – watch this space #SDGintegration.

Twitter: ​@SDGintegration