The long-term social and economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is set to widen the gap between people living in rich and poor countries, according to new research by UNDP. With poor countries increasingly bearing the brunt of COVID-19 cases and related mortality, the 2030 Agenda requires us to make bold policy choices to ensure that no-one is left behind.

UNDP’s second flagship study sets out concrete policy options across governance, social protection, green economy and digitalization to help practitioners act on these commitments – and design radically different futures. Conducted with the Pardee Center for International Futures at the University of Denver, this analysis builds on a foundational research report and assesses the impact of three different COVID-19 scenarios on the SDGs, focusing on countries ranked with a low or medium Human Development Index (HDI)The Human Development Index (HDI) is a composite index measuring average achievement in three basic dimensions of human development—a long and healthy life, knowledge, and a decent standard of living. as per the 2020 Human Development Report.

This is the moment to redefine what we mean by progress. Discover how a set of SDG investments can blaze a trail to 2030 and beyond.

One year into the pandemic, this new UNDP research shows that the poverty gap between countries is set to rise. By 2030, approximately eight out of ten people pushed into poverty as a result of COVID-19 will live in countries on the lower end of human development, with the heaviest burden falling on Africa. 

Under a ‘COVID Baseline’ scenario, 41 million people in low and medium HDI countries could be pushed into poverty by 2030. But the course of the pandemic is yet unknown and as many as 169 million people could be driven into extreme poverty in these countries by 2030, assuming a ‘High Damage’ scenario. Policy choices made now could alter this scenario, but the more time that passes, the harder it will be to change course.


Systemic change is often only possible through a crisis of the magnitude of COVID-19. This study shows that choices countries make today have the potential to exceed the development trajectory the world was on before the pandemic, even when taking COVID impact into account.

With an ambitious but feasible set of targeted investments in governance, social protection, green economy and digitalization under the ‘SDG Push’ scenario, 100 million people in low and medium HDI countries could be lifted out of poverty by 2030, compared to the ‘COVID Baseline’ scenario.

This combination of bold policy choices and investments made domestically and by the international community, would help countries achieve human development gains sooner and reach SDG targets that would otherwise have been missed because of the pandemic. 

The ‘SDG Push’ shows strong potential in the poorest countries in the world. Afghanistan, which ranks 169th on the HDI, could decrease extreme poverty by about 15 percentage points compared to the ‘COVID Baseline’ – lifting over 7 million people out of poverty by 2030. In Malawi, which ranks 174th on the HDI, extreme poverty could drop by about 9 percentage points. And Timor Leste, with an HDI ranking of 141, could register a drop in seven percentage points during this decade.   

Countries would not only recover years of development progress that were lost because of the pandemic but also accelerate poverty eradication efforts. For example, 16 countries could achieve their projected ‘2030 poverty levels’ more than five years earlier. A total of 13 countries in the low and medium HDI group (out of 68) could eradicate poverty by 2030, including Guyana, Myanmar, Nepal, Nicaragua and Pakistan, which directly benefit from the policy choices under the ‘SDG Push’ scenario. In 2050, the number would increase to 45 countries across Africa, Latin America, the Middle East, Asia, and the Pacific, with 20 as a result of the ‘SDG Push’ investments. 

With inclusive green growth at the forefront of the ‘SDG Push’, the world can both make quick gains in the short-term and incentivise investments in behavioural and institutional transformations that are necessary for SDG achievement in the long-term. By 2050, the countries in this study would gain 11 years in poverty reduction efforts on average. 

Working with the ‘SDG Push’ on UNDP’s COVID-19 Data Futures Platform, countries can experiment with the scenario across countries and regions and compare impact on multiple SDGs before they take investment decisions – at a time when, more than ever before, every dollar counts.

The benefits of the 'SDG Push' policy choices extend to additional human development indicators, beyond poverty. The number of malnourished people in low and medium HDI countries could decrease by more than 70 million by 2030. Children suffering from malnutrition could be reduced by 13 million over the next nine years. And access to improved sanitation could increase significantly, from 78.5 percent of the population under 'COVID Baseline' in 2030 to 84 percent as a result of the 'SDG Push' investments.


The study applies the International Futures tools developed by the Fredrick S. Pardee Center at the University of Denver to understand the potential effects of three scenarios:

  • The ‘COVID Baseline’ scenario represents significant pandemic-period increases in poverty and hunger and substantial longer-term negative consequences;

  • The ’High Damage’ scenario describes a future where the economic damage is worse, and recovery is delayed;

  • The ‘SDG Push’ scenario outlines the impact of targeted policy interventions that can accelerate progress towards a more fair, resilient and green future.

Creating Sustainable and Equitable Pathways

Recovery from the crisis is about choosing to do things differently, and radically imagining development futures. And in the past months, the world has witnessed bold and innovative policy choices to stem the impact of COVID-19 that seemed impossible just a year ago.

For example, trailblazing digital solutions and new use of data in Nepal and Moldova help reach people at risk of being left behind. A temporary basic income, or similar measures, have been introduced in Tuvalu, Colombia and Togo. Indigenous communities play a key role in fighting the pandemic in Peru through nature-based solutions. And young people lead the way in Libya and Ukraine towards a more inclusive COVID-19 recovery.

The ‘SDG Push’ interventions are ambitious and require behavioural changes on all levels of society. Governments must improve their effectiveness and efficiency. Citizens must change consumption patterns in food, energy and water. And the global collaboration on climate change must improve – including on carbon taxes and fossil fuel subsidies.

This study shows how futures modeling is an important asset for governments to make choices today that have the greatest potential to boost progress in the futures within planetary boundaries – and reach those furthest behind first. It also shows the potential of targeted and integrated policy interventions focused on inclusive green growth to contribute to the Leave No One Behind pledge of the 2030 Agenda – and how an ambitious but realistic effort can put countries back on a faster track towards achieving the SDGs.

This study is the second installation in UNDP’s flagship series on COVID impact on the SDGs.
The first installation was released in December 2020.

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