Which development targets are hardest hit by COVID-19?

Impacts are uneven across the Sustainable Development Goals

By Whitney Doran, Assistant Director of Project Operations, of the Frederick S Pardee Center for International Futures, University of Denver, and Jonathan D Moyer, Director of the Frederick S Pardee Center for International Futures, University of Denver

As the world gathers to review progress on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) at the annual High-level Political Forum this week, it’s against the backdrop of what seemed like an unimaginable crisis just a few months ago. The COVID-19 pandemic is a stark reminder of today’s unpredictable, complex and interconnected world, forcing us to reckon with unquestioned assumptions about current development challenges.

As the virus continues to spread, mortality rates increase, economic activity decreases and livelihoods are affected in ways that create great uncertainty. While much remains unknown about impacts on long-term human development, we can discern some trends and SDG impacts.

Using the International Futures model, we compared two quantitative scenarios to help tackle uncertainty and consider how COVID-19 will adversely impact some issues more than others. One scenario represents a world prior to the spread of COVID-19 and the other reflects basic assumptions about COVID-19 related to mortality and impacts on GDP per capita.

About 1.6 billion informal workers have already lost 60 percent of their income (ILO) and 265 million people face acute food insecurity (WFP). Many of the long-terms impacts of COVID-19 are still unknown but new findings from the University of Denver shed light on future scenarios. Photo: UNDP Nepal

For some variables, the long-term effect of COVID-19 is minimal. For example, while the global impact of the pandemic will be significant, it is unlikely to have a notable long-term effect on overall demographic patterns at a country, regional, or global level. Total population will continue to grow and will grow more rapidly in some places as reduced economic, educational, and family planning activities actually increase fertility rates relative to previous expectations (they will still decline, though more slowly).

Other long-term human development indicators will also change relatively slowly. The overall stock of accumulated education in human systems will be moderately impacted and only to the extent that the pandemic endures. While some health systems seem to be greatly affected by COVID-19, other key trends will remain unchanged: non-communicable disease will continue to grow as a share of global deaths after the pandemic passes.

These are variables that trend steadily across time, are driven by well understood and accurately measured indicators, and are connected to key ‘stocks’ (variables that change very slowly across time, like overall population size, infrastructure development, and accumulated years of education, for example).

COVID-19 is unlikely to affect demographic patterns, education and growth of non-communicable diseases in the long-term, according to research from University of Denver. However extreme poverty, wide-spread violence and state failure are expected to increase due to the pandemic.Photo: UNDP Burundi/Fleury Kid Ineza 

Other indicators are likely to experience significant ’shocks’. There will be notable increases in both the share of the population and the total number of people suffering from extreme poverty. Our current estimate is that by 2021, an additional 58 million people will live in extreme poverty around the world, with significant impacts in Nigeria (an additional 9.7 million people by 2030), India (an additional 8.8 million by 2030), and the Democratic Republic of Congo (an additional 3.8 by 2030).

Another indicator that will change relatively dramatically is the probability that countries will experience an episode of wide-spread violence, sometimes known as episodes of state fragility or failure. When states fail, violence and human despair can ripple through regions, generating destabilizing effects across indicators and causing suffering. We estimate that the number of states that are likely to fail between 2020 and 2022 has increased by 56 percent globally, with vulnerable regions emerging across East and West Africa, Central America, the Middle East, and elsewhere.

UNDP and the University of Denver recently deepened the partnership around the International Futures tool to help countries analyze COVID-19 impacts across the SDGs and support integrated, evidence-based policy making. Photo: UNDP Haiti

Together with UNDP, we have deployed the International Futures tool in 11 countries to support analysis of policy options and acceleration for the SDGs, including through the UN development system’s “MAPS engagement” in Egypt and to assess the impact of war on development in Yemen, across human, social and economic dimensions.

Right now, we’re gearing up the partnership with UNDP to help Country Offices analyze the disruption that the pandemic will cause across SDGs, and to assess the effectiveness and trade-offs of potential interventions – watch this space.

The International Futures (IFs) tool is a broad simulation of global development for 186 countries across a range of indicators and factors, allowing evidence-based decision making and assessment of how development targets interact. By creating alternative future scenarios, the tool helps to frame uncertainty and maps out how decisions today can ensure a better future.