A UN SDGs Refresher and Progress Report

Five years after the United Nations General Assembly set the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, the UN reported that there is a “continued unevenness of progress” towards SDGs and targets across the world.

The 2020 SDG Progress Report 1 found decent enough movement towards declining poverty, sustainable development policies, and access to electricity. 

However, the COVID19 pandemic has thrown a wrench in the works, leading to a stalling and even reversal of progress in:

  • The rate of climate change 
  • Socio-economic inequalities
  • The number of people suffering from hunger 

In all, the prognosis is not good. The UN Secretary-General urged that recent gains be bulwarked. He also advised that the recovery from COVID19 be organized to prevent future health crises and to bring the change that is vital to meeting the UN 2030 Agenda for sustainable development.

At this juncture, it seems timely to revisit the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

SDG Goal 1: No Poverty

The overarching target of this goal was to have less than 3% of the world living in abject poverty by 2030 2. This was expected to be done through social protection systems and other equal opportunity plans. The decline of global poverty is traceable, but current forecasts and decelerating rates of decline show that 40 to 60 million people will be pushed back into abject poverty due to the COVID19 pandemic. 

SDG Goal 2: Zero Hunger

The targets were to end hunger by 2030, ensure access to safe and nutritious meals, promote sustainable agriculture, and end all forms of malnutrition 3. However, the mid- and post-pandemic economic slowdowns have only exacerbated a global rise in food insecurity that has been occurring since 2015. 35 million people experience acute food insecurity in Yemen and East Africa alone; 370 million children have lost access to the free midday meals that they desperately relied on. 

SDG Goal 3: Good Health and Well-Being

The UN introduced categories including infectious diseases, non-communicable diseases, mental health, reproductive, maternal, newborn and child health, and health systems, and funding. By 2030, the aim is to end specific epidemics, end preventable deaths of children under 5 years of age and reduce the global mortality ratio to below 0.07% 4. Progress has continued in many of these areas, though it must be said that the rate is slowing enough to risk missing yet another SDG 2030 target. 

SDG Goal 4: Quality Education

By 2030, the targets under this goal were to ensure “free, equitable and quality” education 5 at primary and secondary school levels, access to pre-primary education, and equal access to quality affordable higher education of the vocational, technical or tertiary kind. Improvement rates across the board had increased significantly until the beginning of 2020 when the COVID19 pandemic shuttered schools and affected 90% of the global student population. 

SDG Goal 5: Gender Equality

Goal 5 focused on 8 targets including ending discrimination in all its forms against women and children, eliminating all forms of violence against women and girls in public and private, ensuring equal opportunities and full participation, and promoting universal access to sexual and reproductive health 6. Some of these areas have seen marked improvements– women have been enjoying better access to local-level decision-making positions, for instance. But the pandemic has led to a rise in domestic abuse cases as well as more time paid in unpaid care roles. 

SDG Goal 6: Clean Water and Sanitation

Universal access to safe and affordable drinking water, adequate hygiene and sanitation for all, improved water quality, and water-use efficiency by 2030 and protecting and restoring water-related ecosystems by 2020 were a few of the targets within this goal. However, billions around the world still lack access to safe water and sanitation– both critical during this pandemic 7. As of 2017, 785 million people went without basic drinking water. There is still a whopping 61% gap in the funding needed to realize drinking water and sanitation targets.

SDG Goal 7: Affordable and Clean Energy

The goal of access to sustainable, clean, and affordable modern energy includes an increase in renewable energy globally, a doubled improvement rate in energy efficiency, and a better supply of modern energy to developing and vulnerable countries 8. The global electrification rate increased to 90% in 2018 from 83% in 2010, which is significant progress. The renewable energy share in total energy consumption shot up to 17.3% in 2017. While this is good progress, the rate of teaching clean energy across borders needs to improve if the world is to fulfill this SDG goal by 2030.

SDG Goal 8: Decent Work and Economic Growth

This goal hopes to establish at least 7% GDP growth per annum in the least developed countries, ensure full productive employment as well as decent work for all women and men by 2030 9. The current situation is glum– a global economy that was slowing even before the pandemic is facing a severe recession. 

SDG Goal 9: Industry, Innovation, and Infrastructure

Building resilient infrastructure and promoting sustainable and inclusive industrialization on the back of innovation is the main aim of SDG Goal 9. It also targets retrofitting current industries to make them sustainable and environmentally sound by 2030 10.

While the share of manufacturing in the GDP of less-developed countries rose to 12.4 % in 2019 from 10 % in 2010, there has been stagnation in nearly all other categories. Trade tensions and tariffs contributed to this snail’s pace even before the pandemic disrupted every industry.

SDG Goal 10: Reduced Inequality

This goal outlined that by 2030, the world manages to sustain an income growth higher than the national average rate for the bottom 40 % of the population 11. In 73 of the 90 countries surveyed, there was a noticeable rise in income for the bottom 40%. In about half of these countries, the growth was indeed higher than the national average.

However, discrimination that violates international human rights laws continues to persist in all shapes and forms, and the pandemic has only served to exacerbate the situation. There are statistics in the report to suggest any progress towards orderly and responsible migration and mobility, despite that being a target. 

SDG Goal 11: Sustainable Cities and Communities

This goal emphasizes on making safe and affordable housing and transport systems accessible, with special emphasis on those in need. It also calls for inclusive and sustainable urbanization and better efforts in protecting and restoring cultural heritage. As of 2019, only half the world’s urban population had convenient and affordable access to public transport. The number of people living in slums without basic facilities also crossed 1 billion– 24% of the urban population– in 2018. In short, progress is stunted and hasn’t much touched the vulnerable sectors. 

SDG Goal 12: Responsible Consumption and Production

The targets for this goal are: halving global food waste at retail and consumer levels, implementing 10-year sustainable frameworks at national levels, achieving environmentally sound waste and chemical management systems by 2020, and promoting sustainable public procurement services by 2030 13.

However, the world’s reliance on natural resources accelerated over the last two decades, with the global material footprint increasing 66.5% since 2000. Global fossil fuel subsidies also contributed to a faster peak in carbon emissions– in 2018, the amount reached US$ 400 billion. 

SDG Goal 13: Climate Action

This goal aims to strengthen adaptability and resilience to climate hazards, integrate climate change policies at national levels, and improve climate education. It also seeks to ensure that US$100 billion is jointly mobilized from 2020 onwards, towards mitigative actions in developing countries 14.

Greenhouse gases are expected to drop by 6% in 2020, and the COVID19 restrictions have cleared the air and allowed for untouched regeneration in many areas. Investments in renewable energy have also risen in the past years; that said, the global temperature is 1.1ºC above industrial levels, which is off the 1.5ºC mark signed for in the Paris Agreement. 

SDG Goal 14: Life Below Water

This goal hopes that, by 2030, marine pollution is significantly reduced as are the impacts of ocean acidification. It states that, by 2020, 10% of marine and coastal areas must be conserved and overfishing, unregulated and destructive fishing be ceased entirely 15.

Sustainable capture fisheries have remained stable over the past few years, and 17% of water bodies in national jurisdictions come within protected zones. However, current efforts aren’t meeting the urgent need to protect this fragile ecosystem. 

SDG Goal 15: Life on Land

By 2020, the goal aims to ensure the restoration and sustainable use of freshwater ecosystems and promote sustainable management of forests while also increasing afforestation globally (as EcoMatcher does). By 2030, the goal aims to combat desertification, preserve mountain ecosystems, and combat poaching and trafficking at local, national, and international levels 16

Between 2000 and 2020, the world lost up to 100 million hectares of forests. This was driven by agriculture and land conversion in areas such as South-East Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. Sustainable development is also profoundly threatened by the extinction of species and habitat loss. 

SDG Goal 16: Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions

The targets for this goal include reducing violence in all forms and related global death rates, ending abuse, violence, and exploitation of children, reducing illicit arms and financial flows, and establishing reliable and transparent institutions at all levels. It also stresses providing legal identities to all by 2030 and strengthening all organizations to combat crime, violence, and terrorism 16.

In this goal, however, the goal is farther off the mark than ever before. The UNHCR recorded that over 70 million people fled from war-torn areas, persecution, and conflicts in 2018 alone– the highest registered number in nearly 70 years. Violence and abuse against children are also widespread and manifold. 

SDG Goal 17: Global Partnership for the Goals

The overarching aim of this UN goal is to rejuvenate global partnerships and strengthen methods of implementation. The targets in this goal are spread across categories including finance, technology, political and institutional coherence, and trade. Accountability, multi-stakeholder partnerships, and support to developing countries feature prominently on this list 17.

In real life, however, trade tensions, limited financial resources, and an expected plunge in world trade of between 13% and 32% in 2020 have wreaked havoc on any progress towards this goal. The picture is slightly better when it comes to information and communication, with more than half the world currently online. That said, some regions still experience a disproportionate lack of access to connectivity.


Both with and without the pandemic in the equation, it seems that the world has a long way to go in realizing the majority of the UN-outlined Sustainable Development Goals. The pandemic has affected progress in a lot of Goal areas; that said, many others were stagnant or declining even without the pandemic’s impact, due to strained international relations and other internal and external factors. 

The 2020 SDG Progress Report declared that, after the pandemic loosens its hold, transformative recovery is to be the first task of “the Decade of Action” 18. This Decade is one that will require innovation, leadership, and collaboration among stakeholders, national leaders, and governments.