The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are one of the key pillars of the UN’s attempt to remake the world according to a more equitable and sustainable model. The SDGs are a set of 17 individual goals which the UN aims to achieve by 2030. Prior to the global pandemic, the SDGs were already off target, and the pandemic only made the task of achieving them even harder. Not only did the pandemic stall progress, it reversed much of the progress that had been made in the previous five years. 

So, it was no surprise that, in October 2020, when United Nations secretary-general António Guterres convened a group of 15 scientists from across the planet, he asked these scientists to study the SDGs. 

As we look at the state of the world today, the picture is far from rosy. 

According to the World Food Programme, at least 270 million people are on the verge of starvation; which works out to double the estimates for 2019. Among the 17 SDGs is the goal to achieve universal primary education. The stay-at-home orders that were forced upon many countries by the pandemic, had a massive and negative effect on education. By December 2020, 320 million children of primary school age were out of school, according to a report by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). The number had grown by 90 million from the November total.  

The most obvious impact to the world was in the loss of jobs brought about by lockdowns. Between April and June, 17.3% of global working time was lost, equivalent to 495 million full-time jobs, according to data from the International Labour Organization (ILO)

When the International Monetary Fund announced in October that it estimated a contraction of the global economy of 4.4%, it marked the kind of contraction that had not been seen since the Great Depression. When the world economy last faced a major crisis, which was during the Great Recession of 2009, it contracted by 0.9%. 

The scientists studying the SDGs in preparation for writing the second UN Global Sustainable Development Report (GSDR), are faced with a world that has regressed sharply since the first report was authored in 2019. 

Called forth from across the world, these researchers are from a variety of disciplines, including ecology, climate change, ethics, environmental economics, health policy, oceanography, infectious diseases, science and development and the governance of international organizations.

The three year timeline indicated for the completion of the report seems too far off to meet the urgency of now. Secondly, it is incumbent on the researchers to move beyond their networks and fields of study in order to develop innovative solutions to the greatest humanitarian crisis the world has faced in decades and to hear the voice of under-represented peoples across the world. 

The timeline is too long and so, to shorten the timeline, the researchers should consider releasing shorter, more focused reports, with a deadline for the end of this year. This would allow governments to retool their strategies and begin the work of getting the world back on track to achieving the SDG goals. 

A report that will only arrive three years hence may arrive too late for the trend toward regression to be reversed. Including more people in the crafting of the report would also give more ownership to other stakeholders, so that they would have a dog in the fight to achieve the recommendations of the report. By creating an interim report, more stakeholders would have a chance to give their feedback and input for the final report. Considering the breadth of the problem, in terms of the environment, education, poverty, and other spheres, considering the number of affected stakeholders, it seems wise to be as inclusive as possible. Video conferencing technology is, as we all know, at the stage of development where the kinds of meetings needed to contact stakeholders across the world, are easily organized. 

The final report will be submitted to the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, under whom the SDG program is monitored and the GSDR managed. This arrangement is sensible, but it is also sensible to give the researchers access to all the branches of the United Nations related to SDGs. 

It is important to align the research and pragmatic work of action, Often, in emergency scenarios, such as those under which many UN organs, such as the children’s organization, UNICEF and the World Food Programme, are working at present, the careful work of research is put on the back banner in order to meet the immediate challenges presented by crises such as the Covid-19 pandemic. Yet, it is important to look to the future and prepare for the crises of the future and find ways to develop long-term solutions for the crises of the moment.