Economy, Jobs and Business

Sustainable development priorities in the time of Covid-19

5 min


Atal Ahmadzai

What are the potential effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)? This column examines the human insecurities exacerbated by the crisis, which threaten the lives, livelihoods, and well-being of hundreds of millions of people. The author recommends re-prioritizing implementation of the SDGs targets to provide protection to the most vulnerable.

The burden of the Covid-19 pandemic extends much beyond its direct impacts. In addition to causing new shocks, the potential downturn of the crisis is reversing the development gains made in recent years. For example, it could reverse the global poverty rate back to pre-1990 levels with a potential increase in the number of people living in poverty of 420–580 million.  

By the end of the year, the crisis is likely to add an additional 130 million people to the existing 821 million chronically hungry human population. Among these, 270 million will be experiencing severe food insecurity. While the disease has resulted in almost 1.5 billion students temporarily out of school, it will instigate higher dropout rates among the most vulnerable populations: school girls in the least developed countries and refugee camps.

Similarly, due to the disruption to health systems, the pandemic will reverse the global public health gains made in the last two decades. By exposing millions of people, mostly in developing countries, to life threatening diseases such as malaria, tuberculosis, and HIV/AIDS, the prevalence of these diseases will reach new heights.

These are some examples of the potential costs that the pandemic has been inflicting on the lives and livelihoods of humans by exploiting their vulnerabilities to economic, health, food, social, educational, and other insecurities.

In general, these insecurities not only impose tremendous setbacks to the implementation of the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) Agenda, but they also have strong potential to reverse some of the gains that have been achieved in the last two decades.

This is all happening at a time when the world has realized the need to step up efforts necessary to get the Sustainable Development Agenda on track towards achieving its targets by 2030. As such, in order to cut the speed and scope of the reversing course of the development gains and to avert the looming rippling shocks, the sustainable development enterprise should re-prioritize its implementation.

The rationale for re-prioritization is the new evolving global and national humanitarian and development contexts in the face of the Covid-19 crisis. Two interrelated emerging realties define this context: the changed priorities at global and national levels, and the intensifying human insecurities – economic, food, health, education, and others.

First, amid this global crisis, governments, mainly those in the Global South, have been redirecting their resources towards fighting the spread and potential second wave of coronavirus and its immediate effects, such as hunger.

In addition, international organizations are pledging emergency assistance to these countries in this fight. Aimed at responding in a timely manner to the gravest needs of the Covid-19 pandemic, such responses are necessary and logical, and they are putting efforts on the right track. But this will limit capacity and policy choices at both national and international levels to invest enough resources for the successful implementation of the SDGs across the board.

The ability to achieve a holistic implementation will be inevitably challenged for some years, in a similar way to how the global economic recession of 2008/09 put constraints on achieving the Millennium Development Goals.

The second and interrelated rationale for re-prioritizing implementation of the SDGs is the new emerging insecurities of vulnerable populations. In addition to inflicting many direct pains and losses, the pandemic has exposed and further expands the wide and deep structural insecurities imposed by the ignored and unseen threats. It reveals just how divided people are in the face of sudden destitution.

These insecurities will further harden the development downturns for the vulnerable. Hundreds of millions of people are prone to facing imminent hunger and poverty, losing educational opportunities, and bearing heavier health burdens and other shocks from the pandemic.

These potential downturns suggest that while development interventions are critical for uplifting the quality of life of the majority of humanity, they are not the complete path towards achieving sustainable development. The critical though often forgotten link in this equation is the need to address human insecurities.

The most prominent human face of these insecurities comes in the shape of inequalities in people’s resilience – their capacity to cope with the actual and potential threats of extreme and urgent situations. Covid-19 clearly exposes the severity of such incapacities for a huge proportion of the world’s population.

In the current age, characterized by frequent and intensifying extreme shocks, addressing these inequalities is fundamental for the survival and protection of most of humanity. On the other hand, the lack of interventions for creating conducive environments for human survival and protection in the face of the emerging threats will bring unprecedented sudden destitutions, unwinding development, and more ‘unfreedoms’.

The various SDG targets relate to both development (the expansion of people’s capabilities and choices), and security (providing protection). At the policy and implementation level, however, the latter has been overlooked. In the matrix of the targets, the priority should be redirected to those that are focused on providing protection from the most pressing threats and insecurities.

In addition, ensuring human security requires fundamental and structural change. Such change can be initiated by focusing on those goals and targets that mandate minimum living standards everywhere: provision of basic education and health for all, facilitating pro-poor trade, and provision of social services and safety nets. 

While realizing the successful implementation of the SDGs has its own technical and political challenges, the lack of prioritizing targets for today’s extreme circumstance will result in exponential costs, including nullifying and reversing some of the development gains thus far.

The Covid-19 crisis has converted largely overlooked statistics of inequalities into a graphic display of the human face of inequality. It reveals that with the existence of such inequality, no development and progress is sustainable. More specifically, in the modern age, without protecting and preserving the lives and well-being of the most vulnerable in the face of emerging threats, no development agenda will realize its vision.


Atal Ahmadzai
postdoctoral Research Associate, University of Arizona.