Highs and lows in the global development trajectory
G20 Summit

Highs and lows in the global development trajectory

Achim Steiner, administrator, United Nations Development Programme shares with John Kirton how disunity in the political climate is threatening the success of the Sustainable Development Goals – but also where the tyranny of averages is masking extraordinary progress


How well is the world moving to meet the 17 Sustainable Development Goals?

If you consider that only four years ago, in September 2015, the world came together to adopt the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its 17 Sustainable Development Goals, there has been remarkable progress. We have rarely seen a global agenda travel so quickly from a set of definitions of goals to becoming integral to many policy, planning and implementation discussions at the national level. In this difficult moment in history, the 2030 Agenda and the SDGs are unifying the international community. At the crucial national level, they are bringing government, civil society and even the private sector together. Many countries now think about their national development pathways in terms of the SDGs, and that began within months of their adoption. The uptake of the 2030 Agenda and the SDGs has been surprisingly fast and positive.

And yet it’s early days. We will not reach the SDGs by 2030 at the current pace of implementation. Therefore, acceleration, exponential effort and greater investment are urgently needed.

However, some interesting elements have progressed. Extreme poverty is still going down significantly. Under-five mortality is also falling. HIV incidence declined by 30% in Eastern and Southern Africa between 2010 and 2017. Gender-responsive budgeting is increasing while access to electricity has increased from 83% to 89%.

So in terms of take-up and adoption of the SDGs at the international level, there has been remarkable progress. But in terms of changing the trajectory of national development, whether it’s decarbonisation, access to electricity or poverty reduction, we are clearly not yet on track. Unless countries now accelerate their efforts, it will be very difficult to meet our targets.

One issue that continues to be overlooked is that the ‘tyranny of averages’ often hides extraordinary progress on particular SDGs, or in particular countries. Some remarkable frontrunners and pioneers will emerge over the next year or two as more empirical data becomes available.

What particular challenges have arisen?

The political climate in many countries has created growing disunity at a moment when we need the 2030 Agenda to be embraced across all sectors of society. Changes may also have taken place at the national level – maybe a particular leader, party or government signed up in 2015 and another has won the election since. We see a divergence of perspectives on some key goals. So it’s sometimes a challenge maintaining the unity of purpose.

We also face the challenge of reinventing government to address issues such as inequality, decarbonisation, employment and health. Indeed, maintaining the ecological infrastructure on our planet requires governments to work together in a more sophisticated way. What must be remembered is that investing in one SDG, such as addressing climate change, can actually deliver benefits across five or six or more goals.

Our key challenges are lack of time and finance in managing the transition. Some SDGs imply significant structural changes in our economy. We face the prospect of economic volatility, which is particularly relevant for the G20.
Another challenge in this new era of digital economy, automation and artificial intelligence is the so-called fourth industrial revolution. The challenge at the moment is to understand how best to manage the technological advancements in a positive way.

How is UNDP working to meet these challenges in advancing the SDGs?

The 2030 Agenda and the SDGs have become the central reference point for UNDP’s strategic plan over the next four years, where we are implementing a whole-of-government approach. UNDP is trying to help governments look at their planning and budgeting processes to realise the benefits of moving forward with the SDGs. This adds up to a rapidly evolving governance landscape, whether it is about policy and planning or about the digital economy. E-governance is a major shortcut for inclusiveness, for better services, for greater government accountability, and these are some of the building blocks of the capacity to deliver on the SDGs.

How can the G20 leaders at the Osaka Summit help?

With Japan, we have seen their focus on maintaining a common purpose in addressing global crises, as well as global challenges. Certainly, Japan has a critical role in trying to create a minimum level of unity in purpose and capacity to allow us to act collectively. This is not easy, given some of the divisions and polarities. The first objective of a G20 summit must be to come out of the summit with a renewed sense of common responsibility – and an assurance to the rest of the world that the G20 can work in unison. Its decisions have a systemic impact on the global economy.

On economic and financial stability, Japan has put forward several issues likely to produce incremental progress in addressing some of the volatilities that we are witnessing at present – such as global imbalances, international taxation, and ageing and policy implications. The emphasis on universal health coverage in developing countries and strengthening health financing is also a very good encouraging signal. It is very positive that the G20 can add to that momentum – and Japan is a key forerunner in this crucial area.

If the G20 puts a brake on international progress on climate change and decarbonisation, it would be a setback. Therefore, we need to find a formula to allow the world at least to progress with the Paris Agreement in the way it was intended to.
The G20 represents more than 80% of the global economy. Economic stability, political commitment to the common interest and the public good of the other 173 members of the United Nations that are not at the table have to be an integral part of its litmus test on the G20’s leadership role. That includes leadership in crucial areas such as economic stability, political consensus or emerging issues such as new technologies, as in the financial sector.