Equality, Wellbeing, and the SDGs: How Can We Address the Issues of Covid-19 and Achieve the SDGs by 2030?

The following blog was written by Social Value International’s Membership Coordinator, Lukia Nomikos.

With numerous Covid-19 vaccines being developed in record time and vaccine rollouts well under way in some countries, there is at last a glimmer of hope amid the gloom. While a sense of cautious optimism for a post-pandemic world and a return to ‘normality’ is warranted, it begs the question of whether resuming our pre-Covid lives is really what we ought to do. Perhaps now is the time to instead reflect on how we ended up in this situation in the first place and to question whether what we considered ‘normal’ is actually good for us and the planet.

The reality is that even if and when we manage to overcome the pandemic, our problems will be far from over. We continue to face global challenges, from climate change to inequality, that have the potential of far more catastrophic effects on our lives and the planet than our current health crisis, and that have only been exacerbated by the pandemic. 

Moreover, it can be argued that the devastating impact of Covid-19 stems exactly from our mismanagement of these pre-existing crises. This is why there can be no return to ‘normality’ – it is our previous way of living that got us here in the first place. Instead, now is our chance to start from scratch and rebuild a better world – a pivotal moment in time that we simply cannot let slip. Tackling the global challenges we were facing already long before the pandemic is more important than ever. 

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, with the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) at its heart, was adopted by all UN Member States in 2015 to address these challenges. Even before the pandemic, progress was uneven and we were off track to achieve the SDGs by 2030. Now Covid has made matters worse. As the SDG Report 2020 states: “Far from undermining the case for the SDGs, the root causes and uneven impacts of Covid-19 demonstrate precisely why we need the 2030 Agenda….and underscore the urgency of [its] implementation.”

The SDGs provide a frame of reference for anyone seeking to make the world a better place, including SVI. Increasing equality and wellbeing and reducing environmental degradation is at the core of everything we do here at SVI. 

SDG 10 is particularly relevant to our mission with its goal to reduce inequality within and among countries. The SDG Report 2020 found that despite some positive signs, inequality in its various forms persists and has been aggravated by the pandemic. Before the pandemic, income inequality was falling in 38 out of 84 countries, but now the UN reports that Covid-19 is hitting the poorest and most vulnerable people and countries the hardest, thus making inequality worse.

To demonstrate the growing wealth inequality in the face of the pandemic, while Covid-19 has threatened the lives and livelihoods of millions across the world, the world’s 10 richest men saw their net worth increase by $540 billion during the past year – a sum which according to researchers would be enough to prevent anyone from falling into poverty as a result of the pandemic and pay for a vaccine for everyone on earth.  While 86% of the 2020 billionaire list increased their wealth by a total $5 trillion (the biggest surge in decades), the World Bank issued a stark warning that more than 100 million people could be pushed into extreme poverty as a result of the pandemic. Oxfam stated that it could take more than a decade to reduce the number of people living in poverty back to pre-crisis levels. 

With regard to SDG 3: ‘Good Health and Wellbeing’, the report revealed that until the end of 2019, advances in many areas of health continued, although the rate of progress was in need of acceleration. However, now, with the serious healthcare disruptions brought on by Covid-19, decades of improvements in health outcomes – particularly in areas of maternal and child health, childhood immunisation and deaths from other communicable diseases – could be reversed.

The SDG Report 2020 also showed that climate change is still occurring much faster than anticipated. The year 2019 was the second warmest on record and the end of the warmest decade of 2010 to 2019, bringing with it massive wildfires, hurricanes, droughts, floods and other climate disasters across the world. Although greenhouse gas emissions were estimated to drop by 6% as a result of the pandemic-induced drastic reduction in human activity, it still falls short of the 7.6% annual reduction required to limit global warming to 1.5°C – not to mention that emissions are expected to once again rise as restrictions are lifted. Moreover, ocean acidification is accelerating; land degradation continues; massive numbers of species are at risk of extinction; and unsustainable consumption and production patterns remain pervasive.

We, as SVI, believe that one of the root causes of these global crises we face today, and that the SDGs are seeking to address, is the fact that businesses and organisations are not held to account for their social and environmental impacts by the people who experience those impacts. Those most affected tend to be the most vulnerable and marginalised within our societies and therefore have the least power to affect decision-making. As a result, there is very little pressure on businesses and organisations to change the way they operate and to optimise their impacts.

SVI seeks to address this power imbalance between those making the decisions and those experiencing the consequences of those decisions by giving stakeholders a voice and thus creating an ‘accountability ecosystem’. The Principles of Social Value form the basis of our work and the principle that underpins all the others is ‘Principle 1: Involve Stakeholders’. Without meaningful stakeholder engagement, we cannot even begin to understand the impacts of our actions. Only by transferring power over the way in which impact is measured and managed can we hope to tackle the issues we face, and achieve the SDGs.

SVI is working relentlessly to turn these goals into reality. In 2019, together with EY, we published a paper on how our Principles of Social Value can help organisations account for their contribution to the SDGs. Much more recently, we signed a Responsible Party Agreement with the UNDP  to support the rollout and adoption of the SDG Impact Practice Standards. Enterprises and investors are increasingly seeking to make positive contributions towards achieving the SDGs by 2030 and the Standards are designed to provide “a clear framework for integrating impacts on SDGs into business and investment decision-making.”

Moreover, the theme of our upcoming annual conference, Social Value Matters 2021 (which takes place in October in Thailand)  is ‘Leading our Transition to a Sustainable World’. With less than 9 years to achieve the SDGs, the conference aims to “harness the power of the global SVI communities to focus the imperative and potential to build back better and to ensure that we create a sustainable and more equitable future for all.”

While overcoming the pandemic will certainly be an impressive feat and a demonstration of what we can achieve together if we set our priorities straight, it will not be the time to fall back into complacency. Continuing our work is not only vital to tackling the large-scale challenges of climate change and inequality but also to avoiding another devastating virus outbreak in the future. No country is on track to achieve the SDGs by 2030 and the pandemic has made the prospect of this even less likely. Although the future may currently seem bleak, we must hold firm in our convictions and not let the pandemic derail our vision of a more equitable and sustainable world for all. If we stop now, at defeating Covid-19, it is merely the equivalent of fixing a leaky faucet in a burning building.

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