Last week, the United Nations released its second progress report on its 17 Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs. Refreshingly, there is no flowing language; in addition, the report does not excessively hype goals that are finding success, nor does it attempt to sweep any shortcomings under the rug. The 19-page overview is frank and matter-of-fact, full of statistics that arouse hope, worry and of course, more questions, at the same time.
For companies and non-profits that have considered, or already committed, to working on these 17 SDGs, the document offers a good idea where additional heft and assistance are needed. And for governments, the clarion call is clear: two years into this initiative, more data and statistics are needed in order to gauge where progress is being made, and where more investment in human capital is desperately needed.
The good news is that poverty (SDG Goal #1) is falling rapidly, though there is a long road ahead if poverty is to be eradicated by 2030. In 1999, 1.7 billion people were living below the international poverty line, which currently stands at $1.90 (per day per person.) As of 2013, the number living below the poverty line has fallen to 767 million citizens. More recent data indicates that last year, just under 10 percent of the world’s workers were earning under $1.90, which is a sharp improvement from 28 percent back in 2000. Climate change, however, imposes plenty of risks on those who still live under that minimum daily wage, or are still perilously close to falling back into that demographic group. The UN insists that resilience plans designed to minimize the impacts of natural disasters become a core strategy for governments worldwide. Economic losses from natural disasters have soared as high as $300 billion annually, and the bulk of that damage keeps occurring in low- and middle-income countries.
Tied to poverty is hunger and food security (SDG Goal #2). Again, the mantra is one of overall long-term improvement, with several caveats that provoke concern. As of 2016, the proportion of people worldwide who suffer from malnutrition has fallen from 15 percent in 2002 to 11 percent in 2016. But that still leaves 793 million people who struggle to have enough to eat day-to-day. Meanwhile, governments are not necessarily getting a bang for their buck when it comes to their agricultural investments. The global agriculture orientation index, which the UN defines as government expenditures in agriculture divided by that sector’s share of gross domestic product (GDP), has fallen by 0.38 in 2001 to 0.21 in 2015. And in the world’s poorest countries, the convergence of volatile fuel prices, extreme weather, a decline in agricultural production and currency depreciation resulted in 21 nations enduring moderate or high price increases in food last year – and 13 of those countries are located in sub-Saharan Africa.
But if poverty, along with its symptoms and causes such as hunger and water scarcity (SDG Goal #5) are to end, then gender inequality must cease – and this is where the UN report signals that the world is in dire need of improvement. The lack of reliable statistics on this front also suggests that more women and girls struggle economically and emotionally day-to-day than what the UN currently suggests. Indeed, there has been a reduction in a range of practices such as genital mutilation and child marriage. But over the course of a decade, 19 percent of women surveyed in 87 nations reported that they had experienced physical or sexual violence by an intimate partner. Ending all forms of discrimination and violence against women and girls will prove to be a stubborn uphill climb. One answer would be to have more women involved in government and business: but women in lower houses of national parliaments or congresses has only reached 23.4 percent this year, only a 10-percentage point increase from 2000. The private sector is performing marginally better, with fewer than one in three women holding middle- or senior-management positions.
When looking at the rest of the SDGs, the results are certainly mixed. Despite a surge in deforestation in countries such as Brazil, worldwide forest loss has been on the decline, while sustainable forestry efforts have helped to make a difference. And while 90 percent of the world’s population now has access to improved drinking water sources, there will be plenty of sleepless nights in the future as 2 billion people live in countries the UN describes as having “excess water stress.”
The challenge the UN faces in meeting these goals is that overall data is scarce. For example, the rise of the global middle class has contributed to overall resource consumption, from an increase of 1.51 kg in 2000 to 1.73 in 2010 – most likely that number is far higher. Urbanization is reportedly at 54 percent globally, but considering how many of the world’s nations rely on estimates instead of reliable data, many of the UN’s statistics were most likely outdated before they were even released.
The report is akin to driving along a road in pitch black darkness without headlights – we really cannot find a way to ensure a sustainable future if we lack decent data from the past. And this is where the private sector can step in – not only can it contribute technologies that can help governments understand how their citizens are performing, but it can also implement programs that can help make this world an even better one in which to live – and even profit from their efforts as they develop responsible supply chains and products that improve the quality of life across the globe.
Nevertheless, businesses and governments need inspiration, too: the report could have been even stronger if case studies highlighting improvements in labor, equality, the environment and justice were included.
Image credit: United Nations/Flickr
Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010, and became its Executive Editor in 2018. He's based in Fresno, CA, from where he happily explores California’s stellar Central Coast and the national parks in the Sierra Nevadas. He's worked an lived in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay, and has traveled to over 70 countries. He's an alum of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California.