Three ways the Covid response can boost SDG efforts

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a huge challenge, but it could provide a blueprint for addressing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

The global response to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is far behind schedule. The 2020 Social Progress Index, released in September, says that, based on current trends, the Global Goals won’t be met until 2082. Worse, the COVID-19 pandemic might set that date back another decade.

However, the reaction to the pandemic itself offers some hope. The urgent response has shown that Governments, businesses and other organizations can make progress together when necessary. At the Uniting Business LIVE conference in September — held virtually because of the pandemic — panelists suggested three key lessons from dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic can be applied to the SDGs.

Fist, it is vital that we act quickly. Second, we must collaborate. And third, we need effective and diverse leadership.

Move fast and fix things

“I hope we commit to tangible, rapid action on the SDGs with the same speed that we’ve seen people respond to the virus,” said Sharon Thorne, Global Board Chair of Deloitte. “You can see that urgent action is possible.”

The panelists agreed that the COVID-19 response had shown that organizations around the world could react quickly when forced to by circumstances. The problems that the SDGs are designed to address are slower moving, which makes it easier to delay action, but there was broad agreement that things must change.

“It is time for action. Words are not enough,” said Ignacio D. Galan, Chairman and CEO of Iberdrola, a global energy company. He added: “We need to accelerate, accelerate, accelerate.” Taking the next step will require coordinated effort.

Finding common ground for collaboration

The pandemic has forced increased global collaboration. For example, medical organizations and researchers and Government agencies are coordinating efforts to understand, treat and control the virus. It has also demonstrated just how interdependent we are. A poorly controlled outbreak of the virus in one country causes problems for its neighbours, for example.

The same is true of the SDGs. The effects of climate change might fall disproportionately on poorer parts of the world, but the consequences can spread far wider, affecting supply chains, aid budgets and more. “We are only as strong as our weakest link,” said Ibukun Awosika, Chairwoman of the First Bank of Nigeria .

Businesses can feel unable to respond collectively because they are reluctant to collaborate with competitors. Ms. Thorne argued that this is a mistake. “One tangible example of the role businesses can play is engaging in something that we call pre-competitive collaboration,” she said. “By businesses working together, rather than just focusing on their own needs and profitability, trying to work together to overcome obstacles and solve complex challenges.”

Leadership must be decisive and diverse

Ms. Thorne argued that boards can play a role in leading this change, but Paul Polman, Vice-Chair of the UN Global Compact and Co-Founder and Chair of IMAGINE, a business leadership foundation, said that the capabilities of boards can be overestimated. Very few board members are sufficiently versed in climate change, for example, to direct meaningful action.

He said: “Just like we need to get new leaders in that run these companies with a higher sense of purpose and a different form of multi-stakeholder partnership, so we also need to look critically at boards.”

Ms. Awosika said that one area where boards should change — and where leadership can improve in general — is by increasing diversity. She said that having more people of colour and women in leadership roles can change the way that problems are addressed. “When boards have high diversity you will find that they are boards that will commit more,” she added.

All the panellists agreed that now is the time to increase our efforts on the pursuit of the SDGs. We know what can be achieved and our Covid-19 experience has given us an outline for how we can make progress. There is much talk about ‘building back better’ and returning to a ‘new normal,’ but that will not happen without concerted effort. 

Concluding, Mr. Polman repeated the idea that the pandemic had reminded us of the importance of the other challenges that we face. He said: “Coming out of COVID there is a growing awareness that you cannot have healthy people on an unhealthy planet.”

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