Sustainable Development

Has the UN reached its sustainable development goals? Yes and no

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We must do more to meet our goals. Image: Unsplash/Meg Nielson

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Sustainable Development

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  • The latest report on the status of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) highlights areas where efforts have stalled.
  • But while it is important to acknowledge where progress on the SDGs hasn't been made, it is also vital to highlight where it has.
  • COVID accelerated progress on healthcare and digitalization but we need further collaboration to ensure more is done.

The 2022 report on the status of the United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) highlights some problematic areas of development and, in some instances, record areas of negative growth.

Efforts to address poverty and hunger have experienced a setback with the onset of several armed conflicts, notably the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and progress with health and education, as well as efforts to improve the provision of basic services, have been negatively impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and a global failure to adequately address climate change.

The report casts doubt over the likelihood of realizing the UN 2030 Agenda, and posits that recent setbacks have effectively placed the entire world and all of its citizens in grave danger from a range of threats. These threats represent a peril which calls for a clear and immediate response, and efforts to coordinate such a response will require comprehensive global partnerships.

Acknowledging the areas of SDG implementation that have lost ground is an important step towards regaining such ground, but it is equally important to identify areas where progress has been made, often on a surprising, organic level, without direction from national governments.

Positive progress on the sustainable development goals

Whilst a number of SDGs have been negatively impacted through the confluence of limiting factors, the converse is also true; positive progress on isolated SDGs have paved the way for development in other areas.

Success stories in our fight against COVID-19, for example, and subsequent progress in the area of SDG 3 – ensuring healthy lives and promoting well-being for all at all ages – has led the way towards progress on SDG 11 – sustainable cities and communities – as the need to urgently treat those suffering from COVID-19 infection has led to the creation of medical centres and new hospitals in some previously underdeveloped areas.


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A great example of this is the COVID Speciality Hospital in Bengalaru, India, which was inaugurated on June 19, 2021. This construction was facilitated via a partnership between Boeing India, Selco, Doctors for you Foundation and Karnataka Power Corporation Ltd, and it also represents progress on SDG 9industry, innovation and infrastructure – as well as SDG 17 – partnership for the goals.

The hospital in question was created specifically with the treatment of COVID patients in mind, but once the pandemic has been brought under sufficient control it can easily be overhauled to serve as a venue for the treatment of general health issues.

Digital transformation as a result of COVID-19

Steps taken to address the COVID-19 pandemic have given rise, inter alia, to a large scale digital transformation. This has not only improved the efficacy of global labour, but has also led to the development of a more robust framework for future global cooperation in the area of information exchange.

A report by McKinsey & Company details how companies have sped up their customer‑supply chains interactions by up to four years, and the development of their digitally enabled products by up to seven years, due to COVID-19.

This indicates that isolationist measures taken to prevent the spread of the COVID virus have pushed many companies over the tipping point, and forced them to adopt a more digital approach to the way they do business.

But it’s not only the pandemic that has given rise to digitalization; the complex demands of modern society itself are pushing this trend. Where the Fourth Industrial Revolution, or Industry 4.0, represents the digitalization of industry, Society 5.0 envisages a far more comprehensive digital overhaul of every aspect of modern society.

Society 5.0 represents a comprehensive digitalization of all aspects of modern society.
How Society 5.0 represents a comprehensive digitalization of all aspects of modern society. Image: Siemens Advanta

A great example of how Society 5.0 works in practice is the Red Sea Development Project, which is aimed at the creation of a luxury tourist destination around the Red Sea, based on the concept of sustainable tourist regeneration.

This project goes beyond the mere conservation of natural resources, by seeking also to enhance those resources through digital and technological instruments. In practice, this is achieved by a smart destination platform which utilizes a wearable device for employees and tourists, via which the conservation of the Red Sea environment can be monitored.

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These measures serve to balance the demands of construction with the need to conserve nature, and will eventually improve the visitor experience of all tourists to the destination.

The annual United Nations SDG Moment, held at the beginning of the UN General Assembly on September 19, 2022, was convened by UN Secretary-General António Guterres and aimed at highlighting areas of growth, and areas that require urgent attention.

It also served as a showcase for innovative and sustainable progress recently made in a drive towards satisfactory progress on all Sustainable Development Goals with the advent of the SDG summit in 2023.

It was expected that UN SDG Moment will accentuate the need to visualize the SDGs as a ‘to-do list’ which requires completion in its entirety, rather than considering it a mere idealistic vision of areas where sustainable development is theoretically possible.

A road map towards meeting 2030 targets

The UN SDGs are ready to serve as a road map towards the realization of the 2030 UN Agenda, but time is rapidly running out and a more robust commitment is required from all relevant role players to ensure that the agenda is achieved in its entirety, without any areas of underachievement which may ultimately serve to undermine the whole.

The greatest steps forward have been achieved through cooperation, rather than isolated efforts. Moving Forward Together – Canada’s 2030 Agenda National Strategy sets an admirable example for the kind of cooperation that is required in this regard.


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The Canadian strategy seeks to involve the private sector, government institutions, academics, and municipalities in a ‘whole-of society’ effort to achieve sustainable development and a fairer, more inclusive Canadian society.

Whilst some of the UN SDGs have been set back by both existing and unforeseen circumstances, there are encouraging recent examples of the accelerated level of progress which is possible through cooperation and an all-inclusive approach to sustainable development.

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