How The UN’S Sustainable Development Goals Were Shattered By COVID-19

The ushering-in of a new year is typically an instance of contemplation, reflection and optimism, but given the events of 2020, one could be excused for any feeling of trepidation. Indeed, the past 12 months have been marred by a slew of negative events, not least by the impact of the novel coronavirus.

The virus – also known as COVID-19 – began to spread across the world in late 2019, though it wasn’t until mid-March that the World Health Organisation declared the outbreak to be a pandemic. The sudden closure of workplaces, restaurants and leisure centres sent a number of countries into financial shock, but as governments have scrambled to save their economy, prior commitments were pushed to the wayside. While it is correct that the pandemic should demand urgent attention from our world leaders, the clock still ticks for several pressing matters which, too, are sure to have a lasting effect on the global population.

The United Nations is composed of 193 member states, each one committed to combating a series of issues faced by humanity as a whole. In 2015, every member state pledged to be a part of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, a movement which seeks to bring true equality to individuals all around the world. The 17 key commitments of the agenda – the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – are as follows:

  • No poverty
  • Zero hunger
  • Good health and well-being
  • Quality education
  • Gender equality
  • Clean water and sanitation
  • Affordable and clean energy
  • Decent work and economic growth
  • Industry, innovation and infrastructure
  • Reduced inequalities
  • Sustainable cities and communities
  • Responsible consumption and production
  • Climate action
  • Life below water
  • Life on land
  • Peace, justice and strong institutions
  • Partnerships for the goals

Although global commitment to the SDGs was adopted five years ago, it is evident that little progress has been made towards eradicating poverty, extending quality education or slowing down climate change. In fact, inaction throughout 2020 has been damning, as not one of the goals set has been achieved since the start of the decade. With the new year around the corner and just nine years for the UN commitment to be met, is COVID-19 a valid enough reason as to why so little progress is being made?

Poverty & Hunger

On the 16th of December 2020, UNICEF announced that it would provide emergency funding for children in the UK – the first such instance in the organisation’s 70-year history. This is in spite of the UK being the world’s sixth-richest economy, with London serving as the second-largest financial sector on earth; it is also despite the capital being home to 66 billionaires (the sixth-highest number of billionaires in any city, according to Business Insider)

UNICEF’s announcement comes after the UK’s financial aid to other countries had been slashed, supposedly to reflect the public’s priorities at a time of ‘unprecedented economic emergency’. However, it could be argued that the government’s reluctance to feed school children signalled towards a loose grip on reality; one in which newly-redundant parents should somehow continue to make ends meet, while a series of pizza deliveries amounting to £50k of taxpayer’s money could reasonably feed the health secretary’s team of staff, or when political advisors would receive enormous pay rises despite breaking lockdown rules. The attitude of ‘them versus us’ has been prevalent in the UK for quite some time, and has certainly been exacerbated in the wake of COVID-19 – the tragedy is, the ‘they’ we speak of tend to be the disenfranchised, as opposed to the ones entrusted (and often, failing) to lead by example. A decades-long rhetoric of blame has made the vulnerable among us prime targets for attack, and rather than acknowledging the government’s failures, we’re allowing them to continue chipping away at our rights, and the rights of those we promised to protect as part of our commitment to overseas financial aid – a promise which is enshrined in law.

Of course, it would be wrong to suggest that the UK population are collectively in favour of stripping aid: even as a number of businesses have fought to stay afloat, charity has still been extended to those in need. While pubs and restaurants have been forced to reduce service, some have opted to provide free meals to families rocked by redundancies. Millions of pounds were pledged in an effort to support our National Health Service and, similarly, the ‘Big Night In’ fundraising event saw a staggering £74 million raised for numerous causes based in the UK and overseas. It is evident that our collective ‘giving spirit’ has not been dampened, and it is for this reason that a reduction of overseas aid – just 0.7% of the UK’s national income  – feels somewhat like a misguided move on the government’s part.

It should not be overlooked that the cuts to overseas aid were announced in the shadow of a troubling prediction from the World Bank: back in October, a report suggested that an additional 150 million people could be pushed into extreme poverty by 2021. This would mean that an estimated 9.4% of the global population would be living in destitution, surviving on less than $1.90 per day. In a year where billionaires have seen their collective wealth increase by 27%, should the poor be stretched further in order to foot the bill of the pandemic?


It’s not only access to food which has been impacted in the light of the pandemic: education, too, has taken a serious hit over the course of the year. But while certain nations have been able to adopt alternative methods of teaching (such as holding virtual classes over Zoom), millions of young children in countries across the world are being left behind.

Quality education for all’ is among the UN’s list of Sustainable Development Goals, but even prior to the pandemic, the playing field was uneven. While some countries lack funding for schools, others are caught in the conflict of war with no clear sign of a way out. In many instances, education (or a lack thereof) is directly linked to hunger and poverty: in Zimbabwe, for example, children may be too weak to walk from their villages to school, having not eaten for days at a time. Ruff’s Kitchens partners with rural schools in order to provide the most vulnerable with a meal per day, which in turn has encouraged more children to attend their classes. Higher enrollment in schools equates to an improved level of employment in the community, as more teachers are able to find work; similarly, should Zimbabwe’s youth be able to receive an education (their concentration enhanced due to being fed), the more opportunities there could be for them to achieve well as they grow older. However, as the coronavirus pandemic hit the country, schools were forced to close – signalling a temporary end to the feeding programmes and leaving countless families with nothing.

While Ruff’s Kitchens were able to continue the feeding programme by distributing food outside of schools during the lockdown, the impact on education as a whole would be beyond anything any charity could handle on its own: decades of poor governance in Zimbabwe had left the country completely unprepared for a crisis of this level, so while other parts of the world could adjust to a temporary online existence, Zimbabwe’s vulnerable communities would have no choice but to weather the storm.

Partnership / Unity

The 2020 Agenda For Sustainable Development had been too slow to take off: although pandemic couldn’t necessarily have been predicted, other factors (such as inequality, sustainability and human rights abuses) were plainly evident – if they weren’t, the UN’s 193 member states would not have committed to creating a better world for all. However, much has changed since the agreement was made in 2015, not least on a political scale: from Brexit to the rise of the far-right, protests in the East and the West, and battles between dictators and their potential successors, it goes without saying that the focus has, at least in part, shifted away from altruism. This, in itself, is a problem for the SDGs: if the members of any government are unable to come together to better their own country, how could world leaders be expected to work together to help their neighbours’ countries, too?

If there’s one thing this pandemic has taught us, it’s that the average person – people like you and I – may have the potential to make a colossal difference, one small act at a time. Indeed, we could feed the hungry much quicker and more efficiently if the exceptionally rich would join together to wipe out food poverty; a minimal tax increase on the very wealthy may magic away the profound debts that our children, and our children’s children, are likely to be saddled with through no fault of their own. Make no mistake – there are philanthropists among us, in all sectors of society – but while we’re able to make small ripples of change by supporting our communities, we still rely on the very powerful to pay their part in systemic reform. It’s for this reason that we must continue to use our voices to speak up for those who may not be in a position to do so themselves – and it’s why, as we approach another new year, we’ll continue to give what we can by means of emotional and economic charity.