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11 September 2020updated 09 Sep 2021 1:47pm

New data: The pandemic will set back global development by a decade

Once the pandemic is taken into account, goals such as the eradication of poverty will only be fulfilled by 2092. 

By Ben Walker

The effects of the Covid-19 pandemic will delay progress towards achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by a decade, according to new data published by the Social Progress Imperative (SPI), a US non-profit organisation.

Index of Social Progress
Worldwide personal rights experience a record fall in 2020 since the index began

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Note: year on year change

The 17 SDGs, which include the eradication of poverty, improving access to education and action on climate change, will only be fulfilled by 2092 once the effects of the pandemic are taken into account, ten years later than the SPI previously predicted. In 2015, when the goals were first established by the UN General Assembly, the aim was to achieve every one by 2030.

This year, categories such as personal rights and inclusiveness suffered especially sharp falls, a decline the SPI attributes to the rise of populist authoritarianism around the world.

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The Social Progress Index ranks the quality of life in around 150 countries according to 50 outcomes split into three categories: basic human needs, foundations of well-being, and opportunity. The index does not take economic factors such as GDP directly into account, arguing that a limited focus on purely economic measures can obscure the importance of outcomes.

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While there is a strong correlation between quality of life and economic indicators, the link is not perfect. The SPI’s methodology leads to some interesting outliers, such as the United States, which has the seventh highest nominal GDP per capita in the world according to the World Bank, but is ranked 28th in the Social Progress Index. Luxembourg, nominally the wealthiest country in the world per capita, is ranked 14th.

Social Progress Index – performance of the G20
Brazil and the United States have both recorded a year on year fall in social progress since 2017

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Two countries in the G20, the US and Brazil, have seen their scores drop since the SPI index began in 2011. Access to equal education in the US is the lowest it has been since 2011, but the same applies to greenhouse gas emissions too. In Brazil, inclusiveness, including tolerance for LGBT people and racial minorities, has fallen by nearly 20 per cent since 2014. In the US, over the same period the same metric fell by 5 per cent.

The share of Brazilians using unsafe or unimproved sanitation stands at over one in five, a remarkable figure when compared to neighbouring Argentina, where the measure stands at only 5 per cent.

[see also: Brazil’s heart of darkness]

The SPI found that there was a correlation between countries that performed well on the indicators categorised under opportunity, such as political rights, freedom of expression and access to higher education, and those which have dealt well with the Covid-19 pandemic. “It’s not water or sanitation or education that correlate with lower coronavirus cases – it’s actually rights and freedoms that are associated with a country’s ability to manage the pandemic more effectively,” the SPI’s chief executive, Michael Green, told the New Statesman.

[see also: Survey: US and UK publics are most pessimistic about their governments’ responses to Covid-19]

Green, whose organisation’s research draws heavily on the work of the Indian economist Amartya Sen, speculates that the SPI’s findings may parallel Sen’s famous assertion that: “No famine has ever taken place in the history of the world in a functioning democracy.” Green suggests that countries with more inclusive political systems may be more effective at mustering public consent for measures to slow the spread of the virus, just as Sen argued that governments which are accountable to electorates don’t permit famines.

As the pandemic is far from over, drawing conclusions from the SPI’s findings may be somewhat premature. Nonetheless, they reinforce that the effects of the virus are likely to be felt for years to come.

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