Sound the alarm: the UN Secretary-General’s progress report on the Sustainable Development Goals

The United Nations Secretary-General released a special edition of the annual progress report on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) last week. The report comes just before countries report on the progress being made to meet the SDGs at the High-Level Political Forum (HLPF) in New York in July and the SDG Summit in September.

The September summit is the first time heads of states will meet to discuss the SDGs since they were adopted four years ago. It comes at a time when multilateralism and financing for development are under serious pressure.

Despite this, the report contains some good news. Since 2015, extreme poverty and child and maternal mortality rates have continued to fall. There have been improvements in integrating gender-responsive budgeting. Unemployment levels have recovered from the 2007-08 economic crisis and global recession. And many countries have taken concrete steps to integrate the SDGs into national planning and budgeting processes.

Ring the alarm

But despite these gains, the overall tone of the report is of alarm. With just over ten years to go to 2030, most countries are not on track to achieve the SDGs, and the most deprived and marginalised groups are failing to catch up with their peers. The world is not on course to meet most of the 21 SDG targets with a deadline of 2020.

While extreme poverty has fallen since 2015, progress is slowing. The report finds that:

  • Based on current trends, extreme poverty is projected to be at 6% at 2030, far short of the 3% target set for SDG 1 (End Poverty)
  • Children remain over-represented among poor people, with one child in five living in extreme poverty, compared with 9% of adults.

Our own research in Still left behind? has shown that on current trends there will still be more than 4 million deaths of children under the age of five in the year 2030, compared to 5.6 million in 2016. Children in the world’s poorest 20% of households are nearly 40% more likely to die before their fifth birthday than the global average.

The annual progress report also finds that social protection is still not adequately reaching those who need it the most. For example, only 35% of children have access to effective social protection, and there are huge differences between countries. Increasing natural disasters in countries where poverty rates are highest is having huge socioeconomic toll and dampening the fight against poverty. The report states that half of the world’s poor people are projected to live in conflict-affected areas by 2030.

For the third year in a row, hunger is on the rise. Our research forecasts that even by 2030 – the SDG deadline to end hunger in all its forms – 119 million children will still find their physical and cognitive development stunted by malnutrition. In addition, the annual progress report found that:

  • Far too many children still die from preventable causes, and progress in vaccine coverage has stalled.
  • 262 million children and young people aged 6 to 17 were out of school in 2017.
  • More than half of children and adolescents are not meeting minimum proficiency standards in reading and mathematics.

The urgent need to tackle inequality

Inequality continues to rise within and between countries. The annual progress report states that, while the incomes of the bottom 40% of the population have gone up in recent years, the gap between rich and poor people in many countries continues to grow. This underscores that the trickle-down effects of economic growth and broader gains in human capital often fail to reach those who are most deprived and marginalised.

Worryingly, these challenges come at a period where the international system is facing increasing factious responses to calls to close the financing and capacity gaps in developing and fragile countries. The report notes that since the SDGs were agreed on in 2015, the global landscape has become less, not more, favourable to cooperation and implementation.

Looking ahead to 2030

This progress report goes further than before in tracking trends among urban-rural, regional and certain population groups such as girls and people with disabilities. Nonetheless, it must go further in including disaggregated data, particularly on children, in its analysis on how the world is doing on the Leave No One Behind pledge and in aligning its discussion on the progress of children more closely with a child right’s perspective.

The principle of Leave No One Behind is central to the delivery of the SDGs and the realisation of human rights for all. Development partners must hold governments and the UN system to account over progress towards achieving the Pledge to Leave No One Behind and ensuring we put those people who are furthest behind first. This includes challenging current norms of relying on global and national averages by pressing for wider use of disaggregated data and convergence analysis to track the pace at which disparities between socioeconomic groups are narrowing. Our free, online child inequality tracker, GRID, demonstrates how we could use existing official data to improve reporting on progress on the commitment to Leave No One Behind right now. We don’t have a second to lose.



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