“We’re at a turning point for people and the planet, as is said by the UN SDG Action Campaign. We have the opportunity to imagine a different future, to remake it. And we can do it together”. Marina Ponti, who hails from the Milan area and whose CV is split between NGOs and the UN, where she began working in 2001 after leaving Mani Tese, is the director of the SDG Action Campaign, a special initiative of the Secretary General of the United Nations which promotes the 17 Sustainable Development Goals of the 2030 Agenda.
With offices in Bonn, Germany, and a global outlook, the UN SDG Action Campaign is the ideal lookout to perform a check-up on the list of problems that the entire world has identified as priorities: from hunger to education, clean energy and responsible consumption. The climate, labour and gender equality are also part of this list. We codified these issues in 2015, and we gave ourselves 15 years to fix them. Or, at least, to make considerable headway in finding solutions. But now, where are we? What kind of impact has the devastating COVID pandemic had on the roadmap?
“The pandemic has set us back on many fronts”, Ponti replies. “Take poverty. Not only has the number of people living in extreme hardship increased throughout the world, meaning those who at one time made up the middle class, but many of them, especially women, have lost their jobs. For many of those affected, there was no recourse to welfare mechanisms or social protections, because they worked in the informal economy. In addition to unemployment, fragile unemployment has increased as well, affecting those millions of people who have a job, but whose salaries are too low to maintain a decent standard of living, like paying for rent, health care, schooling for their children, etc. Then, there is of course also the pandemic. We’ve been talking about it for the past year and a half, but we’re now starting to see its impact on life expectancy, which has decreased everywhere, also because COVID-19 has affected the vulnerable and the elderly in particular.
Q: Even younger people are suffering: the impact on education, for example, has been significant.
A: Yes, the pandemic has increased the number of early school leavers multifold. Distance learning has helped a lot, of course, but it has also increased inequalities: in many countries, a home computer or Internet access is not yet available to everyone. Many children ended up entering the labour market and being exploited. But closing schools also led to an increase in malnutrition.
A: We don't generally realise it, but there are at least 380 million children in the world who depend on school canteens for food. If schools are closed, they skip meals. The fight against hunger, which was one of the SDGs that was yielding the most results, took a hit. Over time, the one billion people suffering from hunger had decreased to 800 million. Last year, it increased again. However, 2020 was also the year during which the Human Development Index, an indicator created by the UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) to measure the growth of countries, also fell for the first time. Next to income, it also measures variables such as life expectancy, schooling, and climate. In thirty years, it had always grown.
Q: A heavy toll, then.
A: Yes. But as with every great crisis, there is also a great opportunity, because we have reached a turning point.
Q: How do you mean?
A: For the first time in a century, individuals, companies and the private sector all over the world has had to stop. The pandemic made them. And for the first time, both leaders and individuals were handed the opportunity to reimagine the future in some way. In recent history, since the second world war, we’ve never been up against a task like this: redesigning mobility, energy, labour or education. Now it’s affecting all parts of global society, to a different extent, obviously, but at the same time and with the same goals.
There is political space for public decision-makers to disentangle the problems we had before, which the pandemic has brought out into the open. They were previously hiding behind a veil. In a certain sense, many people were hiding behind an idea of “But things really aren’t all that bad, are they?” The pandemic lifted the veil, and made us see that this wasn’t actually the case. It revealed the many, deep inequalities inherent to the mechanisms of our society.
Q: Are we equipped to deal with such a radical change of pace?
A: I don't know. We'll see. What we do know is that for the first time, governments, and even the private sector, were equipped with resources that were unthinkable even a year ago, to transform certain ideas into reality. I’m talking about Europe, about the billions coming from the NRRP. Or Biden’s 2021 American Rescue Plan. We need them so that we can invest in renewables, the green transition, mobility, and social, gender and intergenerational equity. People have been talking about it forever, but now there’s actually the political space to do so, and there’s the money. Will everyone be able to seize these opportunities? We don't know. But this is where, to some extent, the individual plays a role –a role that falls to each of us.
Q: But how?
A: The changes required by the 2030 Agenda are indispensable at all levels. Some must start from the top, from leaders. But individual action is also important. COVID-19 changed our perception of this as well. We at the UN SDG Action Campaign have always focused on individual action, on the gestures that each person can make to bring about change. People have always looked down on such actions, as though they weren’t a decisive factor: “Yes, of course, but they don’t mean anything...”. But, in these recent months, at least until the vaccine became available, we’ve all seen how the only possible strategy to contain the pandemic boiled down to individual action: social distancing, masks, quarantines. The pandemic has made people understand that they not only have a decisive impact on their own lives, but also on the environment around them. This triggered a mechanism of action and awareness.
Q: Is this a first?
A: We’ve seen this before, actually, like in the cases of Fridays for Future or Black Lives Matter; movements that cannot be identified with the former civil society, but made up of young people with strong a energy and interest directed towards the future. People who not only want to be heard, but who, to a certain extent, want to take responsibility. There’s another important factor as well. In the past, young people could exercise this passion for social justice by committing themselves to a cause, or a non-profit organisation, but work remained separate.
Now, we see startups and business initiatives moving in this direction; they combine social and environmental impact with a lifestyle, consumption and a profession. We see it all over the world, even in Africa or other complicated contexts. There is a wave of active participation not only in the social sphere, but in the economic sphere as well. Now, these young people just need to get involved in politics. But the change has begun.