Here are some thoughts as I worry whether the many post-Covid-19 recovery programmes in the pipeline will be economically, socially, gender and climate just. Perhaps, if one is optimistic, the forthcoming HLPF provides an opportunity to imagine another world, as Arundhati Roy put it so beautifully. It would definitely be worth fighting for.
The annual SDG review
The UN 2030 Agenda, and its 17 SDGs are due for review every summer, and this year’s High-level political forum (HLPF) is devoted to the impact of Covid-19 pandemic on their progress. We know that the goals were already off-track last year, and the update that the UN has issued for the HLPF documents the devastating impact the pandemic is having across the board. UNDP’s human development index has plummeted for the first time in 30 years. The tragedy of 350 000 recorded deaths attributable to the pandemic (mid-May 2020) has thrown into sharp relief enormous global and local social and economic chasms.
The 2020 HLPF offers member state governments a unique opportunity to 1) use the SDG with its targets and indicators as a framework as a mutually agreed measuring rod and 2) re-examine the Agenda’s promise of transformation.
Measuring structural inequities
In many countries, the virus has taken a mortal toll on persons living in poverty, are chronically under- or mal-nourished, live in poor housing or are homeless, and face discrimination and social exclusion, This is the case in high-income countries such as the UK, the US or Germany. The social determinants of health are clearer than ever before.
The policy measures introduced in reaction to the pandemic also affect us differently, depending on socio-economic class, professional status, type of work, gender, ethnicity, location and age. The middle classes in global South and North, with a secured income and/or savings, assured accommodation and internet access, at the household level can tolerate lockdowns. Intra-housdhold, even well-to-do families however are seeing gender inequities playing out, because the care economy everywhere has remained women’s and girls’ responsibility, and we are observing a “re-traditionalisation” of care.
For people living in the informal economy on the fringes of or in income poverty, from the very first day, lockdowns have demolished their very livelihoods. 70% of the global population have no form of social assistance, let alone social insurance. While a number of low-income countries do have – minimalist – social pensions, child benefits or school meal programmes, income replacement schemes are rare. 1.6 billion people work in the informal economy – the majority are women. As of mid-April, these workers have already foregone 60% of their meagre incomes. Hundreds of thousands of workers in global value chains have been laid off without compensation – and are now returning to work with no pandemic health protection in place. Slum dwellers have been evicted. Migrants are forced to return to their place of origin – often not just without wage and passage, but also often indebted to a job agent. Prices for staple foods are rising. In South Africa, for example, thousands are queuing for food and basic amenities. The situation is similar for people lacking social security in the US or Switzerland. The WFP estimates that as many as one billion persons could face hunger by the end of 2020.
Across the globe, access to health services has been hollowed out by decades of austerity and privatisations. As a result of underfunded services and facilities, to this day, as many women die in childbirth each and every year as have now perished from the Covid-19 virus (but no special issue of the Economist has ever examined this).
In short: the social SDGs – 1- 8 – especially poverty, hunger, education, health, gender, and decent work – are set back by years.
The policy responses to the pandemic too have reinforced patriarchal, authoritarian and nationalistic tendencies. At the family level, violence against women, non-binary persons and children has increased. National and state borders were closed without warning, stranding migrants. Civil rights such as the right to protest have been suspended. SDG 5 and SDG 16 are under massive attack.
And SDG 10, reducing inequalities – perhaps the cornerstone of a transformative intention, and so fought over when the SDGs were negotiated – is undermined at all levels, in all spheres.
Using the Agenda as a framework
The HLPF can look at all these setbacks as tragedies, and lament. Or it can take the Agenda by its word and use it as the grid for a recovery strategy . A coherent, socially equitable and climate-just, sustainable recovery package must be designed urgently, because many countries, regional bodies, the UN system, and donors are improvising post-Covid19 recovery schemes with immense financial resources (promised). Reactionary politicians, business and faith-based lobbies are actively trying to roll back the policy accomplishments of the past decades. Hopefully, the 2030 Agenda could – if used well – provide a progressive alternative?
The normative core of the agenda, compressed into the preamble, builds on human rights. Many of the SDGs are at least implicitly rights based, by emphasising universal access. At the operational level, overcoming income and multidimensional poverty and hunger are perhaps the driving goals. 180 countries have unusually rapidly adopted social assistance measures in the form of grants, access to food, furlough programmes and the like. This is a good thing, and corresponds to 5 of the SDG targets, but must be institutionalised, scaled up and become a right to socialsecurity. The real and lasting remedy against poverty, hunger and malnutrition, however, is the right to decent work – this needs to be at the centre of every recovery. For this right to materialise as a standard, ILO labour standards need to be ratified and implemented urgently in every country. At the international level, supply chain due diligence legislation and the binding treaty on business and human rights must be adopted.
The big merit of the 2030 Agenda is that it combines the climate and environment agenda with socioeconomic goals. This holistic approach is crucial. The recovery programmes need to conform to the commitments of the Paris Agreement. We need a social contract systemically linking up decent work, social protection, gender justice and ecological justice. Coming from the labour movement, the demands for a “just transition “ do exactly that – overcome the perceived antagonisms between employment and a decarbonised economy.
A pressing lesson of the pandemic has been the poor state of health systems globally, and their lack of preparedness for health emergencies. Health systems need to have permanent surge capacity, which reconfirms the case for a public health system, since commercialised health provision does not want to fund unremunerated excess capacity. Health and care professionals as well as home-based care givers need to be receive salaries commensurate with their immense skills and time. Highest-quality inclusive child care needs to be expanded. There are opportunities for bringing to scale renewable energy – solar or wind – in form of decentralised, democratic cooperatives; these can even build in an element of redistribution among users and consumers. New forms of mobility focussing on public transport can free up public spaces – the pandemic lockdowns have actually seen roads rededicated to play areas or bicycle and pedestrian traffic. And of course, the Migration and RefugeeCompacts need to be integrated into recovery programmes.
All such changes would actually create employment and incomes – and move the system to social, economic, gender and climate justice.
Transcending the 2030 Agenda
The 2030 Agenda has one fatal flaw: it avoids the systems question. As a benignly formulated multilaterally negotiated document, it tends to obscure the question of power asymmetries. Yes, it speaks to rights and universalism and admonishes to leave no one behind. But the Agenda does not address the political and economic structures that underpin the massive inequities. The past few months under the reign of the virus have however revealed that the current capitalist mode creates and constantly reproduces inequalities. So the case is now intellectually and morally irrefutable that we need to re-fetter capitalism, and place people and the planet at the centre of all recovery plans. This will be difficult for many of the UN member state governments to accept. Civil society needs to put a lot of pressure on the governments conferring at the HLPF. If we succeed, we can imagine and fight for another – transformed – world.