The SDGs have been declared dead – let’s bring them back to life!

Svenja Schulze
July 06, 2023

Talking will not make the world sustainable. If the global community wants to achieve the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030, it needs to focus on money, women, and social protection. 

In 2015, the world committed to ending hunger and poverty by 2030 and to protecting the climate. This year’s mid-term review spells doom: 

  • The number of people in the world suffering from hunger has risen (SDG 2) 
  • Life expectancy has fallen (SDG 3) 
  • Disrupted supply chains are still a burden on the economy (SDG 8) 
  • Millions of people no longer have access to energy because of high energy prices (SDG 7) 
  • Inequality in terms of income, wealth, and access to social benefits has risen (SDG 10)  
  • More people live in slums (SDG 11) 
  • The oceans are under threat from overfishing (SDG 14) and  
  • Peace is threatened by the growing number of conflicts (SDG 16) 

While some are calling loudly for us to call it a day on the SDGs, I am calling even louder for them to be turned into reality – through money, female power, and social protection. Why those three? And how will they help achieve the SDGs? 

Fresh and targeted money: The World Bank Reform 

Climate change is fuelling natural disasters worldwide. It threatens food security, makes people sick and destroys their homes. Naturally, it does not stop at borders. The same is true for climate action. Consequently, a multilateral approach is needed. Since climate action is costly and some of the countries most affected by natural disasters lack the resources to cope with them, easy, cheap, and targeted money needs to be made available. This is what the World Bank reform is all about: protecting global public goods like water, forests, and wildlife as part of the Bank’s mission. And making it more attractive for countries to borrow in order to invest in climate resilience. However, this cannot turn into a zero-sum game. We cannot take money previously allocated for poverty reduction and channel it into climate protection. What we need to do is step up our overall commitments – both in terms of goals and in terms of funding. That is why I am advocating that the World Bank reform should entail a broadening of the Bank’s funding flexibility. By making better use of its available capital, it can increase its lending capacities – and still maintain its AAA rating. I am confident that, by reforming the World Bank, we will be able to give more impetus to the entire 2030 Agenda, starting this year.  

Doubling our chances by making women equal: Feminist Development Policy 

Why focus on women? Because all the negative consequences of climate change, social injustice, and conflicts affect women worse than men. And because women hold 50 percent of the potential answers – provided that they have the same rights, resources, and representation. My feminist development policy tackles the structural causes of inequality. Equal rights are the foundation for gender equality. But right now, women worldwide have on average only three quarters of the legal rights that men enjoy. In some countries, women are not permitted to own land or manage their own property. Inequality before the law keeps women from having equal access to resources – such as wealth, education, or knowledge. And because of their lack of resources, women tend to be more affected by poverty, do a bigger share of unpaid domestic and care work, and are more likely to work in precarious employment without social protection. In order to improve their situation, women need equal representation. They need to be equally included in decision-making processes. By giving women the same rights, resources, and representation, we will also address a number of other SDGs: reducing inequality (SDG 10), combating poverty (SDG 1) and reducing hunger (SDG 2), contributing to more inclusive economic growth (SDG 8) and promoting more peaceful societies (SDG 16).  

Because talking will not make the world more just, we are putting our money where our mouth is. By 2025, 93 percent of our new project funds for German development cooperation will be used for gender equality. The projects supported include vocational training, workshops about sexual and reproductive rights, and access to health services. In Bangladesh, for example, Germany is working with partners from the private sector, the workforce, civil society, and the government on a programme called the “Promotion of Social and Environmental Standards in Industry.” In collaboration with the International Labour Organization (ILO), government inspectors are being trained to carry out factory inspections to improve safety at work. Female workers are learning about their rights in women’s cafés and are being encouraged to demand those rights. And since the workforce in the textiles and garment sector is overwhelmingly female, this means that we are simultaneously promoting the equality of women. 

Leave no one behind: Structural Social Protection and the Solidarity Cycle 

Solidarity has become a buzzword in recent years, with the world suffering from the COVID-19 pandemic and dealing with the repercussions of Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine. But solidarity cannot just be a reaction. Solidarity has to be structurally institutionalized worldwide – particularly in the Global South. The poorest people are the ones who suffer the most as a result of crises and conflicts because they cannot protect themselves from the economic fallout of such events. Right now, four billion people are left on their own when it comes to coping with illness and unemployment, motherhood, disability, or work accidents. People are unable to claim child benefits, compensation for loss of earnings, or old-age pensions. In the case of Africa, as many as 83 percent of people have no social safety net

What helps people to help themselves is social protection. Social protection has short- and long-term benefits. It provides quick support in emergencies, e.g. money after a flood to pay for replacement housing. Social protection is also the most successful way to tackle poverty and hunger and help people to generally live healthier and more productive lives. Long-term studies show that children from families who receive conditional cash transfers go to school for longer and are better nourished. In rural South Africa, families who had access to the Child Support Grant are still investing more money in farming years later. Social protection not only helps avoid poverty, it also reduces social inequalities. Surveys carried out in Latin America and Africa show that people in societies with lower inequality trust one another and public institutions more, and they are more likely to support social solidarity measures. Hence, solidarity enables social protection, which produces more solidarity, which in turn fosters social equality. 

The German Development Ministry also pushes for social protection on the multilateral level. The G7 has set itself the goal of providing access to social protection for one billion more people worldwide by 2025. Together with the World Bank, the International Labour Organization (ILO), and other partners, Germany is therefore supporting the UN Global Accelerator on Jobs and Social Protection for Just Transitions. Together with our partner countries, we are striving to achieve pertinent structural reforms and funding. As a result, millions of people in Cambodia – for example – now have access to basic social protection, health services, and other social benefits. They are less often forced to get into debt, are able to eat more regularly, and can let their children go to school for longer. Similar successes have been achieved in other partner countries such as Malawi, Nepal, and India. Thus, social protection not only addresses poverty (SDG 1) and hunger (SDG 2), it also effectively reduces inequalities (SDG 10), promotes education (SDG 4) and health (SDG 3), particularly for girls and women (SDG 5) – and ultimately contributes to more productive economies (SDG 8).  

To put it in a nutshell: I am not willing to give up on the SDGs – not now, not ever. If the global community increases its efforts and focuses on money, women, and social protection, progress for all SDGs will follow. But we need to act together. And we need to act right away.  

About the author:

Svenja Schulze is the German Federal Minister for Economic Cooperation since December 8, 2021. Previously, she was the Federal Minister for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety (2018 – 2021). Svenja Schulze is a passionate feminist and fights for a more climate-friendly and socially just world.

The views and opinions expressed in this think-piece are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of SIPA or Columbia University.