KARACHI- Pakistan and other countries around the world can still achieve targets under the sustainable development goals despite challenges posed by the pandemic, said researchers and development experts at an online seminar organised by Aga Khan University’s Institute for Global Health and Development, IGHD.
In 2015, governments around the world signed up to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals or SDGs: an integrated set of 169 targets in 17 areas of development by 2030. 2020 was supposed to mark the launch of a ‘decade of action’ where governments, private sector stakeholders and civil society accelerated efforts to create a better and more sustainable future. But the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted these plans, with governments having to focus on emergency measures to limit the impacts of the pandemic.
In his speech, Dr Faisal Sultan, Special Assistant to Pakistan’s prime minister on health, described the government’s response to tackling the pandemic. Dr Sultan said: “Though we did take drastic measures to limit the number of infections and deaths caused by COVID-19, we realised very early that we must not fall victim to tunnel vision.
“We understood that it is crucial to make decisions that are conducive to surmounting not just this pandemic but the myriad of other development challenges that could also cost lives. In the context of Pakistan, a complete lockdown would have been counter-productive to SDGs like Zero Hunger, Decent Work and Economic Growth, Good Health and Quality Education. That is why Pakistan was one of the first few countries to opt for smart lockdowns instead.”
The pandemic’s global impacts are sobering, with an estimated 270 million people around the world at risk of starvation, 320 million children out of school and 495 million jobs lost, according to data from agencies of the United Nations.
Speakers at the seminar noted that the pandemic has both exposed and widened existing inequalities. Lack of health insurance, limited universal health coverage, poor access to water during lockdown situations, and cramped living conditions – which make physical distancing challenging – have suddenly become factors that determine chances of survival.
“While the virus has impacted everyone, it is affecting the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people the most,” said Professor Zulfiqar A. Bhutta, founding director of AKU’s IGHD. “This is because many societies have not fully addressed long-lasting, underlying inequalities related to poverty, hunger, gender, access to healthcare and basic services such as clean water and sanitation that have been plaguing our societies for decades. This has led to people around the world facing simultaneous health, economic and social crises during the pandemic.”
Speakers at the event noted that the SDGs represent an interdisciplinary framework that requires stakeholders to assess all areas of development. They noted how the SDGs bring into focus the root causes and ripple effects of under-development while providing a ‘to do list’ that can help create more equitable and resilient societies.
For example, experts noted that SDGs targets related to achieving universal health coverage, bolstering the health workforce, protecting wildlife, and enhancing global early warning systems for health risks would not only protect against future shocks but would also slow the cascading impacts of crises in low-income nations.
Dr Alex Awiti, vice provost of AKU in East Africa, spoke about the role played by universities in developing innovative ideas and in guiding and inspiring students, communities, civil society, business and governments to pursue sustainable growth.
“COVID-19 will not be the last global crisis we face,” said Dr Awiti. “If we let the sustainable development goals guide our response, we can focus on achieving long-lasting, inclusive development, rather than just economic growth. This will help us emerge from the crisis as stronger societies.”
Prof Jeffrey D. Sachs, director of the Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia University, noted that most countries were not on a trajectory to achieve targets under the 17 goals. In his speech, he called on companies to be more mindful of the importance of conserving the environment for future generations and spoke about how an emphasis on profits was harming efforts to achieve sustainable development.
Canadian High Commissioner to Pakistan Wendy Gilmour highlighted the importance of investing in gender equality as core to achieving the SDGs by 2030. “The evidence shows that promoting women’s and girls’ empowerment is the most effective way to reduce extreme poverty and build a more peaceful, inclusive, and prosperous world.”
AKU’s IGHD will serve as the host of the Sustainable Development Solutions Network, SDSN, in Pakistan and will work in partnership with over 40 national and regional SSDNs to develop practical and sustainable initiatives to achieve goals under the SDGs and the Paris Climate Agreement.
Speaking about the institute’s future plans, Prof Bhutta said: “AKU’s IGHD will continue to work on areas that link social and structural determinants of health with health outcomes, including gender equality, women’s empowerment, education and healthcare-seeking behaviours. We hope to create partnerships and synergies for multi-disciplinary work on issues of relevance to the SDGs.”
Speakers noted that despite the wide-ranging challenges posed by the pandemic, there is still cause for hope. The pandemic has forced every country to consider the possible global impact of local events and has seen policymakers take emergency actions that seemed unthinkable before the pandemic. This bodes well for future collaborations to achieve targets under the SDGs, they added.