The (un-) Dirty Dozen: Where social progress is possible

Progress is possible and the solutions are known. That’s what comes through the many reports and reams of statistics at this week’s U.N. session reviewing progress toward the 17 Sustainable Development Goals.

In almost every one of the areas covered by the 2030 global goals (and there are 169 targets and 232 indicators), many, if not most, countries are making dramatic progress. That confirms that we pretty well know what works. We pawed through the preparatory documents (so you don’t have to!) to bring you a dozen highlights from the baseline data.

1. The end of poverty is in sight…in east Asia. Since 2000, global poverty has been cut in half. In eastern and southeastern Asia, the poverty rate declined from 35 percent to just 3 percent from 1999 to 2013. The poverty hotspot remains sub-Saharan Africa, where 42 percent of people live in extreme poverty, more than twice the rate of any other region. Worldwide, 767 million people lived on less than $1.90 a day in 2013, down from 1.7 billion in 1999.

2. Disasters are a disaster for the poor. Disasters hit far harder in low- and lower-middle-income countries. More than 26 million people are pushed into poverty every year by disasters, which now cause up to $300 billion in annual economic losses. According to the World Bank, weather and other disaster resilience-building can protect poor people save their communities $100 billion a year.

3. AIDS transmissions have been cut in half. Now comes the hard part. New HIV infections are down to 0.3 infections per 1,000 uninfections. That’s down 45 percent since 2000, and for children under 15 the drop has been even steeper. Ending Aids is another 2030 goal, but we’re not going to get there unless we can get to 90–90–90 by 2020. 90% of HIV-positive people to know their status; 90% of those to receive treatment; and 90% of those to show suppression of the virus. Right now, we’re 50–50 at best.

4. WASH your hands. Death rates attributed to the lack of WASH services (for safe water, sanitation and hygiene) in sub-Saharan Africa and Central/Southern Asia remain stubbornly high, at 46 and 23 per 100,000 people, respectively, compared to 12 per 100,000 people globally in 2012. Lack of access to hygiene is a major risk factor for infectious diseases and mortality.

5. The clean energy transition is about more than climate change. There are lots of adjacent benefits to clean cookstoves, electric cars and phasing out coal. Indoor and ambient air pollution is the world’s biggest environmental health risk. Household air pollution, mostly from cooking, led to an estimated 4.3 million deaths in 2012. Ambient (outdoor) air pollution resulted in another three million deaths. In 2014, 9 of 10 people living in cities breathed air that did not comply with safety standards.

6. Doh! Women do more unpaid work. Women spend roughly triple the average amount of time on unpaid domestic and care work than men, according to survey data from 83 countries and areas. Women’s unpaid work was the topic of Melinda Gates’ annual letter last year. Many parts of the world are making progress, she wrote, with three ‘R’s’: “Recognize that unpaid work is still work. Reduce the amount of time and energy it takes. And Redistribute it more evenly between women and men.”

7. Economic growth is decoupling from energy and resource consumption. Between 2012 to 2014, 15 of the world’s 20 largest energy-consuming countries reduced the ratio of energy used per unit of GDP (though not quite doubling the rate of improvement, as targeted). Emissions of carbon dioxide per unit of manufacturing value-added also are declining. We haven’t yet fully turned the corner: Domestic material consumption (the natural resources used in all economic processes) increased from 1.2 kg to 1.3 kg per unit of GDP from 2000 to 2010.

8. Paint a big fat target on the back of those remittance fees. In 2016, international remittances totalled $575 billion. Post offices and money transfer operators charged fees of more than 6%, on average; commercial banks charge about 11%. The SDG fee target is 3%. A new crop of startups, many of them deploying blockchain technology, are driving fees to below 4%, with more reductions to come. Overall, the fintech revolution is taking hold: From 2011 to 2014, 700 million adults opened accounts; the share of adults with some kind of financial account hit 61%, up from 51%.

9. Fisheries and forests on the rebound. Overfishing depletes ecosystems, reduces biodiversity and impairs food security. However, “the trend has slowed and appears to have stabilized from 2008 to 2013,” the UN reports. Likewise, the net loss of forest continues to slow and forest biomass stock per hectare is stable. The annual net loss of forest area globally from 2010 to 2015 was less than half that of the 1990s. We’re still going in the wrong direction: the proportion of land covered by forest fell to 30.6% in 2015, from 31.6% in 1990.

10. Reports of human trafficking are going up, but that may be good news. The UN reports that countries “have made solid progress in terms of detecting victims of trafficking in persons.” The share of victims trafficked for sexual exploitation fell in comparison to those trafficked for forced labor. More than a quarter of all trafficking victims detected in 2014 were children.

11. Fertility rates keep falling. Adolescent birth rates among females 15 to 19 years old declined by 21% from 2000 to 2015. In northern America and southern Asia, the decline was more than 50%. The teen birth rate remains high in two-thirds of all countries, with more than 20 births per 1,000 adolescent girls in 2015. Globally, the fertility of half of the world’s population has fallen below the replacement ratio, says a study from the University of Oxford, making out of date the dominant narrative of a soaring world population.

12. Time to scale up sustainable ag. We need to produce more food for more people with less water on less land at lower prices. Sounds like a challenge for tech. Two billion people, or a quarter of the world’s population, are living in countries under high water stress (freshwater is being used faster than it’s being replaced). Undernourishment has declined from 15% in 2002 to 11% in 2016. But last year, 21 countries (13 of them in sub-Saharan Africa) experienced high staple-food prices. Investments in enhanced agricultural productivity is crucial. The good news: lending to agribusinesses buying from the world’s half-billion smallholder farmers is growing. Smarter subsidies, more risk capital and increased business and technical assistance can increase the flow of capital.

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