Michael Green of the Social Progress Imperative calls for the richest countries to put their own houses in order as new index reveals that it will take until 2073 to meet the Global Goals, with climate change acting as a big brake on progress

Business as usual is not going to get us close to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). That is the clear finding of the new Social Progress Index (SPI), which tracks the progress of 149 countries covering more than 95% of the world’s population. The SPI offers a crumb of comfort that the world is making some progress but only at a pace to hit the SDG targets by 2073. What do the world’s leaders meeting in New York this week need to do to turn this around?

If we want to accelerate progress towards the SDGs we have to look at the countries that are succeeding and those that are failing. Norway tops the ranking and has already improved its SPI score steadily since 2014 by 2.38 points so is on track to meet the SDGs by 2030. That makes it an exception to most other rich countries. G7 countries like Germany, France and the UK are stagnant or only sluggish in their improvement, so look set to miss the 2030 targets.

The United States is even worse. It currently ranks a humbling 26th in the world on SPI and is going backwards. Indeed, the US is one of only four countries – alongside South Sudan, Nicaragua and Brazil – to have seen its social progress score decline since 2014. The SDGs are but a distant dream if that trend continues.

A rising tide of intolerance that spans from the US to Brazil to Hungary is pulling the world back on measures of inclusiveness

So the first problem in hitting the SDGs is that the rich world is not putting its own house in order. If the richest countries in the world that are already closest to the targets cannot do it for themselves, how on Earth can they expect emerging and developing countries to achieve the goals?

Indeed, the fastest improvers on social progress are among the poorer countries of the world, such as Ethiopia, Nepal and The Gambia, gaining six or more points on SPI since 2014. They have a long, long way to go to hit the SDG targets but they are at least making rapid progress.

Rich countries can rightly point out that poorer countries catching up will probably make faster progress towards the SDGs. This is why although some of the big emerging countries, like China, Nigeria, Pakistan and Bangladesh, have improved by around three points on SPI since 2014, they should be doing better. The Philippines, up just 1.34 points, and Brazil down 0.72 points, are the negative outliers.

G7 countries like Germany, France and the UK are sluggish in their improvement. (Credit: SPI)

SPI also shows that progress is patchy across different aspects of the SDGs. Progress is fastest in terms of access to information through mobile phones and the burgeoning global higher education system.

There is steady progress on nutrition and basic medical issues like child mortality, as well as on water and sanitation. This includes some inspiring successes. From 2014 to 2019, Nepal cut rural open defecation from 39% to 25% and increased access to basic sanitation facilities from 47% to 62%. Progress is possible; it is just not happening fast enough because it is not happening everywhere. The challenge here is scaling faster.

A bigger problem is where the world is stalled. Safety is not improving; school education improvement has stalled because of concerns about quality; and a rising tide of intolerance, which spans from the US to Brazil to Hungary, is pulling the world back on measures of inclusiveness.

Governments alone will not get us there. Corporations cherry-picking a couple of targets won’t get us there. We need a more fundamental rethink

Yet the biggest obstacle of all is that rights are under attack in the majority of countries. Nicaragua, Poland and Turkey are among the worst offenders. The world as a whole has declined by 4.17 points on rights since 2014. This impacts negatively not just on SDG16, on peace and justice, but also on the goals on poverty, gender equity and reducing inequality. Unless we can turn the tide on the erosion of rights, the SDGs will be unachievable.

Finally, the elephant in the room is climate change. The SDGs will be reached by 2073 on current trends. We all want that to accelerate, but the risk is that progress will decelerate due to climate change.

Economists still argue over whether, despite a big drop in poverty, the Millennium Development Goals were achieved or not. The SDGs represent a bigger, more complex agenda. Through the Social Progress Index we can get a handle on how we are doing against these 17 goals and the answer is clear and not pretty.

Incremental change will not get us there. Governments alone will not get us there. Corporations cherry-picking a couple of targets where they have some charity projects won’t get us there. We need a more fundamental rethink, shifting from the short-termism of gross domestic product and quarterly earnings to long-term, sustainable value-creation. Are our leaders ready to lead?


Michael Green is chief executive officer of the Social Progress Imperative and co-author (with Matthew Bishop) of 'Philanthrocapitalism: How Giving Can Save the World and The Road from Ruin: A New Capitalism for a Big Society'. His TED Talks have been viewed more than four million times. Michael is @shepleygreen on Twitter.

Main picture credit: Anca Milushev/Shutterstock
SDGs  New York Climate Week  Social Progress Index  G7  climate change 

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