Africa: Are the SDGs in Reverse Gear?

Nairobi — When I was a little girl, my mother told us the story of a woman who escaped from a monster by cooking stones: when the monster fell asleep waiting for his dinner, the woman ran for her life.

I thought of this tale when I read last month about Peninah Bahati Kitsao, a Kenyan widow who boiled stones in the hope of lulling her eight children to sleep. In Peninah's case, the monster was hunger and poverty.

Shocked and saddened, Kenyans took to social media to call for help for her, but just a week later, Peninah's four-month-old baby died. Unlike my mother's story, unfortunately, there will be no escape from the monster for Peninah and millions of people like her, unless the world agrees to take action - and quickly.

For widowed women such as Peninah, the convergence of gendered norms and social and economic inequalities has always determined what befalls them: in the past, during the coronavirus crisis, and doubtless after the pandemic ends.

The multiple inequalities that she and so many other marginalised people face are not new phenomena: COVID-19 has merely placed them in the spotlight. These are the inequalities that have been the targets of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals for the past five years.

When governments around the world adopted the SDGs' 17 global goals and 169 targets in September 2015, they pledged to end poverty and food insecurity, protect the planet and ensure that no one would be left behind in the enjoyment of peace and prosperity by 2030.

These 17 ambitious goals were to be at the heart of a revitalized global partnership built on the spirit of strengthened global solidarity, focused on the needs of the poorest and most vulnerable. But as the COVID-19 pandemic grips the planet, the threat of a collapsing global economy has further slowed the limited progress that has been made on achieving these goals - to the point where the 2030 vision now looks more like a mirage than a roadmap.

In Niger, 1.6 million vulnerable children are affected by humanitarian crises, including border closures and COVID-19 containment measures.

Even long before the pandemic, it was clear that these goals would be challenging to achieve. Before the finalisation and adoption of the 2030 Agenda, feminists and civil society organisations participating in the negotiations were raising red flags when they realised that the implementation of the global goals would be undermined by the lack of will on the part of governments around the world to financing its development agenda and committing to the systemic, structural change essentials to tackling the roots of extreme poverty, economic inequality and the rising concentration of wealth.

COVID-19 crisis aside, what global inequality has shown us is that international economic governance is skewed in favour of developed countries. While we know that the populations and economies of many developed countries have been hard hit by the pandemic, we must not forget that even in the time of COVID-19, the extraction of financial and non-financial resources from the global South to the global North carries on unabated.

As inequalities scholar Branko Milanovic observes in his book The Haves and the Have Nots, wealth has been unevenly spread throughout the world for many centuries, and where you are born largely determines your wealth and opportunities in life.

These determinants are key factors in the financial commitments that have been made to the implementation of the 2030 Agenda by the world's governments. And even the commitments made before the pandemic were not sufficient: the shortfall in the funding needed to achieve SDGs in developing countries is now estimated to be $2.5 to $3 trillion per year.

This comes on top of the shortfall in financing for development more generally, with many wealthy nations failing to meet their obligation of 0.7% of their gross national income to official development assistance (ODA).

We do not yet know the full toll that COVID-19 will take on humanity - but the signs are deeply troubling. Research by the United Nations University (UNU-WIDER) warns of an increase in global poverty by as much as half a billion people, or 8% of the total human population.

This will not only set us back to the poverty levels of the early 1990s, but also means that our ability to achieve the SDGs is under immense threat. New analysis from the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) has also pointed to the consequences of the pandemic on women's and girls' health and exercise of rights.

The global projections shared by UNFPA are mind-blowing: for every three months that the COVID-19 continues, up to 2 million more women will go without access to modern contraceptives, there will be an additional 15 million cases of gender-based violence, and over the next decade, 2 million additional female genital mutilation cases and 13 million additional child marriages will occur - all of which could have been averted. We can already see the reversal of decades on gains in women's rights.

COVID-19 is amplifying deep-seated gender inequalities, but we must remember that in pre-pandemic times we had barely shifted the needle on the status of millions of people in precarious, informal work.

Peninah Bahati Kitsao was a laundry lady before social distancing policies meant that she and millions more domestic workers lost their incomes, and those whose work was already undervalued and underpaid and for whom food insecurity was a daily reality were pushed even further away from the world envisioned by the 17 global goals.

In their worldwide pledge to "leave no one behind", the global goals explicitly intended to address the rights and needs of people such as Peninah: the people least often heard and already furthest behind.

Achieving the SDGs always required explicit, concrete steps to end extreme poverty, curb inequalities, confront discrimination and fast-track progress for the hundreds of millions who need it most - and COVID-19 has not changed this requirement. Around the world, the calls for concerted action are increasing.

As part of its Economic Rescue Plan for All, Oxfam is urging both immediate debt cancellation for poor countries, and direct help via cash grants to people such as Peninah. Feminists led by AWID (the Association for Women's Rights in Development) are rallying behind a campaign for bailouts for people such as Peninah, including domestic workers, sex workers, undocumented workers, underpaid and unpaid care workers, migrant workers, seasonal agricultural workers, and all those whose work is essential to our societies.

Feminist economists remind us that contradictions and crises are a constant feature of financialised capitalism and the system rides on the backs of the poor.

One of the most important lessons from Peninah Bahati Kitsao's terrible, preventable anguish is that without addressing gender inequality, the SDGs' promise of equitable social development will not be fulfilled.

Her story underscores the fact that women and girls comprise the majority of those living in poverty, experience persistent and multi-dimensional inequalities, and bear the brunt of the impact of the COVID-19 crisis.

Discrimination, place of residence, socio-economic status, governance and vulnerability - all factors identified by the United Nations Development Program - are why Peninah and her countless sisters around the world in precarious jobs, with no access to family planning or education, have always been left behind.

We will never build a better world until we all step up to do battle with the monster of hunger and inequality that took Peninah's child.

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