Transforming the COVID-19 pandemic crisis into collective SDG actions: The 2020  ESCAP-ENEA multistakeholder forum on sustainable development

2020 has presented the planet with a globalised crisis that has put countries to the test worldwide. In these difficult times, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) could represent a turning point in addressing the challenges brought to the fore by the pandemic, as they offer a multilateral approach to many of these problems. 

During the 2019 SDG  summit in New York, the commitment was made to accelerate progress on the initiative and enter the Decade of Action. The pandemic has shown how, to adequately address common issues like these, a coherent, comprehensive and shared recovery action plan needs to be called into action. An example of such commitment to common action can be found in the latest initiatives taken by the East and Northeast Asia subcommittee of the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP-ENEA) countries.  During the Northeast Asia Multi stakeholders Forum on the UN Sustainable Development Goals, back in November 2020, Northeast Asian countries discussed the possibility to turn SDG actions into a collective Covid-19 recovery strategy. 

Northeast Asia, COVID-19 recovery strategies and the SDGs

ESCAP is the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific and serves as a regional hub for the promotion of cooperation in the region and the achievement of a common, sustainable, and inclusive development. It is the largest intergovernmental platform in the Asia-Pacific region, including 53 Member States and 9 associate members. The specific ENEA section consists of China, South Korea, Russia, Mongolia and Japan. Between the 2nd and 3rd of November 2020, through ESCAP-ENEA, the Northeast Asia Multi Stakeholders Forum on UN Sustainable Development Goals took place online. The forum is held every year and provides the opportunity for stakeholders around the Northeast Asian subregion to share experiences, initiatives and enforce policies to reach the SDGs in the region. This year’s event has earned special attention, due not only to the coverage of the SDGs, but also in view of the assessment of the COVID-19 responses. The November 2020 meeting came as the conclusive session of a series of online meetings in October 2020. During these pre-sessions, representatives from each of the member countries shaped their priorities and exchanged opinions on the Goals that needed immediate action. 

The pre-sessions highlighted the progress made by the region in addressing the 17 Goals of the 2030 Agenda. Especially SGDs 2 (Zero Hunger), 6 (Clean Water and Sanitation), 8 (Decent Work and Economic Growth) and 9 (Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure) were highlighted, while stressing the weaker points of the SDGs 10 (Reduced Inequalities), 13 (Climate Action), 12 (Responsible Consumption and Production), 15 (Life on Land) and 16 (Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions). During the talks, discussions called attention to how COVID-19 has emphasised the need to protect people and reduce inequalities, build a more inclusive and resilient society and promote a Green recovery strategy to overcome such difficult times. The talks highlighted how COVID-19 accentuated already existing challenges, worsening the condition of vulnerable groups, with direct and indirect effects on SDGs. 

Apart from the dramatic effects on people’s health (SDG 3), the pandemic and the necessary measures to face the spreading of the virus, have led to a situation in which businesses and schools had to shut down. With remote learning in place, education was suddenly no longer accessible to some, and in many cases less effective (SDG 4). The closure of businesses and the slow-down of production resulted in lower incomes and, in some cases, unemployment. The loss of income led many households, especially among the most vulnerable segments of the populations, to fall below the poverty line (SDG 1 and 8).  

 The ESCAP-ENEA pre-sessions offered an overview of single specific experiences and what countries identified as recovery priorities to be addressed at the November 2020 meeting. Representatives gathered from a variety of fields, identifying the most urgent challenges the sub-region is likely to face and present possible solutions. As common priorities, the forum highlighted Gender Equality, Digitalisation, the inclusion of the private sector in environmental action, and support for vulnerable groups, as a way to pursue both the SDGs and COVID-19 recovery. Mr Alfred Choi, the representative of Oxfam Hong Kong, shed light on the hardships faced during the pandemic by social workers, street cleaners, ethnic minorities, and people with disabilities due to a lack of specific actions in their direction, highlighting the need for a deeper organisation of policy intervention. A similar observation was made by the President of the National Federation of the Blind, Ms Dandordorj, who discussed the lack of medication and the need to raise awareness for people with disabilities in Mongolia. Special attention has been given to the increasing episodes of domestic violence in the region during the lockdown. Ms Feng Yuan, the co-founder of Beijing Equality, discussed the need for better action to defend women, transgender and intersex people, improving knowledge among local authorities, proposing more NGO friendly policies. Digitalisation was also among the protagonists of the discussions, given the opportunities it provides for the organisation of work and online education, shortening the distance created by the pandemic. Liu Song, from the Alibaba Group, highlighted the effect that technology has on a series of spheres when helping the population to get through the pandemic, ranging from the improvement of the digital economy to the support provided to the healthcare sector thanks to online services and connected drug delivery services. Such advantages, though, have not come without challenges. For instance, the increase in digitalisation is leading to a rise in the demand for high-skilled workers, as professor Katsuma from Waseda University pointed out, changing the world of work. He also observed how fast digital transformation is happening today, leading to some contradictions between progress in digitisation and democracy. 

After the forum, the Statement of the North-East Asian Civil Society for 2020 was released. The paper lists a series of areas in which action is advised, with a focus on protecting people by reducing inequalities, taking environmental action and supporting green economic development, to reduce the burden on the planet and closing the digital gap. In this regard, it focuses on the changing nature of e-commerce and its implications for the economy and possible vulnerable categories. In the Asia and the Pacific progress report released in 2021, SDG number 13 on Climate Action appeared to be one of the goals that registered a lesser degree of improvement. As a result, it will be worthwhile to follow how the situation might change in light of the new policies outlined by many Northeast Asian countries. Policy strategies like South Korea’s New Deal, China and Japan’s strategy for Carbon Neutrality, Mongolia’s Vision 2050 or Russia’s pledge to convert to sustainable transportation are likely to lay the ground towards further cooperation in enhancing climate action in the region and show a significant degree of alignment with the principles expressed by the Agenda. The similarities between these recent development policies and the SDGs might suggest that a shared action could be easier to be attained than would be imagined previously, as the countries now seemingly share a certain degree of common purpose.

 With the pandemic still ongoing, it is, however, too soon to draw any conclusions. In the upcoming months, it will be key to observe the direction economic recovery strategies may take and evaluate whether it will be possible for ESCAP-ENEA members to find fertile common ground for cooperation, draft joint strategies and to assess how future cooperation will be carried out based on the experience of the pandemic. Also, one should be able to observe the direction governments and non-state actors will move towards in the subregion as regards the Agenda 2030 goals, especially concerning engagement with civil society.

North Korea and the Agenda 2030 

Among the Northeast Asian members who joined the online forum, there was one missing. North Korea did not assign any representative to the conference. However, recent developments showed that the country might be willing to step up  cooperation with its neighbours in many of the aspects expressed in the Agenda. In June 2021, North Korea presented its first Voluntary National Review on the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development

The country offered an overview of its measures implemented to attain the SDGs. From the document,  it is possible to draw some conclusions on how North Korea could engage with its neighbours and move towards shared action. Possibilities are offered by the areas in which the country has shown a major level of concern. From the Review one can conclude that these concern the areas that touch upon SDGs 12, 13, 14 and 15, linked to the environmental condition of the country. One can conclude that the DPRK might focus on sustainability for the future development of the country, offering opportunities for increased linkages with the region. 

The EU, the SDGs and the Whole-of-Government approach

The EU, under the leadership of von der Leyen, showed a deep resolve for a total commitment towards the SDGs 2030 Agenda. The European Commission has appropriated a holistic strategy that varies from the adoption of transformative policies, to sustainability and engagement with civil society and youth, to granting a wider entanglement between future EU actions and the implementation of the SDGs. The European Commission is following six main headline ambitions and each of them is complementary with at least one of the SDGs: the European Green Deal (SDGs 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14 and 15), An Economy that works for the people (SDGs 1, 3, 4, 5, 8, 9, 10), Europe fit for the Digital Age (SDGs 4 and 9), A European way of life (SDGs 3, 4, 10, 16), European democracy (SDGs 5, 10, 16) and Stronger Europe in the world (SDG 17). 

 Intending to create a more resilient and cohesive society, the EU came up with a recovery plan that is strictly linked to the SDGs. A policy report published by the EU Joint Research Centre found an alignment between the Agenda 2030 and many of the main objectives of the plan. Apart from SDGs number 3 and 8 (Good Health and well-being and Decent work and economic growth) the plan showed an alignment also with the rest of the Agenda, in particular with SDGs 13 and 4.  

The EU and Northeast Asia cooperation post-Pandemic: an SDG-oriented cooperation 

The definition itself of the Agenda 2030 expresses the need for a globalised action in order to be implemented effectively, while the pandemic has shown the importance to act in a coordinated way in order to successfully reach the established goals. 

It is important to transform this period of transition into an opportunity and start adopting shared approaches towards the SDGs, especially in the areas where a shared action can imply transboundary improvements. To do so, one of the most efficient ways of cooperation for the EU to pursue could be through the implementation of the EU Green Deal. The Green Deal is the best bridge to unite EU common action in view of the SDGs, the pandemic’s recovery and international cooperation. The Green Deal addresses almost all the SDGs. It touches upon a wide range of priorities that could help speed up post-pandemic recovery through a serious engagement to mitigate the effects of climate change, boosting the economy and sustainability through circular economic models, the use of different sources and materials to reduce the increasing production of single-use sanitary waste, and the creation of new systems of employment. At the same time, the EU Green Deal would set the basis for the development of a Green Diplomacy based on the SDGs due to its similarities not only with the Agenda 2030 but also with many aspects of the development strategies adopted by the Northeast Asian countries. The Green Deal has already proved its effectiveness during the EU-South Korea bilateral talks that took place on the 24th of October 2019, which ultimately contributed to inspire the formulation of the Korean New Deal. 

A starting point to merge the goals of the Green Deal with the Agenda 2030 as a cooperation strategy with the countries of ESCAP-ENEA can be through trade. Right now, with the global economies taking off again, and with the creation of different policies which address the need for a more sustainable, green and inclusive idea of development, the role of trade is vital. In particular, as it allows addressing not only the SDGs that were directly affected by the pandemic and those directly linked to trade (SDG 8, 10 and 12), but it also opens opportunities to a very diversified variety of actions linked to sustainable development which could contribute to a positive implementation of the other SDGs such as SDGs 13, 14 and 15, and it could be the best way to start putting SDG 17 in action. Trade not only represents a chance at poverty reduction and inclusive development, but it opens the possibility to establish international agreements to green trade globally. The new approach to trade presented by the European Commission is directly linked to the Green Deal and focuses on the six main points highlighted above. To support a green transition through the promotion of responsible and sustainable value chains is one of the aims. The countries of Northeast Asia are among the EU’s most important trading partners, and the trade relations the EU has with them represents a unique opportunity to put in motion a multilateral approach to the SDGs in the areas most affected by the pandemic and by Climate Change. 

Finding diplomatic ways to establish such cooperation with countries outside Europe would both help the EU find inspiration in other countries’ successes and contribute to a much-needed global coordinated action to prompt recovery in the aftermath of the pandemic. 

Author: Alessandra Tamponi, Junior Researcher 

Picture: Wikimedia Commons