The pandemic has realigned the SDG compass

Now is the time to pave the way for sustainability everywhere, using the global goals as a guide. A commentary by Tanja Gönner, Chair of the GIZ Management Board.

The 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were the paradigm for all our work even before the outbreak of coronavirus, but the pandemic has realigned the SDG compass as its impact has exposed weaknesses and strengths in our societies – and this applies in both industrialised and developing countries. The consequences of the pandemic pose long-term challenges for us, but I also see this as an opportunity, as the pandemic has strengthened the SDGs in their role as policy goals for the global community.

The 2030 Agenda – adopted by the member states of the United Nations in 2015 – with its 17 goals for social, economic and environmentally sustainable development, is more important today than ever. The pandemic has shown us how closely these different aspects are linked and it is only when all five pillars – planet, people, peace, prosperity and partnership – are stable that a viable sustainable development structure can emerge. Alexander von Humboldt's basic principle that everything is connected applies here. 

The United Nations is warning of a surge in poverty resulting from the pandemic. Not only have people lost their jobs, but they also lack basic necessities: in 2021, around 235 million people will need help to access water, food and sanitary facilities. The recovery must be sustainable and it is not about returning to the pre-pandemic status quo. Instead, if we are to recover stronger, it is time to pave the way towards sustainability. 

‘Green recovery’ means creating a socially just, environmentally conscious and climate-friendly economic and social order, using the SDGs as a guide – and this is also the focus for our main commissioning parties, the German Government with its Federal Development Ministry (BMZ) and the European Union (EU). 

In the short term, for example, in the spirit of green recovery, we are helping 80 small and medium-sized enterprises in the wood and metal industries in Bosnia and Herzegovina to align their supply chains with national and regional suppliers and make production more environmentally friendly. This will enable them to survive the pandemic and build resource-friendly production processes and recycling structures for the long term, which will have a positive impact on the environment and climate and ensure the companies’ economic stability.

Green recovery also involves expanding existing programmes such as one in Indonesia, where we plan to promote the production and distribution of solar-powered ice machines. Developed in conjunction with local manufacturers, these devices make local food marketing more secure. Establishing safe cold chains is a challenge, especially in remote regions of tropical countries. Here, too, the assistance works at different levels – cooperation with the government, the national COVID-19 recovery programme and the private sector encourages green investments and thus not only protects the climate through the use of solar energy but also creates new jobs.

Everything must be interlinked

These kinds of examples illustrate how much the economic, social and environmental dimensions of sustainable development depend on each other. Green modernisation will only succeed when everything is interlinked. It is hard to believe that in 2020, around 840 million people worldwide still had no access to electricity and 2.7 billion used wood or charcoal to cook. This is harmful to health and bad for biodiversity and the climate. We have launched the Energising Development Programme, with commissioning parties including BMZ, other European ministries and the EU. It promotes access to renewable energy in 21 countries throughout Africa, Latin America and Asia, and in doing so it has provided electricity and modern stoves to 22.9 million people on three continents. 

In the energy sector, we work on behalf of various German federal ministries and support federal states in developing energy scenarios and strategies. Currently, the focus is on producing green hydrogen from renewable energies. This is an economically attractive option for countries with extensive sun and wind energy. We have been active in the field of green hydrogen in Chile since 2014, for example, paving the way for 94,000 new jobs to be created by 2050. At around EUR 883.6 million, one third of the funding behind our work in the public-benefit sector is already dedicated to the area of climate and renewable energies.  

This is because the fight against climate change is also a peace project – something which is often overlooked. This is not limited to just fragile states, although this tends to be where the issue is most acute: droughts, floods, uninhabitable regions and a lack of prospects displace people, destabilise neighbouring states, increase social tensions and social discontent, and trigger conflicts. Climate change has already forced 24 million people to leave their homes and migration is on the rise, with the World Bank forecasting that up to 143 million people could be affected by internal migration due to climate change by 2050. Measures designed to adapt to climate change strengthen resilience and have a stabilising effect. They ensure the success of German development cooperation – after all, development can only take place if there is security. 


Integrated thinking

In sub-Saharan Africa alone, 100 million people could lose their homes in the years ahead. That is why we are supporting the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in implementing the Global Compact on Refugees. In East Africa, we are strengthening the social and economic infrastructure along refugee routes in order to help the refugees themselves and also relieve the burden on host regions. In Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda, we are helping set up ‘energy kiosks’ that provide refugees with solar lamps and solar stoves. In Kenya, three health centres, four education centres and two refugee shelters are being built that can also be used to isolate the sick during the coronavirus pandemic. We will also be supplying electricity from renewable sources to three health centres in Uganda. At the same time, however, we are also helping to tackle the root causes of displacement, something which has significant implications in terms of sustainable security, as people need to see prospects available to them in their countries of origin. In the short and medium term, livelihoods must be secured, while in the long term, it is necessary to strengthen governance structures.

Economic, social and environmental aspects are intertwined in sustainable development. In Mexico, for example, 43 per cent of people live below the poverty line and 60 per cent of employees do not have social security. GIZ is supporting Mexico in implementing the SDGs with the strategy it developed in 2019. Around 1,300 stakeholders have been involved in the process, and the first municipalities are already aligning their development plans accordingly. Mexico has huge potential for sustainable tourism as it is one of the countries with the greatest biodiversity. Nature must be conserved and the environment protected in a way that benefits people both socially and economically. The people affected are also involved in this process, for example, in developing a strategy for protecting and using coastal regions. This approach highlights the way our work is structured: we think in an integrated way and include everyone concerned. Sustainability is the glue that holds everything together – and also the consistent theme in every area. 

Tanja Gönner is the Chair of the Management Board at the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH.

First published in: F.A.Z.-Magazin Verantwortung 1-2021, p. 8-11


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