Putting the Sustainable Development Goals at the centre of the COVID-19 pandemic response

By Dr. Yahya Anouti and Jana Batal


In recent years, countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) have been working to integrate the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) into their national development plans. The COVID-19 pandemic presents an opportunity to put the SDGs at the centre of the stabilization and recovery efforts.

The importance of the SDGs stems from the tangible benefits they provide to different economies under stress from the pandemic. For non-oil economies, the pandemic reinforces the need for resilient and renewable energy systems that can withstand trade disruptions in line with SDG 7 of Affordable and Clean Energy. For economies with a substantial informal sector, SDG 1 of No Poverty affirms the need for effective supports for critical groups contributing to the socio-economic fabric of a country. The SDG framework can serve as a blueprint for determining a response to the crisis and ensure inclusive and diversified economic growth that is consistent with national medium- and long-term plans.

MENA governments will need to make changes to their planning with three guiding principles.

SDG-driven prioritization and budgeting

MENA governments should apply an integrated approach to stabilization and recovery investments, articulating how these investments advance specific SDGs. Their integrative approach should also consider the linkages between different SDG targets and prioritize indicators that have a positive multiplier effect on the overall society, economy, and sustainability agenda.

Additionally, MENA governments will benefit from using official checks and balances mechanisms to improve accountability. This transparency is particularly important given the substantial stimulus packages announced in the wake of the pandemic. Following the example of Norway, MENA governments can integrate SDG targets into the on-going budget review process, thereby improving resource allocation and performance evaluation. Economic recovery and sustainable development do not have to be mutually exclusive. As presented by SDG 7 and 9 of Affordable and Clean Energy and Industry, Innovation, and Infrastructure, such investments will support job creation, economic diversification, and increased resiliency to future shocks while pushing the sustainability agenda.

Participatory governance

MENA governments need to expand their consultative processes with a range of stakeholders, especially youth, to gather localized feedback and input into policy formulation for all 17 SDGs. The Finnish government, for example, ran a citizen panel and created a Youth Group to gauge public perception of issues involved with meeting SDGs and integrated the findings into its sustainable development policy roadmap. Canada takes a similar approach, organizing workshops for youth. In the UAE, members of the Youth and Private Sector Advisory Councils work with policymakers to improve policy-related decisions.

Governments will also need to adopt innovative ways of engaging participants to share ideas and projects that contribute to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, such as online surveys and Twitter impressions, as seen in Canada.

Localized and shared implementation

MENA governments need to share the implementation of SDG targets with local authorities, the private sector, and citizens. SDGs are more than government business; they concern the whole of society. Indeed, meeting SDGs is similar to countering the pandemic—it requires the involvement and contributions of everyone. For instance, Indonesia’s Localize framework builds the capabilities of sub-national authorities such as provinces, municipalities and districts to plan and implement the targets in collaboration with national authorities.

Governments can also partner with the private sector to launch impact investment initiatives. The UK’s Clean Growth Fund, a co-investment between the UK government and the private sector, is an example of this approach, which aims to deploy innovative clean technologies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Most importantly, SDGs need the participation of the general public. In the context of climate change, the UN’s ActNow Climate Campaign raises awareness and celebrates smart consumption patterns, such as turning lights off and decreasing time in the shower, to encourage behavioural change. In view of current social distancing measures, millions of people who are spending more time at home may have a newfound appreciation for such habits, possibly paving the way for increased adoption of similar behaviours in the future.

As they proceed with ambitious national development plans and investments, MENA countries need to bring their economic goals, SDGs, and pandemic responses together. By ensuring that these plans proceed in harmony, MENA countries can use each to reinforce the other, thereby ensuring national and sustainable development.

This article originally appeared in London School of Economics, May 2020.

About the authors

Dr. Yahya Anouti is a partner with Strategy& Middle East, part of the PwC network, and Jana Batal is a senior fellow with the Ideation Center, the leading think tank for Strategy& Middle East.

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Dr. Yahya Anouti

Dr. Yahya Anouti

Partner and Sustainability Leader, Strategy& Middle East

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