The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the markers for a sustainable post-pandemic reconstruction

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Dr László Borbély, State Counsellor for the Cabinet of the Prime Minister of Romania, Coordinator of the Department for Sustainable Development of the General Secretariat of the Romania Government, Associate Professor at the "Babeș-Bolyai" University of Cluj-Napoca

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the markers for a sustainable post-pandemic reconstruction

The Coronavirus pandemic has taken us all by surprise. Irrespective of nationality, upbringing, social status or professional activity, the guideposts of the world we inhabit have suddenly been moved. The effects of the pandemic on each of us in turn may have been greater, or lesser, but were in any instance at the very least perceptible. All of a sudden, we all became vulnerable in the face of an invisible enemy that strikes its victims without regard for their position in society. The healthcare challenge was also quickly reflected in the economy. The better part of so-called “advanced” economies shut down for various intervals in order to slow the spread of the virus and gain that essential window in which to strengthen the capacity of healthcare systems to adequately manage the pandemic. It is here that a first principle arises that must underpin any considerations of a post-pandemic reconstruction: the realisation that not only is the world itself interconnected, but also all sectors of socio-economic life. Crisis in a particular sector inevitably causes aftershocks in all other sectors. This evolution represents a first clue that we are in need of a holistic approach in attempting to find solutions to contemporary issues.

Any form of crisis has dramatic effects on society and on people’s well-being. Nevertheless, whenever approaching such difficult moments we have a duty to always retain the capacity to identify the positive aspects, however difficult to find they might be. Hope and a healthy dose of optimism are often included in the lessons we should do well to learn, and of course in our reconstruction efforts. At such watershed moments, we must lucidly assess the way contemporary society functions, and analyse those mechanisms that can suffer improvement. Socio-economic reconstruction, therefore, is not a mere stage necessary to overcome the crisis, but rather an opportunity to improve the world we inhabit and which the future generations will inherit.

The global health crisis struck at a time when the need to alter the prevailing models of economic development was becoming ever more obvious. Even at the beginning of this year, Australia faced an unprecedented series of wildfires. Extreme weather patterns are becoming more and more frequent. Until now, Romania has thankfully been spared from such major disasters, but even at the national level we have witnessed wholly atypical situations, as was the case of the 2019 tornado. The impact of human activity on the environment is also becoming ever more visible. The classic developmental paradigm based on increasing consumption has indeed improved our well-being and quality of life to a certain extent, yet its limits have also been showing for some time. Romania is in need of a shift in its current developmental paradigm so that it can successfully face the challenges of the 21st century. We live in times defined by the process of globalisation, by increasing inequality and by an aggravation of environmental issues. We require a new approach, and sustainable development can offer solutions to most of the problems of contemporary society.

Concerns regarding the environmental impact of economic development have been raised as early as the 1960s and ‘70s. The broadly-accepted definition of “sustainable development” today was first coined in 1987 in the Brundtland Report, titled Our Common Future: “development that fulfils the requirements of the current generation, without at the same time compromising the capacity of future generations to fulfil their own needs”. We can therefore speak of two fundamental components of sustainable development: (1), that economic growth must not endanger the natural equilibrium of our planet; and (2), the increasingly recognised need to ensure equitable exchanges between generations.

Concerns to this end had been voiced in Romanian thought as early as the 1970s. Nicolae Georgescu Roegen was one of the world’s most prominent economists in this regard, the creator of a new school of economic thought: bioeconomics. His particularly important and innovative contribution explains economics through the lens of the law of entropy. In his view, the socio-economic process extends beyond its traditionally-recognised threshold (supply – consumption), taking into account the relations and permanent exchanges with the natural environment, the latter seen on the one hand as a habitable medium, a source of energy and exhaustible available materials (low entropy = order), and on the other as a space for discarding and storing refuse (high entropy = disorder). Another Romanian personality that contributed to the elaboration of these concepts was Grigore Antipa. Moreover, even Constantin Brâncuși drew international attention to the value of traditional Romanian culture from an innovative perspective, through his artistic technique which incorporates traditional creative models (direct woodwork, a connection with the materials themselves). At such difficult moments as the one we are currently traversing, when we are actively searching for new models, we must capitalise upon this heritage and incorporate it into quotidian culture, so that our citizens internalise the principles of sustainable development.

Nearer to our time, 2015 proved to be a particularly good year in terms of the sheer number of international agreements ratified, such as the Paris Accord on Climate Change, the Sendai Framework for mitigating the risk of disasters, or the United Nations’ Agenda for Action signed in Addis Ababa, which outlined the financial mechanisms necessary for a transition towards a sustainable future. That same year, during the Summit of the United Nations held in New York, the leaders of the world adopted an emblematic document: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development – a manifesto containing 17 Sustainable Development Goals that would transform the world we live in into a better one for both ourselves and for future generations. Through the Objectives it proposes, the Agenda touches upon each of our surrounding elements. “No Poverty”, “Good Health and Well-being”, “Quality Education”, “Reduced Inequalities”, “Climate Action” etc. – these are all objectives that aim to provide a better life for everyone. Beyond the practical targets set and the extremely important technical details relevant to its implementation, the 2030 Agenda is predicated on fundamental principles as solid as they are noble. In the transition to a sustainable society, we must not leave anyone behind; and the creation of a sustainable future can only be achieved through consolidated partnerships. Despite our best efforts, we will be unable to achieve the desired results if we cannot inform and mobilise a critical mass in support of this fundamental transformation.

The 2030 Agenda and the 17 Sustainable Development Goals it proposes were also adopted by Romania. In April 2016 the Romanian Parliament, in a joint session of its two Chambers, became the first of the 176 members of the Inter-Parliamentary Union to express its support for the implementation of the 2030 Agenda. 2017 saw the creation of the Department for Sustainable Development subordinate to the Romanian Government, tasked with coordinating the implementation of the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals at a national level. The most significant result of the Department for Sustainable Development has been the complete revision of the 2030 National Strategy for the Sustainable Development of Romania. Its overarching vision argues that sustainable development offers a frame of reference which, once internalised by citizens, will help to create a more equitable society, defined by balance and solidarity, one that can appropriately handle the changes effected by current national, regional and global challenges, including demographic decline. The concern of the state for its citizens, coupled with the respect of citizens for state institutions, for their fellow man, for moral values and for cultural and ethnic diversity will lead to a more sustainable society.

Resilience, solidarity, the imperative to not leave anyone behind, represent fundamental principles promoted by the 2030 Agenda and the 2030 National Strategy for the Sustainable Development of Romania. They are also more relevant than ever in the context of the current socio-economic crisis we find ourselves in. Among experts active in the field of sustainable development, it is almost unanimously accepted that the pandemic will inevitably have a significant impact on the implementation of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. A report published by the United Nations Economic and Social Committee makes reference to three potential scenarios: an accelerated transition towards sustainable development; a continued pace of transition; or a worsening of the global situation. Beyond the technical details, the outcome that our actions in the following period should strive towards is to transform the present crisis into an opportunity for solid and sustainable socio-economic reconfiguration and reconstruction.

The path we must take is, for the most part, outlined in the very same 17 Sustainable Development Goals. The closer national policies align themselves with this new paradigm, the greater our chance to not only overcome the crisis, but to build a resilient, more equitable society in closer communion with the natural environment. In what follows, I propose a series of concrete examples of fundamental principles which should underpin the post-pandemic reconstruction efforts from the perspective of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.

Sustainable Development Goal 1: No poverty. The health crisis occasioned by the pandemic will give rise to an ample economic crisis, as the majority of experts are currently predicting. For the first time in the past three decades, the degree of poverty worldwide could well increase, with over half a billion individuals forced below the poverty line – as modelled by a recent analysis published by UN experts at the Institute for Developing Economic Research. Given the circumstances, the implementation of SDG 1 by 2030 will become a much more difficult task, both in Romania and at the global level. In order to counteract at least some of the negative effects, we are in need of a sustainable approach, with public policies that consistently have the impact on vulnerable groups in mind. Over the following years, the public, private and non-profit sectors will have to work in complement to one another. At present, the Department for Sustainable Development is coordinating the draft of a Plan of Action for implementing the Strategy which will take into account the new socio-economic realities.

        Sustainable Development Goal 2: Zero hunger. The coronavirus pandemic has refocused our attention on the vital role played by agriculture and the food industry for the proper functioning of society. According to an analysis carried out by the National Bank of Romania, the deficit in international foodstuffs and produce has recently seen a downturn. Although Romania has an enormous agricultural potential, our food imports outweigh the value of our exports. Thus, the commercial deficit across this sector amounted to 2.8 billion euro in 2016 and 2.6 billion euro in the first 10 months of 2017. During times of economic growth, efforts to safeguard food procurement are intrinsically less visible. The lesson we can learn here is that we require a competitive agricultural sector that can offer citizens the possibility of supplying themselves solely from local production.

Sustainable Development Goal 3 – Good health and well-being. Public health has indisputably become the primary concern of our contemporary society. It is paramount that, once we have definitively overcome the threat of the novel coronavirus, we do not forget the disastrous effects it wrought upon our lives and livelihoods. In the future, states must be much better prepared to handle such phenomena. Therefore, it is essential that we consolidate our healthcare systems, support medical research and strengthen our capacity to prevent and respond to pandemic threats or to other structural issues affecting public health. Some of the instruments necessary for these initiatives lie in consolidating international organisations. The economy may have stalled for a while with negative effects, but had we not implemented lock-down measures it is difficult to imagine how manifold the number of active cases, and how monstrous the magnitude of the crisis, might have been. The following period can drive a re-conceptualization of societal priorities, putting citizens’ health foremost among our concerns. The coronavirus crisis has showed us that health is the driving engine behind the society we inhabit.

Improving healthcare services and expanding access to quality medical assistance is essential for the proper functioning of a sustainable society centred on the patient and on prevention. We must provide an appropriate framework to promote a healthy and proactive lifestyle, prevention and medical education.

Sustainable Development Goal 7 – Affordable and clean energy. It is extremely important that the priorities of the European Commission regarding de-carbonisation continue to be of current interest even in the context of the pandemic. Some EU members states, including Romania, have expressed their willingness to use the European Ecological Pact as the driving force behind economic reconstruction. European financial instruments must be employed with maximum efficiency, as they have the enormous potential to transform Romania’s energy sector into one friendlier to the natural environment that can, at the same time, have positive effects at a societal level.

Sustainable Development Goal 8 – Decent work and economic growth. Given that Romania has already experienced a deficit in available labour over the past few years, the economic crisis generated by the pandemic could well increase unemployment further. The labour market will most likely be deeply affected, yet the negative effects can be counteracted through investments in training the workforce and professional retraining initiatives. One of the categories that needed support even before the pandemic was the youth bracket, the so-called NEETS – the proportion of those between 15 and 29 years of age that are neither enrolled in the workforce nor attending university sits at 17%, 5 percentage points above the European average. Professional formation programmes such as dual vocational schooling, that stress the formation of the youth in accordance with the requirements of the labour market, could prove to be an extremely useful instrument in resolving this issue.

Romania’s national imperatives and challenges foreseen for 2030 are to safeguard the pace of economic development so that the discrepancy between Romania and other EU states is reduced even further; the attainment of higher levels of productivity through diversification, technological modernisation and innovation; and the consolidation of internal financial institutions’ capacity to encourage and expand access to banking services.

While we could provide even more examples for each Sustainable Development Goal in turn, the main idea is that the complex issues we are currently facing require a holistic approach that also takes into account the impact of individual policies on other seemingly unrelated sectors. Moreover, our decisions and actions must never neglect the ethical component.

In the view of the Department for Sustainable Development, the consequences of the pandemic are ringing powerful alarm bells for our society at large. Firstly, state institutions should formulate policy proposals and take decisions which, beyond minimizing the negative effects, also lay the groundwork for a sustainable development in the medium and long-term. We owe it to ourselves to find the courage to design a post-reconstruction society in which our quality of life is improved even from the values registered before the pandemic. Alongside the actions of public authorities, there will also be a need for the involvement of the private sector, of experts from across civil society, the academic environment, research institutes and NGOs. All these efforts will, however, not have the desired impact if we fail to mobilise a critical mass of citizens that truly believe in the principles of sustainable development and who practice these principles in their daily lives.


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