Finding a 2021 compliant traction for the SDGs in Africa – while facing off with COVID-19

This article was first published in December 2020, for as a reflective blog while the world was facing the Covid-19 pandemic. I have found it relevant to repost it here should you have missed it.


In this article, I build on the shadow COVID-19 continues to cast globally and compare the agility and agency we have reacted with vs. what we embodied in the first five years of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). I argue that we should utilize the COVID-19 momentum of decision-making and financial mobilization as a sustaining framework for the SDGs towards the 2030 timeline.

Across the different paragraphs, I attempt to bring you closer to how COVID-19 has played out in Africa with slight comparisons to a country like Denmark. And then I bid on five ideas that have worked during the COVID-19 times that could be supportive blocks on our journey with the SDGs. These are below.

  1. Increase funding to the SDGs even in the face of COVID-19. They are central to a more sustainable solution.
  2. Decisions regarding policy and funding for the SDGs need to be faster-paced and more agile than we have acted in the past 5 years. COVID-19 has shown us that this is possible.
  3. Work even more cross-sectoral than before around the SDGs. Again, COVID-19 has shown us that this is possible and that everyone across the board needs to play a part.
  4. Work along with the existing governance/planning systems in the different countries and contexts, every time such possibility avails. It increases systematic localization and legitimizes our demand for accountability.
  5. With the lessons from COVID-19 where we have had to retreat and be taken care of our local communities, we will need to focus more on decentralizing service delivery to local (including rural remote) communities that are the first, and last frontlines of the sustainability journey.


The year 2020 has been restless, at least as far as COVID-19 still threatens the livelihood of millions of young as well as old people and communities that I have known all my life. It has been and remains a daunting experience, but hope remains and within the coming months millions of us would have received the long-awaited COVID-19 vaccination.

Nevertheless, many lessons have been taken thus a call to action in this article.

Worlds apart:

I moved to Denmark in December 2009, one month later my son was born at Gentofte Hospital, and with him started my introduction to Denmark – I mean as far as; learning the language together, Danish children’s songs, my interface with kindergartens and the Folkeskole system as a whole, and the choices and support mechanisms available to young people. The past ten years have been a journey into a country that continues to impress me in regard to service delivery to its citizens.

As I commonly alluded to many, automated metros, functional public transport, public order, and security, the rule of law, high-quality education, health systems, and Denmark’s ambitions and commitment towards sustainable energy and a greener future among a few, leave me in admiration. And it is fine to have different opinions on this, but the past year of COVID-19 also attests to this commitment to safeguarding the people within these boundaries.

Pondering over the difference between Denmark and other places – for me especially the five countries in Africa that I currently work directly with, namely, Ghana, Uganda, Sierra Leone, Zambia, and Zimbabwe, and how these have fared amidst COVID-19, I am left hoping that we will learn from this pandemic and take the chance to strengthen our commitment towards a global “contract” that at the minimum sustainably safeguards all humanity.

COVID-19 as ‘a dance with a ghost’:

COVID-19 has only needed a little a year to get the entire world distracted and dedicatedly reacting, at least for the most. The pandemic has set a precedence for some of the fastest public policy-making dynamics, as well as growing global solidarity for survival in the face-off. At another point in time, the border closures, and go-home policies we have experienced would have met wide opposition, but not necessarily this time save for a few. We are all or at least in the majority standing and accepting in solidarity.

For the most, the reaction to COVID-19 has been impressive – at least here in Denmark and surrounding countries – especially those with strong welfare systems. COVID-19-related funding promises have also been impressive here in Denmark and most of the EU – both from the public as well as private foundations. The main public foundations’ page is announcing at least one new fund every day towards the fight against the pandemic, and this also included funders that have not necessarily been publicly active. In her article “COVID-19 og de danske fonde – få et overblik her”, already in early April 2020, Eva Maria Christiansen lists among others – Carlsberg Foundation, Novo Nordisk Foundation, Lundbeck Foundation, Tuborg Foundation, Ny Carlsberg Foundation, as well as the Danish Development Ministry that had within the first months of the lockdown, raised 350 million Danish Kroner towards fighting COVID-19. This list has only expanded beyond imagination as I have followed,,, and other fundraising listings. This is impressive and surely a strong step towards global solidarity from the Danish society as well as the global community at large.

Africa has also been a topic of anticipation and close watch across several media, blogs, Facebook pages, analysts, etc. The questions range from – how come Sub-Saharan Africa is not affected (at least for early March)? What will happen if Corona gets to Sub-Saharan Africa? How will Africans survive this if they at all do? And then to Oh no – cases are increasing in Africa! have lingered. For the sake of my background, I have only crossed my fingers in the hope that COVID-19 does not ravage this continent as there is already enough trouble on our plates. I mean, HIV/AIDs, malaria, diarrhea, and other rampant ailments. High levels of corruption, persistent bad governance and autocracy, low regard for human rights and civil liberties, and a huge bulge of unemployed youths… these were and remain undesired preconditions for a faceoff with COVID-19.

Indeed, borrowing a few numbers from her recent presentation (Folkeuniversitetet, October 2020), Anne Metter Kjær mentions that the main challenges in Africa during this pandemic are not necessarily deaths from COVID-19 itself, but the social-economic and political impact the continent is drifting into. The International Monitory Fund (IMF, 2020) and others postulate that due to the COVID-19 pandemic and related effects, the global GDP will fall by up to 3.8 %. This will range between 1.4% and up to 7,8% in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Global trade will fall between 13% and 32% depending on what products constitute a country’s export and import portfolio. Indeed, due to lockdowns in the EU, USA, and China, the demand or purchase of Africa’s export has fallen, easily placing the Sub-Saharan Countries at the higher end of global trade losses. This will also see an accompanying fall in tax incomes of up to 5% or approximately 2.5% of the region’s BNP. According to IMF, this could be a reduction of up to 70 million dollars in losses in tax incomes in Sub-Saharan Africa in 2020 alone. And, unlike other places, for example, compared with Europe, it is difficult to make help packages in Sub-Saharan Africa. Finally, the current borrowing trend in the region’s face-off with COVID-19 means increasing debt to these economies.

And again, for a continent predominantly dependent on manual, hard-working populations, with no buffer state welfares, and with large urban-dwelling populations depending on daily earnings for their daily bread; lockdowns, closures, stay-at-home, etc. policies as we have seen enforced, have not been an easy walk. These will neither be for the rest of 2020 nor the years to come; we will need other approaches.

The slow pace of support to the SDGs has not helped:

In the UN SDGs report (December 2019), it was clear that as the SDGs rounded off the first five (5) years of implementation (2020), and looked to the next decade, their success remained doubtful. And even though a great deal of progress had been made on several grounds, it remains “abundantly clear that a much deeper, faster, and more ambitious response is needed to unleash the social and economic transformation to achieve the 2030 goals” (UN, 2019: Forward)[1].

We were also only coming to terms with that amidst the promising social-economic progress in Africa over the past decades, the trajectory remained at low levels. “Many people remain undernourished, illiterate, and unem­powered, with pronounced gender gaps, especially related to economic empowerment. Exposure to domestic violence remains high, and exposure to political violence has even in­creased since 2010. Globally, poverty is increasingly concen­trating in Africa (55% of the world’s poor in 2015; 90 percent in 2030 given historical growth patterns). Africa will not reach the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal of eradicating poverty by 2030”. This is also the backdrop for Africa’s poverty reduction in the decade ahead” (World Bank, 2019)[2].

International Financial Cooperation (IFC) also warned against the low financing that the ambitious Agenda 2030 was facing as we rounded up the first 5 years. In their recent report “Closing the SDG Financing Gap: Trends and Data (2019)” they reveal that “…based on a review of recent studies, as well as their own calculations of cross-border flow trends, there is a significant SDG financing gap. And even though there are suggestions of raising taxes to expand public spending in many proposals, this only remains an option for middle-income countries, but it will be insufficient for low-income countries”[3], the majority of which are in Africa.

“Beyond” Covid-19 – towards hope for a sustainable future and or the future of the SDGs!

We need to turn the hands of time back to November 2019 through January 2020 when the talk was mainly about the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), championed by climate marches, thanks to young people like Greta Thunberg and the school strike movement. Here we had good momentum, and we really need to return to this.

Without being sure when things will be back to normal, many state commentators, economists, job market analysts as well as policy experts anticipate that the ordering of work might not necessarily be the same in the post-COVID-19 era as it was before the epidemic. Fears of an economic slump are also high, but we must hope for the better.

In this hope for better, reopening of borders, sending all healthy children back to schools or setting up mechanisms for mass home learning in case of new COVID-19 waves, reestablishing health care delivery in countries where this is stretched, reimagining jobs for millions of those that have lost theirs, reigniting businesses that have collapsed, re-concentrating on gender violence that has left many – especially women and girls harmed, re-imagining democratic governance and human rights, reestablishing the dignity of humanity, etcetera, will mean finding a robust, sustainable model favored by all global actors. And then, pushing this with all the strength, resources, willingness, and solidarity we have toward a new and stronger normal.

Luckily, we do not need to reinvent this – we find ourselves at a point where the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) or the UN Agenda 2030 has been widely uptaken and remains one of the most elaborate development frameworks ever suggested (UN, 2015). My appeal and that of the UN I am sure is that we all get behind the SDGs and work towards a more sustainable, equitable world. But new dedications will need to be made and met.

Our way forward:

Surely the times are challenging. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that the world combined will win in this COVID-19 face-off, and when we return to ‘normal’ we will need a sustainable world to return to. We have faced bigger challenges in times when the world was lesser resourced, and we have won all those times. But more important this time, we must take the opportunity to learn from this wave and like the welfare states have done – create a “welfare world” where different communities have the possibility to face such epidemics and other challenges with lesser strain.

If all states, foundations, governments, companies, and all possible actors decide from 2021 to put their weight behind the SDGs, the chances of reaching these by 2030 would have been tremendously increased. And I wonder if this will not contribute to better mechanisms for handling global-scale epidemics such as COVID-19.

Stay safe everyone.

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