SDG Reality check Global Picture • Regional outlook • Data

Five years and one third of the way into our SDG journey, the world is not on track to achieve the SDGs by 2030.

The Secretary-General’s Sustainable Development Goals Report provides an overview of the world’s implementation efforts to date.

Before the COVID-19 outbreak, progress had been uneven, and more focused attention was needed in most areas. The pandemic abruptly disrupted implementation towards many of the SDGs and, in some cases, is turning back decades of progress. It also vividly demonstrated that the world needs to take more urgent and ambitious action to get back on track and achieve the SDGs.

the global picture

Since the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals in 2015, the 2020 SDG Report notes that progress had been made in some areas, such as improving maternal and child health, expanding access to electricity and increasing women’s representation in government. Yet these advances were offset elsewhere by growing food insecurity, deterioration of the natural environment, acceleration of climate change, and persistent and pervasive inequalities.

Let’s look at how much we must achieve to meet the targets and reach the Goals, based on the latest available data.

What the data tells us

A presentation from Gapminder President and Co-Founder Ola Rosling

One must not underestimate the progress the world has made during the last decades. Gapminder is an independent educational foundation that uses data to fight misconceptions about global development. Gapminder President & Co-Founder Ola Rosling takes a closer look at what the data from the UN Global SDG database tells us and at what we were able to achieve so far.

One must not underestimate the progress the world has made during the last decades. Gapminder is an independent educational foundation that uses data to fight misconceptions about global development. Gapminder President & Co-Founder Ola Rosling takes a closer look at what the data from the UN Global SDG database tells us and at what we were able to achieve so far.


SDG progress varies across all regions of the world. Looking at trends, progress and challenges on poverty and inequality, climate change, and on achieving gender equality is essential to identify specificities, pinpoint common challenges across regions and tailor solutions to each regional context.

We turn to the UN Regional Economic Commissions for Africa, Asia Pacific, Latin America and the Caribbean, the Arab Region and Europe for a snapshot of the progress achieved in their region across the three themes identified by the Secretary-General: poverty and inequality, gender equality and climate.

Africa is not on track to meet most of the Sustainable Development Goals. Progress is slow or stagnant and, in some cases, regressing. Development efforts face an annual funding gap of between $1.2 and $2.7 trillion.

Poverty and inequality

  • Even before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, poverty in Africa had declined at a much slower pace than in other regions of the world, and the continent was not on track to meet any of the targets of Goal 1 (end poverty in all its forms everywhere). COVID-19 has now put a further brake on the pace of poverty reduction in Africa. Depending on the extent of its impact and duration, COVID-19 could cut Africa’s average growth from anywhere between 1.8 to 2.6 per cent in 2020. Overall GDP growth in Africa had already slowed down to 3.6 per cent in 2019. According to recent economic forecasts, this contraction in growth as a result of the pandemic could push an additional 24 million women and men in Sub Saharan Africa into extreme poverty (1). COVID-19 is also likely to result in a sharp rise in food prices and rising hunger and malnutrition (2).

Gender Equality

  • The African continent was also not on track to meet any of the measured gender-related targets – and for 20 per cent of them (equal access to education, reduction of violence and related death and human trafficking), the trends are deteriorating rather than improving. Thirty-one per cent of women and girls aged 15 to 49 years who have ever been in a relationship have experienced physical or sexual violence by an intimate partner in the previous 12 months and only 48 per cent of women in sub-Saharan Africa are able to make their own decisions about their sexual and reproductive health and rights (3).
  • Unless a gender perspective is embraced in economic recovery packages, the COVID-19 crisis will lead to even worse outcomes for women, in terms of livelihoods and well-being. Emerging data show that, since the outbreak of COVID-19, women are more at risk of intimate partner violence and sexual abuse and girls are more at risk of child marriage and female genital mutilation.
  • Women are the backbone of African small and medium enterprises and contribute as much as 80 per cent of the region’s employment. In non-agricultural sectors, 58 per cent of the self-employed are women, and 45 per cent of employers are women. Yet women are often in the most vulnerable situations, as domestic workers, informal entrepreneurs in urban areas, and agricultural workers in rural areas. They are often without pay and with limited access to social protection.
  • Investing in and ensuring meaningful participation of women and girls in productive sectors in the region, particularly the agri-business and agricultural value chains, is essential to overcome gender inequality and to reduce poverty.


  • Climate change poses an existential threat to Africa, jeopardizing the attainment of the continent’s development agenda. It costs African countries between 3 and 5 per cent of GDP per annum and up to 15 per cent in the Sahel.
  • Nature-based solutions can preserve critical resources for Africa and the planet, while also enhancing livelihoods. In rural areas of Africa, 62 per cent of the population depends directly on ecosystem services for their livelihood. Marine and coastal resources represent 35 per cent in GDP in some African countries; and fisheries amounts to $9.5 billion a year, while wood resources contribute to over 6 per cent GDP in Africa and provide up to 80 per cent of energy in some countries.
  • Economic recovery from COVID-19 should be greener. It should entail scaling up economic activity and productivity, with increased dividends in jobs, inclusiveness, social well-being, climate resilience and natural capital sustainability.
  • Energy is the cornerstone of such an inclusive green recovery. African countries have 22,000 megawatt of planned clean energy actions in their Nationally Determined Contributions on climate change, which represent an investment opportunity of about $40 billion.
  • Africa's overall internet connectivity remains at 28.2 per cent of the population. In sub-Saharan Africa, the internet penetration rate is about 10 percentage points lower for women than for men (4). Reliable, affordable digital and physical infrastructure should be made widely accessible to the continent’s two-thirds of the population in order to achieve sustainable economic growth.
  • The COVID-19 pandemic will widen Africa’s SDG financing gap and potentially derail progress towards its achievement, without intervention. To regain lost momentum and minimize the risk of insolvency, it is important to expand the coverage of the G20 Debt Service Suspension Initiative (DSSI) to include vulnerable middle-income countries and to facilitate an orderly restructuring of the commercial debts of African countries. In the medium term, it is critical that more African countries gain access to long term development financing from capital markets at competitive rates.
Achievement of the 2030 Agenda is at risk in the region. Goal 3 (good health and well-being) and Goal 14 (life below water) have already been met and some other targets are on track. Others will only be achievable with strong policy interventions. For some, the progress has stalled or gone into reverse, and will require corrective action (5).

There is evidence of some progress on the targets linked to reduction of maternal mortality and child mortality, access to tertiary education, access to energy services and some of the targets for Goal 6 (water and sanitation), Goal 16 (marine biodiversity) and Goal 17 (Global Partnership for Sustainable Development). However, trends for climate change awareness, sustainable and clean industries, women full employment and decent work, and poverty and inequality are either stagnating or are deteriorating. Corrective action will be necessary to change the trends.

The region should pursue a strategy to diversify its economic structure, with productive and trade integration, while adapting to and mitigating the effects of climate change, with policies to combat poverty and inequality at the forefront.

Poverty and inequality

  • Recent estimates (6) show a decrease of 9.1 per cent of the regional GDP due to the COVID-19 pandemic. By the end of 2020, the region’s GDP per capita will have lost more than 10 years of growth. The number of people living in poverty will grow by 45.4 million, bringing the total number from 185.5 million in 2019 to 230.9 million in 2020 (37.3 per cent of the Latin American population). The number of people living in extreme poverty is expected to increase by 28.5 million, from 67.7 million in 2019 to 96.2 million in 2020.
  • Greater inequality in the distribution of income in Latin American countries is expected as the Gini coefficient, which measures income inequality, might increase by 1 per cent to 8 per cent in the 17 countries measured (7).

Gender Equality

  • The COVID-19 crisis has had a disproportionate impact on women. The pandemic is deepening pre-existing inequalities and exposing vulnerabilities in social, political and economic systems. Women, who account for 72.7 per cent of health sector workers in the region, are more exposed to the infection. They are also more at risk of being affected by the economic downturn. Before the pandemic, women dedicated more than three times the number of hours as men to unpaid work, which is likely to increase with the crisis. Women are also more acutely affected by rising unemployment and poverty. According to the latest estimates, there will be 21 million unemployed women in 2020, 8 million more than in 2019. Sixty-nine per cent of domestic workers significantly impacted by reduction in earnings and job losses due to COVID-19 are women.
  • Confinement measures have led to a sharp increase in domestic violence and femicides, in a region already characterized by high rates of gender-based violence (8). Preliminary assessments show rising maternal mortality. Unintended pregnancies and gender-based violence cases have also increased over the first semester of 2020 compared to the same period of 2019 (9).
  • The global scenario resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic calls for urgent action to prevent lags in progress towards the targets from worsening and to avoid backsliding on those targets for which the region is on track.


  • Although the Latin America and the Caribbean region generates 8.5% of global emissions, on par with the global average, the region suffers to a much greater extent from the negative effects of extreme weather events, because of its geography, climate, socioeconomic structures and demographics, and because its natural assets, such as its forests and biodiversity, are acutely sensitive to climate variability and change.
  • The Caribbean Small Island Developing States generate 0.36% of global greenhouse gas emissions, but these countries are particularly vulnerable owing to their socioeconomic, geographical and climatic conditions. Almost all of the Caribbean islands are in the hurricane corridor and large proportions of their population, economic activities and critical infrastructure assets are located in coastal areas. Post-disaster recovery costs can run to amounts impossible to fund without international cooperation, particularly in the most highly indebted islands.
  • Tackling climate change in the Latin America and Caribbean region requires accelerated change in development models towards sustainability. This can be supported by a more favourable regulatory and policy environment. The involvement of all stakeholders, e.g., all levels of government, but also academia, civil society and the private sector will be needed to deliver this change and to safeguard the fundamental rights of individuals and the interests of the most vulnerable groups and future generations.


  • There is an urgent call to invest in quality data to improve the statistical follow-up of the 2030 Agenda and assess progress towards the Goals.
The region is not on track to achieve the SDGs: at the current progress rate, the Arab region may only meet 20 out of the 169 SDG targets.

While progress has been made on Goals 2 (hunger), 3 (health), 4 (education) 6 (clean water and sanitation) 7 (affordable and clean energy) and 9 (industry, innovation and infrastructure); Goals 1 (poverty), 8 (decent work), 10 (reduced inequality) and 13 (climate action) have seen very slow progress or remained stagnant. The trend needs to be reversed for Goal 11 (sustainable cities) and Goal 16 (Peace). Changing course and achieving the SDGs in the region requires a regional transformation in the approach to development.

Poverty and inequality

  • Poverty and inequality are on the rise in the Arab region due to conflict. Inadequate or fragmented social protection systems are leaving millions behind. These include the unemployed, workers in the informal sector, women, older persons, and persons with disabilities, as well as migrants who represent around 40 per cent of the workforce.
  • Faster progress is needed for 91 per cent of the measured targets under poverty and inequality. The region has only reduced extreme poverty thus far. Due to the COVID-19 crisis, the regional economy is expected to shrink by more than 5 per cent and millions will be pushed down the economic ladder.
  • The 55 million people who already rely on humanitarian assistance, and the 26 million refugees and internally displaced persons, all of whom are particularly vulnerable to the spread of COVID-19, are at greater risk of being left behind.

Gender Equality

  • Only 26 per cent of the measured gender equality targets would be achieved by 2030 with the current rate of progress and as measured before the COVID-19 pandemic. These include the reduction of extreme poverty, maternal mortality and communicable diseases, technology for women empowerment, including labour rights and a safe working environment.
  • More than two thirds of the measured gender equality related targets will not be met unless progress accelerates. Women’s political and economic participation remains limited due to discriminatory laws and social norms. In 2019, only 17.4 per cent of parliamentary seats were held by women.
  • The trend needs to be reversed on three gender equality targets – sexual and reproductive health, full employment and decent work, and human trafficking and as the COVID-19 crisis may further undermine progress on these targets. For example, antenatal care and family planning services in the region dropped due to the diversion of qualified staff to address the COVID-19 health crisis.


  • More than half of the measured targets under the climate goal would not be met unless progress accelerates. Progress has either stalled or reversed on a number of critical targets such as resilience to disasters, share of renewable energy, and loss of biodiversity. More courageous, innovative and integrated measures by states are necessary to reverse this trend.
  • Many Arab countries are investing in climate adaptation and diversification of their economies. However, the region must strengthen the science-policy interface to tackle climate change, and better integrate climate change impacts and risk assessments into planning systems.
  • The region needs peace. It also needs innovative finance, rights-based social and redistributive policies, and renewed investment in its youth. The COVID-19 crisis offers an opportunity for a green and inclusive recovery and an overhaul of development planning across the different dimensions of sustainable development.
  • For many of the indicators, data remain unavailable even in well-developed statistical systems, and disaggregation by sex, age, income level, and other characteristics remains weak. This curtails policies and limits efforts to leave no one behind. Hence, further investment in improving data quality is crucial for the full implementation of the 2030 Agenda.


  • For many of the indicators, data remains unavailable even in well-developed statistical systems, and disaggregation by sex, age, income level, and other characteristics remains weak. This curtails policies and limits efforts to leave no one behind. Hence, further investment in improving data quality is crucial for the full implementation of the 2030 Agenda.
UNECE countries have made overall progress across the five integrating dimensions of the SDGs: people, planet, prosperity, peace and partnership. But progress varies within the region.

For example, if births to adolescents have fallen in most countries, they remain relatively high in others; progress in proficiency levels in reading and mathematics varies across the region. The UNECE region also needs to accelerate action to increase renewable energy consumption and lower air pollution. Only five UNECE countries meet the target of allocating 0.7 per cent of their gross national income to finance official development assistance (10).

Yet the rate of progress remains insufficient to achieve the targets of the 2030 Agenda. The region needs to accelerate progress, including on most of the measured targets on poverty and inequality, gender equality, and climate.

Poverty and Inequality

  • On poverty and inequality, faster progress is needed for 80 per cent of the measured targets. The region is on track with eradicating extreme poverty and providing access to basic services. But the pandemic has exacerbated persistent inequalities that could weaken the fabric of the societies of the region.

Gender Equality

  • Progress has been good with some targets relevant to gender equality, such as the reduction of maternal mortality and improvement of sexual and reproductive health. But only 39 per cent of the measured targets relevant to gender equality would be achieved by 2030 with the current rate of progress, as measured before the COVID-19 crisis.
  • The pandemic and the related economic crisis have disproportionately affected women, both at work and at home, causing challenges for families and increasing gender-based violence. In the region, over a quarter of women employees are in precarious jobs. These developments threaten to undermine decades of progress towards gender equality and the empowerment of women.


  • The region is on track for only a third of climate targets, including the health impact of pollution, education on sustainable development, safe drinking water, and reducing fossil fuel subsidies. More than half of the measured climate targets would not be met unless progress accelerates. The trend needs to be reversed on water-related ecosystems, managing chemicals and wastes, and loss of biodiversity.

COVID-19 crisis and Socio-Economic Response

  • The pandemic and the related economic crisis make it particularly challenging to maintain progress, and to accelerate or reverse trends where required. Immediate negative impacts can be anticipated on poverty, health, education, growth and inequalities. Lower economic activity may bring along positive effects on resource use and climate, but these remain short-term if not accompanied by structural policies.
  • The crisis has exposed existing fragilities and shows the need for stronger resilience. It is also important to grasp opportunities for innovation when building back after the crisis and exploit the synergies of the 2030 Agenda in facilitating a sustainable recovery.
  • The UNECE region brings together countries at different levels of development and the aggregate assessment does not reflect the large variation across subregions and countries.


  • For many targets, measuring progress on the regional level is challenging because data are not available. Investing in data therefore remains crucial for the full implementation of the 2030 Agenda, even in countries with well-developed statistical systems.
The region is is home to 17 mega cities. It is also a development success story, lifting 80 per cent of the extreme poor out of poverty between 1990 and 2015 (11) , generating some 40 per cent of global GDP today, and due to account for 60 per cent of global growth by 2030.

But the region has yet to find an inclusive and sustainable path. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, only Goal 4 (quality education) and Goal 7 (affordable and clean energy) were within reach. 80 per cent of the measurable SDG targets for poverty and inequality, gender equality and climate change will need either acceleration or a complete course correction if the ambitions of the 2030 Agenda are to be achieved. In particular, the region needs to reverse trends on responsible consumption and production (Goal 12) and climate action (Goal 13) where the region is going backwards (12).

Poverty and Inequality

  • In terms of poverty and inequality, less people are living in extreme poverty, but the poor are further behind and harder to reach. The sub region of Central and Southern Asia, which had made significant progress in reducing extreme poverty, is expected to see a resurgence during and after the pandemic. The female poverty rate, pre-COVID-19, was projected to be 10 per cent in 2021, but is now expected to reach 13 per cent (13).
  • Rising inequality, expansion of informal labour, and lack of social protection overshadow achievements in poverty reduction. Increase public spending on social protection by 3.7 per cent of GDP in order to match the global average of 11.2 per cent could pull 380 million people out of moderate and extreme poverty by 2030 (14). This would allow for the full achievement of Goal 1, accelerate progress for Goals 3, 4 and 10 and build resilience against future shocks similar to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Gender Equality

  • Progress has been mixed on gender equality. More women have lifted themselves out of extreme poverty and enjoy better record of maternal health but persisting patterns of inequality remain. Women are more likely to be employed in the informal sector (64 per cent)(15) and less likely to make political decisions (20 per cent representation in lower parliament in 2019) (16). Most countries in the Asia and the Pacific have recorded progress with regard to women’s access to sexual and reproductive health, but access has been uneven across countries, sub regions, among and along the urban-rural divide. During the pandemic, 84 per cent of women who lost their jobs reported not receiving unemployment benefits or government support (17). Accelerating progress means lifting barriers to participation, ensuring women’s economic empowerment and integration into formal economy, gender-responsive and inclusive social protection and tackling harmful gender norms and stereotypes. These are central to the actions that Governments in the region called for in making the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action a reality (18).


  • Acceleration is needed across the board for climate action. The reliance on fossil fuel anchors countries to the economies of the past, leading to widespread environmental damage and about 4 million premature deaths annually due to air pollution (19). The region is responsible for over half of global greenhouse gas emissions and is home to five of the countries most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change globally, suffering from losses of thousands of lives and $675 billion annually to climate-induced disasters (20). Acceleration and course correction for Asia and the Pacific will mean setting a clear pathway towards decarbonization by the middle of the century, including a rapid end to fossil fuel subsidies and new investments in coal. Tackling air pollution will help save lives and build resilience to biohazards such as the COVID-19 pandemic. It also means transforming a primarily urban region toward energy efficient and climate-neutral infrastructure and transport. It requires investing in building resilience to climate induced disasters and other shocks that continually undermine progress.


  • Data and statistics will be vital for designing tailored actions that address the vulnerabilities and inequalities of the region. Asia and the Pacific are prioritizing and calling for improving SDG data and statistics to leave no one behind (21). Ongoing efforts have contributed to improving SDG data availability from 25 per cent in 2017 to 42 per cent in 2019, helping to bring to the forefront otherwise invisible groups and their vulnerabilities.

The need for more, timely, quality, open and disaggregated data

Timely, quality, open and disaggregated data are vital in enabling Governments, development partners, international organizations, civil society, the private sector and the general public to make informed decisions for achieving the SDGs, reach the furthest behind, and plan COVID-19 responses. Yet, basic health, social and economic data are often absent, particularly in many developing countries.

Looking at the Global SDG Indicators Database less than half of 194 countries or areas have internationally comparable data for Goals 5, 12, 13 and 14. For Goal 5 on gender equality, only 4 in 10 countries have data available. Even countries with available data have only a small number of observations over time, making it difficult for policymakers to monitor progress and identify trends. A large number of SDG indicators are available only with a significant time lag. For half of the countries, the latest data point available for poverty-related indicators (Goal 1) is 2016 or earlier. In addition, the most vulnerable populations who need help the most remain invisible, such as older persons, persons with disabilities and refugees.

The COVID-19 pandemic is jeopardizing the production of data that is central to the achievement of the SDGs. Recent surveys (22) conducted by the United Nations and the World Bank, with responses from over 100 countries, show that the pandemic has affected the operations of the vast majority of national statistical offices. For example, in sub-Saharan Africa, 97 per cent of countries surveyed in May 2020 indicated that the production of regular statistics was affected. Remote work, training, data collection, and data storage are vital for NSOs to operate during the pandemic but many, particularly in low and middle-income countries, are constrained by inadequate ICT equipment and infrastructure and lack of skill sets. This calls for more decisive investments in digital technology and capacity building.

Greater investment in data, at all levels, is needed if we want to achieve the SDGs. In 2019, only 25 per cent of national statistical plans in sub-Saharan Africa were fully funded. In 2017, only 0.34 per cent of the total Official Development Assistance went in support of all areas of statistics. This amounted to only half the level at which it needed to be. Immediate financial and technical support for national statistical systems is urgently needed over the short term to ensure continuation of statistical operations for COVID-19 response efforts and recovery strategies. In the medium and long term, mobilization of international and domestic resources to increase investments in national data and statistical systems will be imperative if we are to build back better from the crisis and to accelerate implementation of the SDGs.

New partnerships to increase the use of new data sources and technologies, with NSOs at the centre, will need to be forged, including between public producers of data and private sector, academia and other parts of civil society. The integration of geospatial information and statistical data will be particularly important. The time is now to invest in data and innovation to respond to the crisis and support SDG acceleration.

With the Secretary-General’s “Data Strategy for Action by Everyone, Everywhere”, the UN family further strengthens its own investment in data. To help unlock more potential, 50 UN entities jointly designed this Strategy as a comprehensive playbook for data-driven change based on global best practice, and to serve as a reference for Member States who seek data-driven change.

The UN World Data Forum brings together data and statistical experts and users from governments, civil society, the private sector, donor and philanthropic bodies, international and regional agencies, the geospatial community, the media, academia and professional bodies. Data experts and users gather to spur data innovation, mobilize high-level political and financial support for data, and build a pathway to better data for sustainable development.


  1. From Insight to Action: Gender Equality in the wake of COVID-19, UN-Women, 2020
  2. Policy Brief: Impact of COVID-19 in Africa, United Nations, 2020
  3. Tracking Women’s Decision Making for Sexual and Reproductive Health and Reproductive Rights, UNFPA 2020
  4. The gender snapshot 2020, UN Women and the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (forthcoming)
  5. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development in the new global and regional context: Scenarios and projections in the current crisis, (ECLAC, 2020)
  6. Addressing the growing impact of COVID-19 with a view to reactivation with equality: new projections (ECLAC, 2020)
  7. Ibid
  8. The social challenge in times of COVID-19, United Nations ECLAC, 2020
  9. Estimates of the Potential Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Sexual and Reproductive Health in Low- and Middle-Income Countries, Guttmacher Institute, April 2020
  10. Towards Achieving the Sustainable Development Goals in the UNECE Region, United Nations, Geneva, 2020
  11. Social Outlook for Asia and the Pacific: Poorly protected, United Nations publication, Sales No. E.19.II.F.
  12. Asia and the Pacific SDG Progress Report 2020, United Nations ESCAP, 2020
  13. From insights to action: Gender equality in the wake of COVID-19, UN Women, 2020
  14. Social Outlook for Asia and the Pacific: Poorly protected, United Nations publication, Sales No. E.19.II.F.2
  15. Women and men in the informal economy: A statistical picture, ILO, Geneva, 2018
  16. Pathways to influence: Promoting the role of women’s transformative leadership to achieve the SDGs in Asia and the Pacific, United Nations publication, Sales No. E.20.II.F.4
  17. Unlocking the lockdown: The gendered effects of COVID-19 on achieving the SDGs in Asia and the Pacific, UN WOMEN, 2020
  18. ESCAP/MCBR/2019/2/Add.1
  19. Economic and Social Survey of Asia and the Pacific 2020: Toward sustainable economies, United Nations Publication Sales No. E.20.II.F.16
  20. Asia and the Pacific Disaster Report 2019, United Nations publication, Sales No.: E.19.II.F.12
  21. ESCAP/CST/2018/
  22. See https://unstats.un.org/sdgs/report/2020/the-need-for-data-innovations-in-the-time-of-COVID-19/
Data sources for progress charts: Measuring environmental dimension of SDGs (UNEP), The gender snapshot 2019 (UN Women), Goals 1 and 10.
Photo credit: UNICEF/Raphael Pouget