How countries are faring on global goals amid COVID-19

02 July 2021

The 2021 update of the UNCTAD SDG Pulse illustrates in numbers countries’ progress and challenges in achieving the sustainable development goals by 2030.


Commuters in Ho Chi Minh City, Viet Nam. COVID-19 lockdowns led to a record 7% drop in global CO2 emissions in 2020. Unsplash/Nikolay Likomanov

UNCTAD’s updated SDG Pulse, released on 2 July, shows how the COVID-19 health crisis exacerbated many imbalances in 2020 and delayed progress towards the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

It presents analysis for a range of the sustainable development goals’ (SDGs) indicators and others relevant to trade, investment, financing for development, debt, transport and technology.

“With only eight years to go under the 2030 Agenda, and the COVID-19 pandemic putting the global system to the test, fact-based guidance is crucial for effective policy,” UNCTAD Acting Secretary-General Isabelle Durant said.

The SDG Pulse also helps illustrate the important contribution that UNCTAD makes to the implementation of the SDGs, responding directly to a request from countries.

“It offers a great tool for anyone interested in monitoring sustainable development. We provide latest statistics and analyses, key messages and interactive charts with easily downloadable data,” UNCTAD’s chief statistician, Steve MacFeely, said.

Vulnerable countries hit hard by COVID-19

The pandemic hit hard structurally weak and vulnerable economies such as least developed countries (LDCs), landlocked developing countries (LLDCs) and small island developing states (SIDS), reversing hard-won socioeconomic gains.

Consequently, 2021 has seen the rise of a new agenda for multilateralism calling for equal access to vaccines and resources to tackle the pandemic and ensure a more equitable economic recovery.

COVID-19 recovery policies and strategies must focus on rebuilding resilience to shocks by addressing persistent and emerging development challenges facing developing countries, according to several leaders.

COVID-19 shock had many economic consequences

Protectionism had already started to increase before the world economy was struck by the COVID-19 pandemic.

As trade declined in spring 2020, many governments imposed barriers to exports of medical products and lowered tariffs on imports of agricultural products to maximize the supply of critical goods to domestic markets.

The resulting economic shock had many consequences. External debt, for one, grew to a record high in 2020 – reaching 31% of GDP in developing economies, according to the SDG Pulse.

Flows of foreign direct investment and official development assistance to those in most need – the LDCs, LLDCs and SIDS – continued on a downward trajectory.

2020 among warmest years on record despite emissions drop

Setbacks to the economy in 2020, particularly in energy demand, tourism and transport, led to a 7% drop in global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions – the biggest decrease ever recorded.

Although record-breaking, it wasn’t enough to achieve even the lower Paris climate agreement target – a cut of almost 8% each year will be needed to reach the target of below 1.5°C warming from pre-industrial levels by 2030.

According to the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), the fall in emissions in 2020 translates to only a 0.01°C reduction of global warming by 2050. Decisive measures would be needed to keep emissions down.

But energy-related CO2 emissions had started to rebound already by December 2020, and the International Energy Agency (IEA) expects them to grow by almost 5% in 2021 with the ongoing recovery from the pandemic.

E-commerce boomed in 2020

According to UNCTAD, e-commerce sales were worth $26.7 trillion in 2019, about 30% of global GDP. This includes both business-to-business (B2B) and business-to-consumer (B2C) sales.

With lockdowns and increased teleworking, online retail sales as a share of total retail sales jumped by 3 percentage points in 2020, according to preliminary data.

UNCTAD’s B2C E-commerce Index helps countries gain insight into their preparedness for e-commerce. Out of the 20 economies with the lowest scores in 2020, 18 were LDCs, suggesting that they are not prepared for the adoption of e-commerce and other development opportunities stemming from ICT. 

UNCTAD has further analysed these issues at the country level in 27 eTrade readiness assessments in the past few years.

Remoteness an extra barrier but not insurmountable

The special “In Focus” section of the SDG Pulse analyses remoteness as a challenge for sustainable development, to help countries consider how to mitigate geographic distance. UNCTAD proposes a composite Index of Remoteness to consider comprehensively the implications of remoteness.

The index will help guide policy measures to enhance connectivity through digital, socio-cultural and political means. The analysis shows that nine of the 10 most remote countries are SIDS.

The strong negative correlation of the UNCTAD Productive Capacities Index with low connectivity scores in the Index of Remoteness (ρ = -0.75), shows that poor connectivity can be more harmful than geographic remoteness (ρ = -0.49).

The latter could be partially compensated by investment in transport, socio-political and digital connectivity. The key message is that developing countries need to place the fostering of economy-wide productive capacities at the centre of their respective national policies and strategies with a view to building economic resilience to shocks.

In addition to productive capacities, remoteness correlates negatively with GDP per capita, income inequality and human development, and positively with gender inequality and economic and environmental vulnerability.

Further analysis on SIDS’ economic, social and environmental vulnerabilities and strengths is provided in UNCTAD’s Development and globalization: Facts and figures 2021 report.

Supporting sustainable development and prosperity for all

The SDG Pulse shows that most of UNCTAD’s project expenditure supports SDG 17 on partnerships, SDG 9 on industry, innovation and infrastructure, SDG 15 on life on land and SDG 8 on decent work and economic growth.

For example, UNCTAD’s Debt Management and Financial Analysis System programme has trained about 6,000 people over the past 10 years to build the capacity of national debt officers. This training helps improve the transparency and quality of debt reporting to enable better management.

The report also shares progress on the SDG indicators for which UNCTAD is a custodian. Jointly with partners and member states, the organization has developed agreed concepts and methodologies for all its custodian indicators, including for SDG indicator 16.4.1 on illicit financial flows. In 2021, 12 African and six Asian countries are pilot-testing methods for this indicator.

Ms. Durant said the SDG Pulse and the organization’s indices on B2C e-commerce, productive capacities and remoteness are “excellent examples of how UNCTAD can provide value to member states by informing them of the progress made and the challenges facing the world today.”