Global SDG Funding Deficits & 2030 Targets

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Sonny Aragba-Akpore
Sonny Aragba-Akpore

“With only a fraction of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) on track at the halfway point of the 2030 Agenda, it is urgent to ensure that everyone, everywhere can build their digital futures,” according to International Telecommunications Union (ITU) secretary-general Doreen Bogdan-Martin at the opening session of the SDG Digital Conference held on the sidelines of the 78th United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in New York, United States of America (USA) last week.

Hosted by ITU and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the SDG Digital Conference was a clarion call to the global community that time is running out and there is an urgent need to harness and deploy resources if the year 2030 goals will be attained.

UNDP administrator Achim Steiner in his opening remarks at the SDG Digital Acceleration Agenda said, “The recent breakthroughs in digital technology have unleashed unprecedented opportunities and with them new avenues for digital innovation in our race against time to fulfill the promise of the 2030 agenda”.

UN documents say, “The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) aim to transform our world. These are calls to action to end poverty and inequality, protect the planet, and ensure that all people enjoy health, justice, and prosperity”.

SDGs were born at the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 2012. The objective was to produce a set of universal goals that meet the urgent environmental, political and economic challenges facing our world. As part of the declarations, the SDG agenda took root in 2015 and will run until 2030.

Early last week, ITU announced a drop in the number of people worldwide without a connection to the Internet to 2.6 billion people in 2023 from 2.7 billion in 2022.

The statistic on the global offline population is important for tracking connectivity, a foundation of using technology for sustainable development. At the current trend, the global targets for universal and meaningful connectivity are unlikely to be met by 2030.

SDG Digital highlights that the funding gap of over USD 3.7 trillion for the SDGs should focus international efforts on enablers—such as infrastructure and connectivity—as well as the pooling of resources through collaboration, including the private sector, and the utilisation of diverse financing methods.

There are hopes on the horizon as SDG Digital receives new commitments to accelerate progress on the Sustainable Development Goals.

Diverse partnerships and financing are proven to scale-up digital solutions and drive innovation.

SDG Digital received financial, strategic and operational commitments from UN member states, the private sector, finance bodies, international organisations and philanthropic foundations to help put the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) back on track.

The high-level SDG Digital event, convened by the ITU and UNDP at UN headquarters, stepped up digital support for the world’s 2030 agenda as part of the SDG Action Weekend of the United Nations.

While 2020 saw double-digit growth in Internet connectivity, the number of people offline worldwide continues to decline to 33 per cent in 2023, according to the latest data from ITU.

In 2023, the number of people not connected to the Internet decreased to an estimated 2.6 billion or 33 per cent from the estimated 2.7 billion people offline in 2022. Only 67 per cent of the world’s population, or 5.4 billion people, are online in 2023, the report said.

“This improvement in connectivity is another step in the right direction and one more step towards leaving no one behind in support of the UN Sustainable Development Goals,” said Bogdan-Martin, in a statement.

“We won’t rest until we live in a world where meaningful connectivity is a lived reality for everyone, everywhere,” Bogdan-Martin added.

According to early estimates, growth in Internet connectivity remains the strongest in low-income countries where data indicate that Internet users increased by about 17 per cent over the past year. However, less than one-third of individuals are connected to the Internet in these countries.

UN assessments on the progress so far explained that half of the 169 SDG targets are either weak or insufficient at the 2030 Agenda’s halfway point. 30 per cent of the SDG targets have either stalled or gone in reverse.

“With digital transformation demanding joint efforts between the private sector, financial institutions, civil society, the UN, governments and young people, SDG Digital brings together experts, policy-makers, and business leaders to explore the achievements, gaps and solutions on how digital technologies can support the 2030 Agenda,” joint documents by ITU and UNDP state.

The SDG Digital Acceleration Agenda, developed by ITU and UNDP together with Boston Consulting Group (BCG) as a knowledge partner and the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) as an agenda supporter, shows how digital technologies kick-start economic and societal transformation by creating scale and efficiencies.

The agenda features digital solutions that are already demonstrating how technology can directly benefit 119 of the 169 SDG targets, or about 70 per cent, including in areas such as climate action, education, hunger and poverty.

“When you look at these game-changing digital solutions, you can see the actual building blocks that can drive us toward universal and meaningful connectivity,” said Bogdan-Martin. “This is how we can—and will—work together to ensure our shared digital future is inclusive, sustainable, and safe and responsible—and to do it in this decade,” she explained. 

Data in the SDG Digital Acceleration Agenda suggest that countries which improved their digital maturity—as measured by digital affordability and infrastructure indices—outpaced their peers in SDG progress for selected income levels.

The agenda also profiles the opportunities for sustainable development offered by advancements such as generative AI, 5G networks, and blockchain.

In reality, digital transformation requires considerable investment in connectivity infrastructure, building up digital skills, and creating the conditions for job retraining and new opportunities.

The formal opening of SDG Digital was part of the UN’s SDG Action Weekend, where a series of High Impact Initiatives focused on mobilising further leadership and investment to bring progress to scale between now and 2030. This includes the UN High Impact Initiative on Digital Public Infrastructure to scale inclusive and open digital ecosystems for the SDGs. Today’s decisions by countries on how to build their digital public infrastructure (DPI) will have lasting consequences on their opportunity to grow and innovate and to achieve the SDGs by 2030.

As highlighted in a recent G20 publication supported by UNDP, DPI—built on robust governance and strong local digital ecosystems—can deliver value and high impact across all of the 17 SDGs to leave no one behind. “Digital public infrastructure (DPI) represents the ‘roads and bridges’ of our new era on which countries can ‘transport’ a range of vital services to citizens, from e-health and e-government services to online education and social protection,” said Achim Steiner. “As our global community’s shared plan for a better future in the Sustainable Development Goals faces challenges, bold investments in DPI by governments are a tried-and-tested means to get them back on track—an ambition that the UN is matching by empowering 100 countries with a range of now-vital DPI solutions to ensure that everyone, everywhere can build their digital futures.”

In remarks at the SDG Digital opening, U.N. Deputy Secretary-general, Amina J. Mohammed said, “Digital technologies, when used safely and responsibly, can be catalysts of economic, social and societal transformation by creating efficiencies at scale and expanding the reach of existing solutions to support more people”.

Bogdan-Martin said, “We are grateful to all those who are dedicating resources to the urgent mission of connecting the world. Together we can build a future where everyone, everywhere, can be part of a safe, inclusive, and sustainable digital world.”

According to the SDG Digital Acceleration Agenda launched at SDG Digital, digital technologies can benefit 119 of the 169 SDG targets, or about 70 per cent, including areas such as climate action, education, hunger and poverty. Under the Partner2Connect Digital Coalition, the Global Satellite Operators Association (GSOA), Google, Microsoft, Millicom, Telenor, ZTE, the Republic of Korea and the Government of Saudi Arabia announced new pledges to advance progress towards universal and meaningful connectivity and sustainable digital transformation. They build on over 750 pledges valued at over USD 32 billion received to date since the launch of the Partner2Connect Digital Coalition campaign in February 2022. Earlier this year, the coalition issued a global appeal for USD 100 billion by 2026 to increase investment in universal and affordable connectivity. At the SDG Digital event on the eve of the conference, the Under-Secretary-general and high representative for UN-OHRLLS, Rabab Fatima said, “The Partner2Connect Digital Coalition has responded to this urgent need. The ITU, the office of the secretary-general’s envoy on technology and my office have developed a partnership to foster connectivity and digital transformation in the hardest-to-reach communities. Global Satellite Operators Association – A pledge to double the number of people connected via Satcom to at least 500 million globally by 2030. This could result in over USD 250 billion in global socio-economic benefits in support of the SDGs. Microsoft committed to extending high-speed Internet access to 250 million people in unserved and underserved communities by the end of 2025, including 100 million in Africa. To do so, Microsoft will convene a global network of Internet and energy providers, government agencies, nonprofits, and private sector companies focused on closing the global digital divide.

The Republic of Korea pledged to spend nearly USD 30 million in 2023-2024 for digital development globally. Telenor also pledged to train 3 million people in digital skills by 2025. While Millicom said it was committing to increase access and digital skills to further deploy and upgrade its connectivity infrastructure; to train 99,000 women in 2023 and 100,000 women in 2024 through its digital inclusion program; and to provide teaching and education professionals with the necessary skills to deliver education online.

Google announced a new research centre focusing on Artificial Intelligence (AI) to combat food insecurity in Africa, and USD 25 million in grants to 15 AI projects as part of its Global Goals Impact Challenge on AI for the SDGs, including in Kenya, South Africa, the Philippines, and India. ZTE’s pledge was its renewal to build USD 400 million worth of ICT network infrastructure yearly for Least Developed Countries (LDC) and Landlocked Developing Countries (LLDC) by 2025 and to sponsor Partner2Connect with CHF 300,000 by becoming a “P2C Champion” for the period of three years for implementing activities described in the Partner2Connect Action Framework. Saudi Arabia was not left out as it announced a global initiative with ITU to connect humanity through sustainable, affordable, and innovative solutions. The initiative is an extension of a joint study and work with ITU to aim to assess the current situation of the global digital divide and to enhance innovative solutions to ensure universal access to connectivity.

Sonny Aragba-Akpore
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