As part of the Humanity Hub’s second seasonal programming theme, focusing on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), we will share insights by members of the Humanity Hub community and the Hague Peace & Justice ecosystem. This week, we are spotlighting International Alert’s brief on how SDG 16 can help salvage the 2030 Agenda in the wake of COVID-19.

At the start of 2020, the 2030 Agenda – encapsulated in the UN member states’ commitment to the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – entered a ‘Decade of Action’ meant to accelerate progress towards sustainable development that would ‘leave no one behind’.

Yet it was already in deep trouble: the vast majority of the world’s extremely poor now live in fragile and conflict-affected states (FCAS). By 2030, approximately 80% of the most vulnerable people globally would be trapped in countries experiencing chronic instability, violence and conflict. None of these states are on track to achieve a single SDG. The 2030 Agenda will succeed or fail globally based on its performance in those FCAS that seemed fated to be left behind.

The reasons behind this lack of progress are clear. Inherent weaknesses in global development efforts, during the time of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) from 2000–2015 and implementation of the SDGs since 2015, bedevil efforts in fragile states. Conflict and related displacement of people have surged to a new high; forced displacement reached unprecedented levels; planet-shaping dynamics such as climate change and natural resource scarcity have accelerated; and deglobalisation and the weakening of multilateral norms have all exacerbated these trends.

The spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) also gravely impacts the 2030 Agenda – and nowhere more sharply than in FCAS. Countries where governance is often weak and contested; where violence can be pervasive even if not a product of overt war; where economies are brittle and riches can be captured by elites; where public services such as healthcare can be more marked by absence or access constraints; where large groups can suffer exclusion, discrimination, repression and poverty – all these are extremely vulnerable to deep impact resulting from COVID-19.

In conflict-affected countries, this vulnerability is further exacerbated by one aspect of how the virus spreads: it tends to impact marginalised populations more heavily, and features such as overcrowded living conditions and a lack of access to good sanitation and healthcare represent ideal transmission grounds.

Yet, even at this stark moment when the 2030 Agenda seems threatened, there is a ready solution that has been generating increased attention and acceptance: leveraging SDG 16 – the commitment to ‘peaceful, just and inclusive societies’ – not just as a stand-alone aim, but as the key to unlocking progress across the 2030 Agenda in FCAS.

In this briefing, we argue that, if a leveraged focus on SDG 16 was necessary before COVID-19, it is imperative now – not just in salvaging the 2030 Agenda in the places where it matters most, but also in damping down the potential for far greater and more durable violent conflict.