The world is crisscrossed by roads that come closer together and move further apart[1].

Since the end of the Cold War the world has increasingly moved together with the expansion of trade, voluntary migration, and digital networks connecting us more closely than ever before. And the results are inspiring: since the early 1990s, more than one billion people have risen out of extreme poverty. Global hunger has decreased by more than 200 million people. Maternal health has drastically improved, infant mortality rates, and the number of children out of school have dropped by more than half. Electricity access is increasing. Deaths from malaria, HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and other infectious diseases have declined dramatically, and the prevalence of war was cut in half.

Riding the winds of this momentum was an aspirational new form of economic diplomacy. In 2015, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were adopted by 193 member countries of the United Nations, the first ever bottom-up, inclusive blueprint for economic growth, social inclusion, and environmental sustainability to foster long-term, shared prosperity in advanced and developing economies across the globe. The SDGs are not a top-down decree of an institutional worldview but, rather they are a reflection of universal human values that transcend the institutions that promote them.

The SDGs comprise 17 interconnected and indivisible goals (The 17 Goals) targeting an elimination of poverty and hunger and the advancement of health, education, clean water and energy, economic growth, infrastructure, equality, environment, peace, justice and cooperation by the year 2030. “Agenda 2030” is further broken down into a set of 169 measurable targets, and 231 unique quantitative indicators, components of a comprehensive system to assess progress and to ensure accountability. In short, the SDGs are a detailed framework for a post-pandemic rebuild — they draw the linkages between the long-term drivers of prosperous, fair and resilient societies.

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Source: United Nations.

Since their adoption however, rising divisive forces have stopped global progress in its tracks; protectionism, nationalism, fears about national security and the control of borders, escalating conflicts causing forced migration, growing xenophobia and inequality. By the end of 2019 there were setbacks and reversals of the SDGs in many areas. Poverty decline was stalling, the number of people suffering from food insecurity and hunger was on the rise, climate change was accelerating, and inequalities continued to deepen, shattering social cohesion.

The pandemic set back global health 25 years in 25 weeks. As of writing in October the world was nearing 50 million cases, with more than a million deaths across 214 countries and territories. At the height of the global lockdown, business closures and shutdowns affected half the global workforce, and 1.6 billion students were out of school. As many as 150 million people may be pushed into extreme poverty by 2021 as a result of COVID-19.

Canada, like other UN member states, has been in the process of developing a national strategic plan and corresponding indicators to implement the global SDGs in ways that reflect Canadian realities. We have our own assets to leverage and challenges to reckon with in the development of a plan for sustainable development.

But in the wise words of Mike Tyson, “everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”[2]

COVID-19 has delivered a sucker punch to families, communities, and the country, walloping human health, economic and social cohesion with each wave. In Canada, over 236,000 people have been infected with the disease, and over 10,000 have lost their lives. Businesses are closing, millions remain unemployed, and food insecurity has risen sharply.

Even before the pandemic, Canada was not on track towards sustainable development by 2030 — a 2017 Brookings Institute assessment found that Canada was moving backwards on safe drinking water, child obesity, and food insecurity and needed a breakthrough to cut domestic poverty in half by 2030 to meet its 2030 emission targets.

Critically, the inequality reduction goals were moving the wrong way, which has only been intensified by the pandemic:

  • Gender equality: Canada was not on track for gender equality, pay equity, representation in leadership positions, or for reducing violence against women. The female labour participation rate was closing its historic gap, but this trend has now reversed.
  • Literacy: Three million adult Canadians may lack literacy skills, while as many as five million lack core numeracy skills.
  • Indigenous Peoples face the most extensive disparities, in respect of child poverty, food insecurity, access to medical care, and reported violence. Recent Statistics Canada crowd-sourced surveys have reported higher temporary or permanent job loss, and a higher negative impact of the pandemic on the ability to meet financial or other essential needs than non-Indigenous survey participants.

Combine these existing challenges with the persistence of the virus bringing the biggest economic downturn since the Great Depression, and a world of inclusive and sustainable development seems far, far away.

How can we even possibly think of 17 multidimensional goals when we are in the middle of an acute economic and public health crisis?

The SDGs are needed now more than ever. Hardwiring the SDGs into Canada’s response and recovery will help mitigate the economic, social, and environmental impacts of COVID-19. It will proactively prevent future crises, and accelerate the development of the prosperous, fair and resilient community, country, and world that we want to live in and that we wish to leave behind.

The most recent Speech from the Throne outlined the ways Canada’s federal government intends to implement the SDGs in Canada’s recovery plan. All 17 SDGs and corresponding policy measures were covered in broad strokes in the speech. There is a role for everyone to play, from governments, to communities, to business, to educational institutions, to civil society organizations, to each of us as citizens.

To effectively mainstream the broad spectrum of SDGs into planning and put Canada back on a path to progress, we need to fundamentally transform our approach to the forces that will accelerate their success: innovation, finance and, ultimately, the way that we see ourselves in the world and our role in it.

When the country went into lockdown, we quickly went online. Digital innovations seemingly appeared overnight, offering everything from increased food delivery options, to videoconferencing tools to essential healthcare services. Businesses and individuals who were able to pivot their work — and their personal lives — onto the internet have fared better in the pandemic. These digital dividends however, have deepened gaps. As many as 1 in 10 Canadians are unable to participate due to lack of a broadband connection, with a disproportionate share of the unconnected in rural and remote areas, in impoverished neighbourhoods and in Indigenous communities. When the internet is out of reach, so too is equal access to education, health and employment.

Innovation is a process and, when consciously directed, it can be the solution to the problems that it creates. Once the federal government’s promise of connectivity across Canada is achieved, digital innovation could greatly promote the inclusivity and sustainability of the growth needed to jumpstart recovery. Universal connectivity is a crucial priority.

Simultaneously, Canada could reorient itself to essential elements of the innovation process: innovation policy, intellectual property, and immigration with the goal to advance inclusion. Here’s how:

1. Innovation policy: Refocus innovation policies and programs toward those who are left out, i.e. support and enable those innovations to reach those who are being displaced, or who are marginalized from access to jobs in Canada’s evolving economy. By solving for the education, skills, environmental, and employment needs of those who are not engaged in Canada’s workforce, we will at once boost labour force growth and bridge the gap of inequality, these measures will enhance economic growth. By extending our reach to those who are furthest away, the effects will spill over to those who are close by. In Canada, this means not only designing education, skills, and employment technologies and platforms specifically for women, youth, Indigenous peoples, seniors, and people with disabilities, but looking to, and understanding, the furthest territories of our country to spur economic activity and engagement.

2. Intellectual property: Re-imagine intellectual property protection to foster greater inclusion and solutions that will advance the SDGs. COVID-19 has the potential to blur the boundaries of IP protection, in order to accelerate the development of medical solutions that can be made available to all. Patent pooling, open science, and compulsory licenses are tools that can fast track equitable solutions by ensuring that access is not impeded by prohibitive IP rights. As pointed out in an article by Myra J. Tawfik, Canada has already identified the inequalities ingrained into the IP system, with women and Indigenous inventors and entrepreneurs sidelined due to IP biases in the Canadian legal model. This has been addressed through measures to enhance IP education, awareness and advice, to advance IP strategic tools for growth and to facilitate access and representation in the IP system by underserved groups. She envisions a post-pandemic IP legal order that will further advance such progressive solutions to solve global challenges, with climate action as a priority.

3. Immigration: Restart immigration on a more ambitious trajectory of integration. Immigrants to Canada are entrepreneurial by definition, and are also Canada’s leading entrepreneurs. Immigrants create new businesses and create more jobs than Canadian businesses do. Between 2006 and 2018, the number of immigrant entrepreneurs grew by 22 percent — an advantage for the Canadian economy. But attracting immigrant entrepreneurs, and supporting their integration into the Canadian economy, can be hard to do. To unlock the innovation and growth required to recover from the pandemic, Canada has decided to ambitiously increase the number of newcomers welcomed to the country each year. It must also bridge the gaps in their economic and social integration when they get here. The pandemic has derailed Canada’s efforts in both respects, with both a drastic shortfall in the number of newcomers arriving to Canada in 2020 and a disproportionate impact of the pandemic on their economic and social integration. Here are some ideas to bend the arc of population growth post-pandemic:

  • Commit to the temporary pandemic policy measures enacted to enable newcomer employment, such as new pathways to permanent residency for refugee claimants and relaxed work permit requirements for the longer term.
  • Implement and expand new programs and policy proposals, such as the designation of refugees to the Economic Mobility Pathways Project, digital education and employment solutions and the automatic granting of permanent residency to international students.
  • Scale immigrant integration ambitiously in lockstep with employment growth, and both double down on efforts to attract immigrants to rural and under-populated areas and to urban innovation clusters.

The pandemic has been a powerful unequalizer. If we truly want an inclusive recovery, Canada needs to deploy innovation — and innovators — to reach the furthest corners of our society. We will all benefit. It is an underpinning principle, as well as a specified goal, of the SDGs to leave no one behind, and we must endeavour to reach the furthest behind first.

Pre-pandemic, sustainable finance was increasing globally, but not at the rate or scale needed to achieve the SDGs. There was an annual $2.5-trillion gap in the required financing worldwide, representative of approximately 3 percent of global GDP in 2019. Global GDP has contracted sharply – the IMF predicts that even with the $18 trillion (U.S.) spent so far to stimulate international economies, the global economy will lose at least $12 trillion by the end of 2021. There will be much less to go around. In fact, global foreign direct investment flows are forecast to decrease by up to 40%, remittance flows will decrease by 20% and overseas development aid is expected to decrease by 8%, turning the existing global gap into a potential sinkhole.

In Canada, the crisis has turned up the heat on economic and fiscal pressures that we were facing prior to the pandemic, with rising debt and stagnating growth constraining SDG investment and, as a consequence, intergenerational equity. A sustainable recovery is the only option as COVID-19 has shown us the risks of not building a resilient economy. To do so, domestic resources and private sector investment must be articulated, diversified, and mobilized in the direction of the SDGs — not only within Canada, but also in its international aid policy — as the SDGs are not a singular national effort but a global one.

4. Budgets and Strategies: Frame national, provincial, and municipal budgets and strategies in terms of the SDGs. The SDGs span all government jurisdictions. While the federal government needs to convene and create a collaborative SDG strategy, provinces and territories determine key SDG areas, including healthcare and education. And municipalities are at the frontlines of delivery of these core services. A critical challenge to collaboration across governments is the lack of an articulated integration of the SDG framework into strategies and budgets. By using the SDG system, all levels governments can more easily plan and invest in those SDG areas that are critically underserved and in need of attention. The city of Kitchener offers an example: using the SDG framework in its 2019-2022 strategic plan will enable the city to plan for holistic recovery and growth. Moreover, it forces the key insights of SDG analysis to be applied. Only by considering each of the goals, their linkages and tradeoffs can efficiencies, fiscal and social, be gained.

5. SDG Financing and Engagement: Mobilize new financing models and private sector engagement to address the SDGs. Canada has played a leadership role in convening the world on the issue of sustainable development finance. Yet at home there is much work to do to engage key contributors. In September, the finance ministers of Canada and Jamaica led a UN session of ministers of finance and heads of state and government to formulate and assess a menu of policy options to finance the SDGs in and between developed and developing countries. Among the potential domestic, bilateral, and multilateral solutions proposed were debt cancellations, debt-for-climate or debt-for-SDG swaps, SDG-ESG integration in capital markets, SDG training for fund management and financial market certification, and corporate SDG reporting and benchmarking and the creation of funds earmarked for resilience. Private-public-social sector partnerships to finance the SDGs are critical and yet the Canadian private sector and its resources are underutilized in the attainment of the SDGs, with gaps in awareness, implementation and accountability. The UN Global Compact for Business for instance, offers membership, training, and a knowledge-sharing platform to promote corporate engagement in and reporting on the SDGs, to date, only 125 Canadian organizations have signed up.

6. ODA for SDGs. Deploy increased ODA to global economic development. Canada will not be able to recover in terms of health or economy if the world does not. And we will not be able to attain inclusive growth at home without more sustainable development globally. In September 2020, the federal government designated an additional $400 million in foreign aid to fight COVID-19, in addition to the $220 million pledged to the COVID-19 Vaccine Global Access Facility, to ensure that low and middle-income countries are not left out of the distribution of a vaccine. These are important commitments, and the Prime Minister affirmed that the pandemic offered a reset and “[a] chance to accelerate our pre-pandemic efforts to reimagine economic systems that actually address global challenges like extreme poverty, inequality and climate change.” This aspiration must be modeled in Canada’s national strategy to promote the SDGs internationally and into the administration of increasing levels of aid abroad.

The great pause imposed by COVID-19 has individuals, communities, and countries looking inward to address the immediacy of the challenges at hand. It hardly seems like the time to take on the daunting and complex challenge of creating a fairer and more just world.

But the pandemic has also revealed the necessity of cooperation and of thinking outside of the confines of our individual realities. As we grapple with being kept apart and isolated from family, friends, and neighbours our personal challenges loom over global challenges, but we can see that many of our challenges are mirrored in the world at large.

We must return to a world of connection and collaboration, both to address the pandemic and to recover our economies, social structures, and our individual lives.

Canada itself will not solve global grand challenges in isolation — as pointed out by Margaret Biggs and John McArthur, a nation that represents only 0.5% of world population, 2.2%of world income and 3.7% of OECD donor country annual income will not make a dent in the attainment of the ultimate ends of the SDGs. Even if we were to reach domestic 2030 targets for example, in relation to GHG emissions it would only move the global dial by 2.4%. Moreover, the world’s collective response will affect our capacity to reach domestic SDGs. Individual national results, and the costs of achieving them depend on collective results. 66% of Canadian GDP is trade related and by the 2030s, 100% of Canada’s population growth will come from the world outside our borders. How we collectively respond to the crisis and to our recovery will determine our shared future.

So what can we do?

7. Redefine our Role in the World: To hardwire the SDGs into our mindset as we confront these unprecedented challenges, we must see beyond boundaries, rely on an expansive sense of national identity and on expanded networks and leverage Canadian strengths to engage with the world. As a country that recognizes diversity and pluralism as a strategic advantage, it should also be the cornerstone of our foreign policy. While establishing new coalitions, and closer relationships with like-minded countries is vitally important, the reason for the failure of existing multilateral efforts is the lack of pluralistic engagement. Drifting and divergent countries must be brought back into the fold of multilateralism. The principles underlying effective pluralism — acceptance, listening, and cooperation — are a foundation for diplomacy, dispute resolution, peacekeeping, and achieving the SDGs. Canada is an effective broker, and our domestic efforts towards reconciliation and pluralism can be applied to this forum. As new UN Ambassador Bob Rae once wrote:

“As a country that is less than a superpower, Canada cannot rely on its muscle to make itself heard. Our influence comes from a capacity for wisdom, from being a trusted source of information, knowledge, and judgment on some of the most difficult issues facing the world.”[3]

A recent survey suggests that 73% of Canadians expect a broad transformation of society post-pandemic, while only 26% expect a return to the status quo. The SDGs provide a holistic framework, and measurable indicators, for meeting the expectation of the majority. Global goals are not unattainable fluff and they are not gobbledygook. They are a way of seeing the world, and a way of approaching complex challenges. The SDGs present a model for transforming the Canadian economy, society and mindset to more fair, inclusive and resilient outcomes. This country’s policy response can spark that transformation by reorienting innovation, finance and our collective outlook. The result will determine whether we emerge from the pandemic closer together or further apart.

  1. Scalfari, E. (2013). The Pope: how the Church will change. La Repubblica.
  2. Berardino, M. (2012). Mike Tyson explains one of his most famous quotes. South Florida Sun Sentinel.
  3. Rae, B. (2015). What’s Happened to Politics? p. 119. Simon & Schuster.

Private Sector Partners: Manulife & Shopify

Consulting Partner: Deloitte

Federal Government Partner: Government of Canada

Provincial Government Partners:

British Columbia, SaskatchewanOntario & Quebec

Research Partners: National Research Council Canada & Future Skills Centre

Foundation Partners: Metcalf Foundation 

PPF would like to acknowledge that the views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the project’s partners.