Beyond COVID-19: Building forward in Tunisia Agenda 2030 as a blueprint for recovery in a middle-income country

By Alissar Chaker, Deputy Resident Representative, UNDP Tunisia

2 juillet 2020

What we are experiencing today, though devastating, is nothing unusual. Pandemics have played a major role in shaping human history throughout the ages. Like the black death (1347) and the Spanish flu (1918), the COVID-19 pandemic brought about fundamental and irreversible changes to our lives and societies. Its socio-economic impacts seem perhaps more pronounced due to global inter-dependence, namely of capitals, goods, services and commodities, as well as human mobility and unprecedented information flows. Besides similarities, all pandemics teach us valuable lessons of adaptation and resilience – a word to the “wise”! 

The pandemic: a multiplier of fragility and exclusion

The first priorities in addressing the COVID-19 pandemic have been, and rightly so, to overcome the short-term impacts. Health emergency and rapid economic rescue measures were put in place. The latter is mostly aimed at providing essential liquidity and protecting livelihoods to mitigate the consequences of abrupt losses of income. There are also heartening examples on all-of society responses to the pandemic from around the world, and a lot to tell from Tunisia. These included growing mutual aid groups, crowdfunding and social innovation.

Many businesses have similarly proven their social purpose through corporate social responsibility or through pivoting their manufacturing to produce face masks, hand sanitizer, PPEs and other much needed equipment. However, the pandemic has revealed serious weaknesses in health and social protection systems. The challenges in developing countries are manifestly more acute and are likely to become more apparent as this crisis rolls on. The UNDP 2020 Human Development Perspectives COVID-19 noted that “The COVID-19 pandemic is unleashing a human development crisis. […] On some dimensions of human development, conditions today are equivalent to levels of deprivation last seen in the mid-1980s”.

The pandemic is also acting as a multiplier of vulnerabilities and inequalities. As the United Nations Deputy Secretary-General put it to UN News on 3 May: “We have a health emergency, a humanitarian emergency and now a development emergency. These emergencies are compounding existing inequalities. COVID-19 is exposing the frailties and inequalities of our societies.” 

Beyond recovery: charting new pathways for development

As states, societies and businesses are beginning to formulate their COVID-19 recovery strategies, many are assessing their “business-as-usual” practices, selecting what is worth returning to, and what will require radical transformation for reducing vulnerabilities and increasing resilience of societies and businesses to future shocks. They are also looking for new partnerships and strategic alliances for building forward better. Building forward better means looking beyond recovery and doing more than getting economies and livelihoods quickly back on their feet.

It means using post-COVID-19 new ‘normals’, digital disruption and innovation as an opportunity for charting new pathways, that are greener, more inclusive and just, and for expanding and accelerating development impact. Significant strides have been taken to launch and support ‘responsible’ recovery plans; however, ensuring that this re-imagining yields concrete change will require ambitious, holistic, forward-looking and coordinated action from all key stakeholders, that is, a shared framework. 

Looking to the SDG for a solution

The Agenda 2030 and its global goals provide a blueprint not only for sustainable development but also for building forward better post-pandemic. Adopted in 2015 by 193 States, it calls for bold transformative actions and collaborative alliances to shift growth to a sustainable and resilient path balancing the economic, social and environmental dimensions.

The SDGs recognize the complexity and interconnectedness of systemic challenges. Scientific evidence showed several connections between pandemics in general and our current industrial and socio-political systems.The initial cause of COVID-19, as in previous coronavirus outbreaks, was transmission from animals to human of a virus. If we zoom in, we will probably identify a range of social, economic and environmental changes, such as, changing land-use patterns and agricultural practices, legal and illegal wildlife trade, deforestation, poverty, and poor sanitation and education, that contributed to creating the conditions for the zoonosis to thrive and become so damaging. 

A green and inclusive recovery is our bridge to a more resilient future since the pandemic and the ensuing confinement proved that the cost of externalities has become too hefty to continue ignoring it. Recovery and stimulus plans should thus integrate the triple bottom-line (economic-environmental-social). The role of the finance sector is key for catalyzing for promoting impact investment as the norm (and not the ideal) and providing capitals for innovation and for achieving the SDGs.

UNDP Tunisia recently presented with its national partners the study on the economic impact of COVID-19 in terms of increased vulnerabilities on households and micro-and-small enterprises as input to the Tunisian Government deliberations on recovery and national development planning. It is also launching several other complementary studies on the informal sector, remittances, green economy, social and solidarity economy and the digital gap in Tunisia.

The SDGs recognize the criticality of innovation for initiating transformative change. The response to the pandemic exposed great examples of social innovation and collaboration. The ecosystem should thus be strengthened to sustain social innovation and community-based solutions for more resilience.

Strong commitment to the SDGs would give legitimacy and transparency for decisions and investments, or the lack of them, during response and recovery from the pandemic.

They would also provide answers to legitimacy concerns and social protests associated with hardship, mounting deprivations and instability. Integrating the SDGs in post-pandemic plans would provide the base, evidence and business cases for the choices to be made.  

The SDGs are based on the principle that no-one and no country should be left behind. The pandemic highlighted severe tensions and inequalities “… between people and technology, between people and the planet, between the haves and the have-nots. These tensions were already shaping a new generation of inequalities…” (Report on Human Development Perspective 2020). As it is often the case, the most vulnerable segments of society, especially those living in poverty, are being hit the hardest. Strategies and targeted responses should be designed to cater to these groups by:

1. reducing epidemiological risks to save lives;

 2. eradicating inequalities and exclusion through strengthened social safety-networks;

 3. protecting livelihoods without leaving behind the informal sector and micro-and-small enterprises;

 4. and ensuring human capital accumulation, through unprecedented policy, regulatory and fiscal choices. 

Also, Middle-Income-Countries (MICs), such as Tunisia, should not be left behind. Though they have reached a certain level of development, MICs are very diverse and suffer from the persistence of a variety of development challenges that were exacerbated by the pandemic. They include inequality, economic and environmental vulnerability, persistent patterns of poverty, economic stagnation (referred to as ‘MICs income trap’), lack of competitiveness and innovation, state fragility and institutional weaknesses. All these are serious obstacles for inclusive growth and sustainable development, let alone when combined with the impacts of the pandemic. Tunisia has been through a steep democratic transition in the aftermath of the 2011 revolution; the impacts of COVID-19 are seriously testing the absorption capacity of its institutions, its economic resilience, social justice and stability. International cooperation and partnerships should thus adopt more tailor-made approaches with MICs. 

SDG17 calls for strong partnerships at the global, regional, national and local levels, essential for managing change. These partnerships can be directed to overcome the effects of the pandemic, including support for countries facing the double-burden of health and funding shocks. These partnerships are crucial for slowing the spread of the virus and for developing a vaccine to counter the disease. Until then, no country is safe from the pandemic and its recurrence- when transmission occurs elsewhere. The emphasis of partnerships should not only be on preventative measures, but also for increasing the well-being and resilience of impacted societies, and particularly the most vulnerable groups, to costly future disruptions, whether due to climate change, disease, or confluence of these or other factors. 

SDG-basedbuilding forward greener and smarter

As the world responds to this pandemic and seeks to restore global prosperity, it is important to address the underlying causes through the lens of the SDGs. The erosion of several SDGs gains should spur us to accelerate and expand our efforts during this “Decade of Action” to recover and build forward better.

It is within this framework that UNDP has updated its initial rapid response to COVID-19 and is supporting its partners to look beyond recovery towards the 2030 horizon. And as such, it has geared its offer of policy advice; technical assistance; global, regional and national platforms of expertise and partners; catalytic funding and capacity development support to assist decision-makers and the society as a whole in making choices for addressing immediate and long-term needs, accelerating action towards the achievement of Agenda 2030, and managing complexity and uncertainty in four main areas, namely: governance and agency, social protection, green economy, and digital disruption.

This offer encompasses UNDP’s role as technical lead for the UN’s socioeconomic response to COVID-19, supporting an integrated response to national requests that builds on expertise of the whole UN System in the country. It is along these strategic orientations and in alignment with country priorities, that UNDP Tunisia is supporting the government, civil society and the private sector in identifying policy, regulatory and fiscal tipping points and developing tailor-made response plans not only to recover but also to redress the course of development and accelerate progress.