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Rebuilding Towards the Great Reset: Crisis, Covid-19, and the Sustainable Development Goals

John McArthur — Senior Fellow, Global Economy and Development, Brookings Institution

The year 2020 will forever be associated with crises. First came the Covid-19 pandemic, a joint public health and economic emergency that spread around the world with unprecedented speed and scope.  Next came a crisis of international cooperation, as countries struggled to coordinate their efforts in tackling a common viral foe. Then came a compounding social crisis – anchored in the United States but reverberating around the world – focused on issues of systemic racism and police brutality. Huge numbers of people have taken to the streets in calls for justice, despite the pandemic’s persistent risks.

We do not know what other crises might still arise during the rest of 2020, nor the consequences they might bring. If problems beget more problems, one staggers to think of how much worse things could get. As of early June, Covid-19 alone has generated extraordinary near-term costs. Hundreds of thousands of people have lost their lives. Tens if not hundreds of millions of people have been losing their jobs. More than a billion children have been shut out of schools. Trillions of dollars of economic activity have disappeared.

If we describe the current situation as a “moment of multidimensional crises,” then one of its toughest challenges lies in the uncertainty around how long the moment will last. But whatever further political tensions arise, the underpinning questions about Covid-19 remain fundamental. Will cascading waves of infection generate rolling shutdowns of schools, shops, and much of society? Will a vaccine be discovered and delivered to billions of people in short order, or might new treatment options provide imperfect solace in the meantime? Will today’s international institutions emerge renewed, worn down, or perhaps even broken from the cumulative strain?

Amid these heady concerns, there are reasons for hope too. Upheaval can yield new understanding and opportunity. Outdated or unjust norms can succumb to society’s pressing need for better approaches. For example, the need for massive and urgent government intervention has drawn fresh attention to social safety nets and the possibility of dramatic policy enhancements. Tragic consequences of racial discrimination have catapulted awareness of systemic problems and triggered prospects for much-needed social reforms. Rapid environmental improvements linked to economic shutdown have rekindled consciousness of the profound interconnections between ecosystems, economies, and societies.

All of this has prompted fresh calls for a broad-minded approach to the integrated challenges of policymaking. For their part, many policymakers have long been accustomed to incremental processes and solutions that push gradually against the boundaries of popular and political will. Today, many of these same people find themselves scrambling to manage rapid and radical shifts toward uncharted territory, in terms of both what’s possible and what’s expected.


The world needs to make the most of the moment at hand. To chart a path through the complex uncertainty, we suggest three distinct forms of action – Response, Recovery, and Reset.

  • Response in the near term: where the main objective is to protect lives and livelihoods, especially among people who are most vulnerable. Under this category, there is widespread alignment around the core goals, even if strategies are debated.
  • Recovery over the medium term: where the main objective is to restart and rebuild economic and social activity in a manner that protects public health, promotes societal healing, and preserves the environment. Here there might naturally be more debates around desired outcomes and greater complexity to finding solutions.
  • Reset systems for the long-term: where the objective is to establish, wherever possible, a new equilibrium among political, economic, social, and environmental systems toward common goals. Ultimately, the only limit within this category is our collective imagination. As we emerge from a moment of great crisis, we can imagine a “great reset.”

In practice, these action horizons overlap. But the key point is to distinguish between the different functions and mindsets needed for the respective challenges at hand. It remains to be seen whether the next couple of years will unfold in a manner that makes it either easier or harder to achieve progress on the world’s economic, social, and environmental challenges. So rather than passively allowing norms to evolve through inertia or randomness, we can all pursue actions for Response and, soon enough, Recovery in a manner that improve the odds of a Reset toward better long-term outcomes.

The SDGs – still an integrating framework

Fortunately, we already have a strong starting point for what the world’s economic, social, and environmental outcomes should be. Five years ago, in 2015, all 193 UN member states agreed on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as a common set of priorities to be achieved in all countries by 2030. Guided by an underlying spirit of “no one left behind,” the goals have gained increasing traction since 2015 as a shared reference point of ambition. A widening array of governments, communities, universities,  businesses, civil society organizations and private philanthropies have all leveraged the lingua franca of the goals to pursue a common agenda for progress.

Despite the common vision, the ambition of the SDGs has not yet been paired with action to match. Many SDG advocates had planned for 2020 to be an opportunity to remind the world of its commitments for the coming decade. The novel coronavirus upended everyone’s calendar. Most organizations and governments and organizations are now struggling to make plans on a 10-month or even 10-week horizon, let alone 10 years.

The constraints need not define us. The incredible energy being mobilized, across all sectors, to address today’s concurrent crises creates the opportunity for bold solutions that help break from the past and open new possibilities. By thinking across multiple time horizons for action, it is possible to rebuild from the crises in a way that not only makes us more resilient to future shock waves, but also helps the global community reset toward better footing for future SDG success.

17 Rooms – From Rebuild to Reset

In that spirit, we and our colleagues at The Brookings Institution and The Rockefeller Foundation have decided to continue convening the “17 Rooms” initiative in 2020, with a focus on Rebuild and Reset.

In 2018 and 2019, the 17 Rooms flagship meeting was held in person in New York City, as a new experiment in generating SDG action. This year, in 2020, we are organizing a series of virtual convenings (17 Zooms!) to deploy the key ingredients again – a focus on the 12-18 month horizon; an informal Chatham House Rule environment; and a cooperative mindset among respected actors leading within each of the 17 different SDG domains – to address the new context at hand.

Specifically, we are encouraging each Room (small working group) to consider the integrated challenges of Rebuild and Reset on a 2021 action horizon. In practical terms, we are asking each Room to answer the following:

In light of recent crises linked to Covid-19, systemic racism, and other urgent challenges, what are 1 to 3 actionable priorities over the coming 12-18 months (i.e., by the end of 2021) that address near-term needs while also making a decisive contribution to protecting or advancing your Goal’s 2030 results? What actions can members of your Room take to advance these priorities?

We are delighted that a remarkable cross-section of leaders from civil society, academia, business, and philanthropy are helping to lead the effort amid these challenging times. Each Room will convene its own conversations over the coming months, culminating in a virtual conference in September. By October, we plan to publish a short document from each Room plus a brief overarching report focused on the integrated themes of Rebuild and Reset.

As the world eventually shifts its focus from the traumas of 2020 to the needed actions of 2021, we aim for these documents to help inform pathways back to SDG action. Emerging from this moment of crises, the final products will not amount to any kind of comprehensive roadmap. Instead, we simply hope to provide some helpful steps with which to start.

  • Report

    17 Rooms Global Flagship Meeting Summary Report

    Time is running fast for the bold set of 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that the world’s governments have agreed to achieve by 2030. Without more significant action soon, too many targets will fall short. That’s a big reason why a clock, and the dreaded words “Time’s up!”, are central features of the closing session […]
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