World may veer off sustainable growth path unless policies unite, says UNCTAD


Global efforts to put the world on a more sustainable and prosperous path will continue to frustrate policy makers, unless action is taken simultaneously on five man-made mega-trends including climate change, says the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD).

The chief economists in the United Nations system jointly identified the other challenges as inequalities, urbanization, rapid population changes and technological revolution that will shape the world over the course of this century.

Five years into implementation of the Sustainable Development Agenda, the report titled “Shaping the Trends of Our Time” says progress is already off-track and in many instances may have even been reversed by the COVID-19 crisis.

The UN Economist Network’s report calls for a new, holistic way of designing policies over the next 75 years. It argues for greater cooperation across seemingly unrelated areas, such as digitalization, urban planning and energy production, traditionally too often approached in isolation.

“A better and fairer society can emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic if global coordinated action is taken to address the fragilities within and among nations to ensure prosperity for all,” said Mukhisa Kituyi, Secretary-General of UNCTAD, who contributed to the report.  

While sustainable finance is increasing, it’s not happening fast enough nor at the necessary scale. “The change in our behaviour and mindsets does not yet match our ambitions for sustainable development,” says the report.

Without an overhaul of the current disjointed policymaking, the achievement of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, the 15-year global objectives to improve the lives of people everywhere, is highly unlikely, according to the report.

Population trends a concern

“Decades in the making, these megatrends cannot be easily undone or changed in any significant way in the immediate term. But they are the result of human activity, and therefore they can be shaped over time by consistent policies,” said Liu Zhenmin, head of the UN Department for Economic and Social Affairs that led the report preparation.

It is possible as decades of sustained and targeted policies have contributed to drastic changes in the world population. From a peak of 2% in the 1960s, average annual growth of the global population has slowed down to 1% and is expected to cease entirely by the end of the century.

Consequently, it will lead to a decrease in fertility rates that can support greater gender equality, as women spend less of their lives in childbearing and childcare roles. On the other hand, rapid population ageing raises concerns about constraints on innovation, productivity and macroeconomic dynamism.

Such interlinkages need to be carefully considered in policy design of all megatrends. “Because each megatrend also affects the other megatrends, policy interventions in one area can generate positive and mutually reinforcing impacts in another,” said Liu Zhenmin.

Technological innovation and digitalization, for instance, have clearly accentuated income inequalities, especially in the time of online learning and remote work. And climate change can reinforce rural-urban migration by displacing hundreds of millions of people from coastal areas and from lands hit by drought, the report adds.  

Biman Mukherji is a columnist and consulting editor at He has worked for international news organisations such as Reuters, The Wall Street Journal as well as for newspapers like The Times of India. He can be reached at

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