European Countries Lead the World on Ending Extreme Poverty. But That May Change With COVID-19: SDG Report

Authors: James Hitchings-Hales and Sarah El Gharib

Why Global Citizens Should Care
The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were established in 2015 to create a roadmap with 17 specific objectives working together to end extreme poverty and its systemic causes by 2030. Each of the UN’s 193 member states signed up to the plan — and with 10 years to go, it’s vital that we ensure every country is held accountable to its promises. That’s why the SDG Index is so important: it keeps everyone on the right path. Take action here to call on world leaders to keep fighting to achieve the SDGs. 

There’s a few things that countries in Europe are extremely good at: Europe essentially has a monopoly on football; it's the second biggest music market in the world; and when it comes to tackling poverty and its root causes, a new global report says Europe comes out on top.

Much like its position in football and music, this is, at first glance, nothing new. Last year, European states accounted for 13 of the top 15 countries in the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) Index — ranking progress towards ending extreme poverty by 2030, including evaluating factors that contribute to it, like hunger, health care, and gender equality.

The report assesses how countries around the world are doing in terms of progress towards the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (a.k.a. the Global Goals)  — 17 objectives that work together towards ending extreme poverty and its systemic causes by 2030.

And in the 2020 report, Europe has locked down the entire top 15 in the ranking of 196 countries. Previously, the only non-European inclusions were from Japan and New Zealand. Now, they’ve been edged out by Ireland and Switzerland. The only other switch-up has been Iceland falling out, replaced by Belgium.

All rosy in Europe then, right? Well, not entirely. But prior to the deep dive, let’s examine the progress of the top three countries in the SDG Index — all Nordic states spread around the Baltic Sea.

1. Sweden

After finishing second last year, Sweden has made progress on poverty, gender equality, good health, and many other areas to pip Denmark to the top spot in 2020.

However, while the report scores Sweden highly on clean energy — since its population has electricity access and renewables play an important part in its energy supply — it states that major challenges remain on climate change with its carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. 

It’s a criticism that persists across every country in the top 15: not a single top ranked state has scored outside of the “red zone” on climate, in line with the UN’s Global Goal 13 on climate action. 

Sweden also scores poorly on "responsible consumption and production” with its levels of electronic waste and sulfur dioxide (SO2) emissions, a pollutant emitted from burning fossil fuels. But overall, Sweden is an example to follow with low poverty, protected biodiversity, major internet connectivity, and universal health coverage.

2. Denmark

Denmark came out on top in 2019 — and maintains its high position thanks to its low poverty rates, relatively low income inequality, and lack of malnutrition and stunting in its children.

However, like Sweden, it scores poorly on climate and other emissions including CO2, SO2, and nitrogen. Denmark is also marked down on life below water, as it catches fish by trawling, and was ranked 46th in the world on the Ocean Health Index

Moreover, much more work still needs to be done on obesity, getting more women into science, and supporting a population overburdened by rent payments. But progress is still happening on academic research and wider gender equality — including the gender wage gap and family planning access.

3. Finland

Typically, Finland is a world leader in education: there’s no standardised testing until you’re 18, teachers must have at least a master's degree, and private schools have been abolished. That success is echoed in the SDG Index with high rates of primary school enrollment, high secondary school completion, and top mathematics, science, and reading ability.

There’s also positive feedback on clean water (like healthy sanitation access), justice (such as incarceration rates and public safety), and labour rights (including low numbers of modern slavery victims).

Despite this, there was dissatisfaction in Finland with public transport, and it was marked poorly for its Overseas Development Assistance (ODA — basically, its aid spending). And, like every other country in the top 15, much more needs to be done to make progress on climate.

What does the future look like?

While the world is on the precipice of immense change, Europe may actually suffer the most dramatic reversal of progress. The SDGs league table in 2020 may very well be an entirely different beast to the ones we see in the coming years.

That’s because of a little thing called COVID-19. You might have noticed that the countries many might have thought would deal best with the pandemic — for example, those with the strongest health systems, like Britain’s National Health Service (NHS) — have not quite fulfilled those expectations.

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So while Britain remained in 13th position on the SDG Index in both 2019 and 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) states that the UK has endured the third worst death toll from coronavirus in the world (45,273). Only the US (137,674) and Brazil (77,851) have seen more deaths during the pandemic so far.

Likewise, France (fourth in the SDG Index but with the sixth highest COVID-19 death toll) and Belgium (11th in the Index and 12th on deaths) may see a similar decline. The two European states have had 30,046 and 9,800 deaths respectively as of July 20, which may very well influence how their health systems and education sectors fare in years to come.

And while European progress may stall, there have been rapid lurches forward among eastern and southern Asian countries — including South Korea and Japan — since the SDGs were first established in 2015. Perhaps even more important is that the report highlights how these countries have responded best to the COVID-19 pandemic too. 

So while the economic turmoil sparked by the virus leaves global progress towards achieving the SDGs in danger, these Asian states have given themselves a real head start. In turn, that suggests that, unlike their European counterparts, they’re better placed to deliver the SDGs going into the future.

This is especially true as progress made on the SDGs in Europe since 2015 — despite European countries topping the tables on overall indicators — has actually been close to the bottom: sub-Saharan Africa, Eastern Europe, Central Asia, North Africa, and the Middle East have all improved at a far superior rate since 2015 compared to all the countries currently in the top 15 of the SDG Index.

All of the top 15 countries are what’s known as OECD countries — meaning, they are members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, an agency that helps set the standards of aid spending so it focuses on poverty alleviation. In practical terms, OECD countries are the richest countries with a responsibility to lift up the poorest. So in that respect, perhaps they also have the least room to grow: their poverty levels were already historically low.

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However, when you compare the countries in the top 15 of the SDG Index to the 15 states with the best early responses to the pandemic, just six European countries stay on top: Estonia, Slovenia, Norway, Denmark, Czech Republic, and Finland. In fact, from March 4 to May 12, the best performing country in controlling the pandemic was South Korea — that also just so happens to be on the cusp of the top 15 in the SDG Index too, in 20th place.

So what next? Well, the World Bank says that for the first time in 20 years, the number of people living in extreme poverty could increase by up to 60 million because of the pandemic. 

The virus has touched all aspects of our society: school closures will worsen education outcomes for children; health systems creaking under pressure will mean more excess deaths more generally; and sluggish economic recovery will mean mass unemployment, more poverty, and further entrenched inequalities.

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All in all, progress on the SDGs will invariably suffer everywhere. But it could potentially be far more palpable in Europe, where many countries still struggle to shake outbreaks through the summer. 

But — and this is a colossal “but” — if countries in Europe can focus on aligning their pandemic relief and recovery plans with the SDGs, focusing on things like international cooperation, hunger and malnutrition, social safety nets, and health care, then the COVID-19 crisis could be used as a springboard to facilitate the necessary radical change to achieve the SDGs by 2030.

Here’s the top 15 countries — all from Europe, and all OECD members — on the SDG Index:


Top 15 

1. Sweden (84.72)

2. Denmark (84.56)

3. Finland (83.77)

4. France (81.13)

5. Germany (80.77)

6. Norway (80.76)

7. Austria (80.70)

8. Czech Republic (80.58)

9. Netherlands (80.37)

10. Estonia (80.06)

11. Belgium (79.96) 

12. Slovenia (79.96) 

13. United Kingdom (79,79) 

14. Ireland (79.38) 

15. Switzerland (79.35)


This year marks 10 years to go until the 2030 target to end extreme poverty and achieve the targets set out under the SDGs. With the release of the Sustainable Development Report 2020, we’re taking a deep dive into the successes we’ve already made — and barriers that still exist — when it comes to achieving the SDGs and ending extreme poverty by 2030. You can find our Sustainable Development Report 2020 content series here.