Achieving SDGs is not that easy

Muhammad Zamir | November 06, 2023

One needs to revisit the paradigm of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as the world prepares itself in the second half of September to discuss in the United Nations as to whether we have been able to move forward meaningfully towards the SDGs.

In this context one needs to understand that these Goals are viewed as a collection of seventeen interlinked objectives designed to serve as a shared blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet, now and also into the future.

The list of targets and indicators for each of the 17 SDGs was published in a UN resolution in July 2017. Each goal typically has 8-12 targets, and each target has between one and four indicators used to measure progress toward reaching the targets, with the average of 1.5 indicators per target. The targets are either outcome targets (circumstances to be attained) or means of implementation targets. The latter targets were introduced late in the process of negotiating the SDGs to address the concern of some Member States about how the SDGs were to be achieved. Goal 17 is wholly about how the SDGs will be achieved.

SDG 1 is to: “end poverty in all its forms everywhere globally by 2030”. In this context emphasis is given with regard to the proportion of population living below poverty and data get analyzed by sex, age, employment status, and geographical location– urban/rural. The five outcome targets of this equation give particular focus on eradication of extreme poverty; reduction of all poverty by half; implementation of social protection systems; ensuring equal rights to ownership, basic services, technology and economic resources; and the building of flexibility to environmental, economic and social adversities at all levels.

SDG 2 is to: end hunger, achieve improved nutrition, and promote various aspects of agriculture through sustainable food production systems and through resilient agricultural practices; and genetic diversity of seeds, cultivated plants and farmed and domesticated animals; investments, research and technology.

SDG 3 is aimed at ensuring healthy lives and promoting well-being for all at all ages and preventing child and maternal mortality.

SDG 6 is to ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all. The responsibility for achieving this objective and monitoring progress has been given to the World Health Organisation through their Joint Monitoring Programme (JMP) and also to UNICEF. Important indicators for this goal are the percentages of the population that use safely managed drinking water, and has access to safely managed sanitation. The JMP reported a few years ago that nearly 4.5 billion people do not have properly managed sanitation. That underlines the gravity of the situation in parts of Africa, some parts in South Asia and also in some areas in Latin America. The two means of implementing these targets are to expand water and sanitation support in developing countries and to support local engagement in water and sanitation management.

SDG 7 is ensuring access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all. One of the indicators for this goal is the percentage of population with access to electricity. It has been agreed to by the United Nations that progress in expanding access to electricity, energy efficiency and renewable energy has been made in several countries, notably Kenya, Bangladesh and India.

SDG 10 is aimed at reducing income inequality within and among countries. Important indicators for this SDG are income disparities, aspects of gender and disability, as well as policies pertaining to mobility of people. This is crucial for both least developed countries as well as developing countries.

SDG 13 is aimed at taking urgent action to combat the paradigm of climate variability both in terms of mitigation and adaptation. The IPCC in their latest report has assessed scientific, technical, and socio-economic information concerning climate change. In this context it has reiterated five targets which need to be achieved by 2030. This includes a wide range of issues surrounding climate action and reiterates the need to strengthen resilience and integrate climate change measures into policies and planning by raising capacity for planning and management.

SDG 15 is particularly important because it is aimed at protecting, restoring and promoting sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably managing forests, combating desertification, and halting degradation of land. This is aimed at protecting the existing forest areas and reversing desertification to halt biodiversity loss.

SDG 16 aims at promoting peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, providing access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels. There is an attached connotation pertaining to this dynamic– reducing corruption, good and accountable governance.

SDG 17 is aimed at strengthening the means of implementation and revitalising the global partnership for sustainable development. Enhancing international, regional and sub-regional cooperation is seen as vital to achieving each of the previously referred goals. Developing multi-stakeholder partnerships to share knowledge, expertise, technology, and financial support is seen as critical to overall success of the SDGs.

The United Nations estimates that for Africa, considering the continent’s population growth, yearly funding of $1.3 trillion would be needed to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals in Africa. The IMF has also observed that US Dollar 50 billion may be needed only to cover the expenses of mitigation and climate adaptation.

In 2017 the UN launched the Inter-agency Task Force on Financing for Development (UN IATF on FfD) that underlined the need for public dialogue. It was agreed that the top sources of financing for potential development included not only expenditure by OECD countries and Official Development Assistance (ODA) but also the volume of remittances from expatriates sent to their families in developing countries. It was also asserted by the Rockefeller Foundation (RF) in 2017 that “the key to financing and achieving the SDGs lies in mobilising a greater share of the US Dollar 200 plus trillion in annual private capital investment flows toward development efforts, and philanthropy has a critical role to play in catalysing this shift”. This was viewed as a moral imperative to achieve the SDGs.

Such hopes and constructive approaches do not appear to have taken place. A meta-analysis published in 2022 found that there was scant evidence that governments have substantially reallocated funding to implement the SDGs, either for national implementation or for international cooperation. The SDGs do not seem to have changed public budgets and financial allocation mechanisms in any important way, except for some local governance contexts.

Analysts believe that the United Nations Secretary-General’s Dialogue on Financing for Development on September 20 may well be the world’s last chance to save the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and curb global warming in time. Many features of the international financial system – including multilateral arrangements developed over many decades – have been overtaken by new developments, sometimes resulting in multidimensional crises that are creating problems.

The UN is well suited to lead the quest for better economic governance because of its record of carrying out reforms in different sectors despite existing difficulties. However, it is now being felt that resolving the difficulties associated with achieving the SDGs requires all parties to feel they have stakes in the broader reform agenda. Threats posed by international macro-financial imbalances will need to be handled carefully and also situations emerging from budgetary deficits. Complacency will not be the right solution.

Socio-economic analysts have noted that the manner in which financialisation has been carried out over the past five years has undermined the mobilisation and deployment of adequate financial resources to accelerate both sustainable development and address global warming. This has partially been due to volatile private capital flows and speculation, encouraged by deregulated financial markets, enabled by the IMF despite its Articles of Agreement. By contrast, the UN has insisted on ensuring policy space for more effective development strategies by Member States. It has also urged macroeconomic policies to support long-term growth, technological progress and economic diversification.

The UN Secretariat has also promoted orderly sovereign debt relief but Member States complain that International Financial Institutions have been shirking their mandates to provide financial stability and adequate long-term development finance. We must not also overlook the fact that over the past five years ODA flows have declined as a share of commitments. This has constrained developing countries’ ability to respond to crises and meet long-term development financing and fast-growing climate adaptation requirements.

All these factors are making the achievement of SDG goals really difficult particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa, many parts of Asia and Latin America where countries are trying to promote continental agro-industrialisation and integration. One must not forget that agro-industrial parks have the potential to stimulate public and private investment in agro-industries, ensure greater food security and increase the value of food and agriculture product exports.

While private finance is needed for the SDGs, it is also part of the problem when not well regulated. In the meantime, most developing countries still lack access to liquidity during financial crises except on onerous IMF terms. In this context many others have also expressed their worry that lack of appropriate technology transfer is affecting the required process.

One has to also remember that with the reversal of trade liberalisation in recent decades, especially with new Cold War sanctions, UN resolutions, discussed and possibly accepted this year will need to be realistic in order to be broadly accepted and feasible.

Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialised

in foreign affairs, right to information

and good governance.

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