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17 goals to transform the world

They key to success for transforming our country is to follow the UN development goals as our indigenous development agenda

17 goals to transform the world
Photo by Rizwan Tabassum / AFP

On September 25, the 193 members of UN General Assembly unanimously adopted Agenda 2030, titled “transforming our world”. Through this agenda commonly known as Sustainable Development Goals, the global leadership agreed to end by 2030 poverty and hunger in its all forms. They also agreed to ensure healthy lives, quality education, gender equality, clean water and sanitation, affordable and clean energy, and inclusive and sustainable economic growth. They committed to take urgent action to combat climate change and conserve biodiversity both on land and below water.

Moreover, they committed to promote peace, justice and strong institutions. Last but not least, for all of above to happen they agreed to strengthen the means of implementation and revitalise the global partnership for development. In total, they agreed on 17 goals which have the potential to transform our world by 2030, if implemented effectively.

This is also the official conclusion of Millenium Development Goals (MDGs), set of 8 global goals agreed in 2000 through millennium declaration. MDGs had a 15 years work plan aimed to reduce hunger and poverty by half, improving gender equality, male-female ratios in health and education services, conserving environment and providing a strong global partnership through an aid and technical support mechanism.

Looking at the outcome of MDGs, many feel that it was not wise to leave the MDGs unfinished and aim for yet another ambitious goalpost “SDGs”. To some extent it is a valid argument. However, a closer look at SDGs reveals that its first 6 goals are meant to conclude the unfinished agenda of MDGs. Its 7th goal is about clean and affordable energy. Goals 8-9-10-11-12 of SDGs pertain to sustainable, inclusive societies through sustainable economic growth. Goal 13 combating climate change is a graduation of MDGs’ goal 7 i.e., environmental protection. Goals 14-15 of SDG are about conservation and protection of biodiversity. Whereas MDGs’ goal 8 on partnership for development is reiterated in SDGs goal 17.

The most important value addition that SDGs bring is goal 16 — global commitment to promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all level. Although the order does not matter if one is committed to work on these goals, I would have loved to place goal 16 as first goal of SDG. Without peace, social justice and institutions which are inclusive and accountable, realisation of all other goals would be impossible.

To me SDGs is an opportunity for mid-course correction in global journey on pathways to sustainable development. International community has a chance to rectify whatever went wrong with the MDGs through an effective implementation of SDGs. However, the first prerequisite for any rectification is to identify what went wrong with MDGs.

The rules of game have changed after the 18th Amendment. The social sector development and delivery is mainly the mandate of provincial governments now.

At a macro level, committing to MDGs was just like 189 (the signatories of Millennium Declaration) teachers (heads of state/governments) of a university committing to their vice chancellor(UN General Assembly) that all of their students (citizens) would improve their exam record by 50 per cent in 15 months. Theoretically, it is not an impossible task. However, for this to happen one needs to assess individual performance and aptitude of each student, carry out their need assessment, remove the bottlenecks and constraints that hinder their progress, improve the teaching methods and provide external support where required etc. Without considering and meeting the above mentioned pre-conditions, the expectation that all the students of a university perform equally well would be an impossible wish list. This analogy can explain why most of the countries could not achieve their MDGs.

Unfortunately, the global community yet again ignored the prevailing inter and intra state developmental disparities while agreeing to SDGs. Different countries have different needs, capacities, and constraints to sustainable development. For instance, in many Scandinavian countries, removing poverty and hunger would be quite easy, both due to their demographic features as well as their existing level of development and political will to bring a positive change. However, many countries in the developing world would struggle even to bring some reduction in their existing level of poverty and hunger.

Another factor that led to non-accomplishment of MDGs was the fact that most of the developing countries tried to achieve them (if at all) in a linear fashion, and in a projectized mode. Sustainable development is not a linear process. Interventions do not impact development in either positive or negative ways. The result of intervention “A”, for instance, is seldom an expected, or intended, “B”. In reality, “A” can lead to any outcome — “C, D” and so on. The reason is simple: The world is not a chemical laboratory. In the real world, external factors sometimes assume greater salience than the internal dynamic of an intervention.

In the context of SDGs, the external factors which define the political and economic context of development must be understood properly in order to come up with meaningful interventions that yield effective results. Otherwise, SDGs would lead to a bigger disappointment than the MDGs.

Sustainable development being a non-linear and holistic process cannot take place in silos. Three pillars of sustainable development — environment, people and economy — do not always move in the same direction. The trade-off between environmental protection and economic growth has been the subject of massive debates among the sustainable development community on one side and business, industry and the government on the other. Similarly, the negative impacts of human footprint on ecology are undeniable yet any sustainable development will be meaningless if it does not, or cannot, put people at the centre of it. These trade-offs need to be changed into synergies before they can transform the world as envisaged through SGDs.

The rationale for such a change is simple and can be easily understood when we analyse why many developing countries failed to achieve their MDGs. In many cases their economies were (and still not) not doing well enough to afford investments required for achieving MDGs. Most of these countries were (and still are) also unable to come up with policies which helped them simultaneously achieve MDGs with apparently contradictory objectives.

For instance, interventions for MDG1 (reduction of poverty and hunger) required greater economic growth, bigger food production and increased employment opportunities. Under development patterns in vogue in the world, those objectives could be achieved only at further peril to environmental conservation which constituted MDG 7. Without replacing trade-offs with synergies would turn it impossible to achieve the apparently contradictory SDGs 1-2 and SDGs 13-14-15.

Sustainable development is a collective responsibility of all stakeholders; state and citizens. This “collectivity” was never there in Pakistan while implementing interventions for MDGs. There was a complete disconnect not only between federal and provincial governments, but also between planners and rest of the federal ministries and departments. With such institutional disconnect it would be extremely difficult to achieve SDGs.

The rules of game have changed after the 18th Amendment in the constitution. The social sector development and delivery is mainly the mandate of provincial governments now. The federal government, being the signatory to SDGs on behalf of confederating units, need not only to provide policy direction to provinces on how to achieve SDGs but also to liaise with all institutions — federal and provincial — so that they may have a common understanding and a common direction.

Even if things are perfect towards achieving SDGs, measuring progress would be difficult in the absence of reliable data. Without reliable data, it was difficult to fix benchmarks for MDGs and later on it became even difficult to track the progress on those benchmarks.

Pakistan has not officially released its poverty figures since 2005-06, when it was reported to be 22.3 per cent. For the last few years, even the projections of population under poverty line are not included in the Economic Survey of Pakistan. Recently the World Bank and Planning Commission of Pakistan made some projections of Pakistan’s poverty figures. Their finding was that only 8 per cent of population lived below poverty line in 2014-15. The result was unrealistically low and Planning Commission decided to revamp the methodology for calculating the realistic poverty profile of Pakistan. But it is not only the poverty figures. Constructing baselines on all 17 goals of SDGs would require authentic data on all sectors, which is a gigantic task.

The MDGs were perceived as externally imposed agenda, devoid of local ownership. Those could never be branded and sold as interventions that any responsible state and government ought to do in any case for the development of its citizens. This should not be the case of SDGs. The government of Pakistan should work hard to remove poverty and hunger, to turn economic growth more inclusive, and to combat climate change. The government should work on these issues because it is bound to do so through its social contract with the citizens of Pakistan. This paradigm shift would also address another concern; and that is about finances to deliver on SDGs.

We should not absolve the developed world, and especially their colonial era, for many of the ills we are facing today in developing world. However, it does not imply that we should wait for their aid and funds to teach our illiterate children, or to vaccinate our children against infectious diseases, or to save our forests, or to create new jobs for our human resources.

They key to success for transforming our world is to transform our country, and that would only happen when we follow the development goals as our indigenous development agenda — an agenda that we design through consensus and willing to fulfil through our own resources. The government of Pakistan adopted “Vision 2025” last year. The vision document is quite close to SDGs. However, the challenges in its implementation are the same as were with the implementation of MDGs.

Albert Einstein once famously defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Now is the chance to do things differently to expect different results, a decent life with dignity, peace, and social justice for people of Pakistan.

Dr Abid Qaiyum Suleri

abid suleri
The writer heads Sustainable Development Policy Institute. He may be contacted at [email protected]

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