How sustainable are the SDGs?

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09 December 2015

The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which are a set of development goals framed by the United Nations in 2000, to be achieved by 2015, is now set to be replaced by the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in 2016.

The MDGs aimed at addressing extreme poverty and hunger, achieving universal primary education, reducing child mortality and improving maternal health, combating various forms of disease, promoting gender equality, protecting the environment and developing global partnership.

The performance of the MDGs so far has been mixed. The United Nations claims that 700 million people have come out of extreme poverty globally between 1990 and 2010, access to education has increased and the gender gap in access to primary education has been substantially reduced. However, on child and reproductive health, the achievement has not been encouraging.

Learnings from the implementation of MDGs and the changing developmental realities have guided the formulation of the SDGs – another set of goals for the next 15 years – that is from 2016 to 2030. It promises a developmental framework, which is ‘sustainable’ and equitable, and one that will ‘leave no one behind’.

The biggest criticism of the MDGs was its exclusivity and the reductionist approach in shaping them. It is alleged that a handful of people sitting in the UN office framed those goals, which were eventually adopted by the member nations. Keeping these criticisms in mind, the formulation of the SDGs involved representation from several sections, including civil society, and saw phases of inter-governmental negotiation before the draft was actually finalised.

A little over two years of consultation resulted in the framing of a set of 17 goals and 169 targets to achieve. The goals were adopted by the heads of states of 193 member nations in a deliberation held from 25-27 September 2015 in the United Nations Summit, which was convened as a high-level plenary meeting of the UN General Assembly. It may be pointed out that the SDGs are not legally binding on the member nations though they certainly influence the national laws and policies.

The SDGs cover a range of important issues: socio-economic, political and environmental. They embrace energy and governance, ending poverty and hunger, achievement of food security and of sustainable economic growth and productive employment.

Some of the other objectives encompassed within the set of SDGs are:

  • Promotion of sustainable agriculture
  • Reduction of inequality
  • Provision of quality education
  • Access to universal healthcare
  • Ensuring gender equality and justice
  • Combating climate change
  • Conservation of oceans
  • Protection of wildlife and forest management
  • Increasing the share of renewable energy
  • A peaceful society and global partnership
  • Enhanced infrastructure
  • Addressing issues of migration
  • Respect for ethnicity
  • Promotion of a just trade regime
  • Development assistance and technological transfer from the developed countries to the developing and least developing countries (LDCs), and others

More importantly, SDGs chart out the ways of implementation and participatory monitoring and review of the goals and targets. The global leaders deserve kudos for creating a framework which at least aims to save ‘Mother Earth’!

However, a closer look at the document may raise doubts about the feasibility of converting some of these ambitious goals into an actionable framework. More fundamentally, while in a way it acknowledges that economic growth has been accompanied by rising inequality in the past few years, it conspicuously avoids discussing the structural aspects of poverty and inequality.

The first goal of the SDGs is to ‘end poverty in all forms and everywhere’. But poverty is defined as ‘people living on less than $1.25 a day’ – which has been the global poverty line since 2005. With the cost of living rising in many countries, ‘ending poverty’ is a pretentious promise to make.

In the same breath, the draft promises to provide equal rights to economic resources, ownership and control over land and natural resources. This is a welcome statement but open to debate and interpretation. Does it refer to ownership of people within the overarching definition of ‘eminent domain’ or does it stand for real ownership by the community?

The last few years have witnessed large scale transfer of various means of peoples’ livelihood to the big industries in the form of control over land, forest, water. How the conflict between a development paradigm based on industry-fuelled GDP growth and community ownership of natural resources can be resolved in the best interest of all, could be an interesting subject for discussion in the coming days.

Reading goal 8 (promoting sustainable economic growth and productive employment), goal 9 (sustainable industrialization) and goal 10 (reducing inequality within and among countries) together will be helpful in deconstructing the SDG-driven approach to development. Let us consider these one by one.

SDGs aim for at least 7 percent GDP growth in the least developed countries and generally sustained per capita-growth globally. This is apparently a pre-condition for achieving full employment. However it has been witnessed globally that growth always does not lead to proportionate employment generation.

In goal 9, it aims at significantly raising the share of industry in employment and GDP. Generally, movement of workforce from agriculture to industry may appear to be a good thing, given that it defines the trajectory of growth that the world has been following so far. However, in India we have witnessed that the thrust in industrial development has been accompanied by negligence of the agro-sector to an extent where the country has witnessed massive socio-economic problems, the most alarming being the widespread suicide of farmers (more than a quarter of a million) in the last twenty years.

In South Africa, where mining-based industries have flourished in the last 100 years, people were forced to leave farming to serve as cheap labour in mining industries. Mining based industries have their own limitations. Today, the rate of unemployment is as high as, or more than 25 percent and almost as many live in hunger.

Consumption for self-production is almost invisible. Barely two percent of households grow their own food. There has been complete corporatization of agro and food produce. People are completely dependent on the markets for purchase of food. Snatching and other criminal activities by unemployed youth are a menace here. Hence, the proposition that growth of industry will automatically increase productive employment is no more a sacrosanct proposition.

On the issue of inequality, the draft SDG promises income growth of the bottom 40 percent people. It stresses official development assistance from developed to developing countries and increased foreign direct investment in these countries. The irony is that inequality has gone up to the extent where the richest one percent owned 48 percent of the total global wealth in 2014. But there is no discussion in the document about the mechanism for downward flow of wealth, which is necessary for bringing about equality.

Given the rise in global temperatures and the evident destructive impact of climate change, which in turn is the result of industrial activities and lavish consumerism of a section of the people, world leaders have to seriously think about how much natural resources this generation could afford to exhaust to make the rich richer, even if it means the eventual flow of wealth to the poor.

This document speaks about noble intentions of ‘sustainable consumption and production’ but all these will depend on how willing and able the affluent are in adjusting their lifestyles in metro cities across the globe, especially in the western countries.

Another aspect missed out in the discussion on inequality pertains to the more nuanced forms of inequality in different local communities, such as inequality arising out of caste-based discrimination. As many as 260 million ‘Dalits’ spread across Asia, Africa and European countries are facing caste-based discrimination and are treated as untouchables.

Ending hunger, promoting sustainable agriculture, ensuring food security – all of these essentially require deliberation on food sovereignty, which again is missing within the SDG framework.

SDGs aim to correct and prevent trade restrictions and distortions in the world agricultural market in accordance with the Doha development round under the WTO framework, whereas it is now common knowledge that import restrictions could in fact adversely affect small farmers while enabling large subsidised agri-businesses to capture markets in impoverished countries.

If, alongside the SDGs, one should read the Addis Ababa Action Agenda on financing for development adopted by global leaders in July in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, it will be seen that overwhelming importance has been attached to private capital for financing development. In a way, the Agenda has legitimised the ongoing withdrawal of the state from providing essential services like education, health, water and sanitation and other sectors. This could be dangerous as the public-private partnership model has placed quality education and health care almost out of reach for the people living in poverty and socially excluded groups.

Therefore, while SDGs look quite good on the surface, their implementation will remain a challenge as the fundamental reasons for unsustainable development have not been reckoned with in the document.

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