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SDGs set to repeat the mistakes of the MDGs?

Without transparent and accountable governance, the Sustainable Development Goals will remain a feel-good wish-list for equitable development, says Vineet John Samuel.

On November 22-27 the United Nations General Assembly will meet in New York for the Sustainable Development summit, to acknowledge and put into action the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The Sustainable Development Goals have been created to supplant the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), set to lapse this year.

The SDGs are expected to serve as a template for another global development plan. The 17 goals and 169 targets, with an accomplishment date of 2030, endeavour to direct member nations onto the long-term path of manageable advancement, peace and ecological obligation. They also serve as gauges to survey and screen progress towards accomplishing these objectives.

Of the 17 goals five are specifically designed to combat environmental decay, six direct member nations towards sustainability, and three each focus on inequality elimination and the eradication of social plagues such as world hunger and poverty.

The SDGs have been designed to factor in local socio-economic hurdles that had not been taken into account by the MDGs. This has been done by adopting multi-stakeholder participatory consultations across the world since the Rio+20 summits in 2012.

The final goals thus have much wider global ownership than the MDGs and provide a cohesive idea for the long-term economic and environmental development of nations. Their  emphasis on sustainability and use of renewable resources points to a welcome change in the mindset of policymakers.

However, the same questions raised by the MDGs must be raised about their successor, the SDGs. How many countries will have the political, social and economic resources to achieve the goals in what may, to some, look like a wish-list for equitable development? The estimated cost of  achieving these goals lies in the region of $ 2 to 3 trillion (or 4 per cent of the global economy). That's several times the current 0.7% of GDP that developed countries are supposed to contribute in aid. Moreover, considering the current economic atmosphere across the world, bi-lateral and multi-lateral funding is bound to drop, as developed countries look to sort out their domestic affairs before assisting others in their drive for development.

The countries that are farthest from the goals have larger problems to concentrate on, however, with fundamental flaws in their growth engines which inevitably lead these nations onto a path of unequal growth, defeating the very purpose of the goals. For such nations even aid will only serve the purpose of oiling the pipes of a flawed system that ends up serving the interests of the economically well-off elites while ignoring the crises of the lower classes.

South Asia itself holds the largest number of poor people in the world (42%) and features some of the lowest-ranking countries on the Human Development Index, with nations such as Bangladesh, Nepal, Afghanistan, India and Pakistan all featuring in the bottom half of the table.

Several of the aforementioned countries also feature highest on the Corruption Perception Index, with Afghanistan ranked as the third most corrupt country in the world. Bangladesh is ranked 14, and its rankings on transparency paint a worrying picture in regard to governance as well as accountability.

What's more, the World Bank has pointed out that not only is income inequality higher in wealthier nations but that the very same nations do not allow the development of an environment that is conducive to lowering inequality. This has resulted in a rise in monetary inequality across South Asia, but specifically in Afghanistan, Nepal, Pakistan and India where a lack of opportunities and quality education has led to a widening of the gap between the elite minority and the poor majority.

Thus, the challenge that the SDGs face is not just one of financial practicability but the larger problem of flawed growth engines. Unless there is specific analysis and action on irresponsible governance, mismanaged public finances and unequal growth models, the very same problems that crippled work towards the MDGs in developing and least developed  countries, will stymie the more ambitious SDGs.

It is high time policymakers at the United Nations and in South Asia realised that in their attempts to set idealistic, feel-good goals they have forgotten some of the ground realities that face them. Unless the foundations for achieving the SDGs are strengthened with transparency, accountability and overall good governance, any attempts to achieve them will only result in an increase in disparity, with aid money lining the pockets of rent-seeking officials and millionaire contractors while the billions who starve will be forced to accept their unequal fate.

(Vineet John Samuel is a student at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences)

Infochange, September 2015