UN-sustainable development goals

As the time frame for the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) draws to an end in December 2015, the United Nations is about to adopt a new set of goals known as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), under the theme of “Transforming the World”.

The process of drawing the new goals began with the UN Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro (Rio+20) in June 2012. The Open Working Group, with representatives from 70 countries, was set to prepare the draft proposals while a series of “global conversations” were also conducted by the UN in different countries to identify the priority areas.

The 70th United Nations General Assembly went into session on September 15, 2015. The General Assembly will adopt the new set of development goals at the Sustainable Development Summit scheduled to be held from September 25-27. Developing nations are expected to frame policies based on SDGs and allocate funds in such a manner that by 2030 poverty can be eliminated.

In short, the 17 goals are : i) ending poverty; ii) ending hunger; iii) ensuring healthy lives; iv) education to all; v) gender equality; vi) ensuring clean water and sanitation for all; vii) access to energy; viii) ensuring full employment; ix) sustainable industrialisation; x) reducing inequality within and among nations; xi) safe human settlement; xii) ensuring sustainable production and consumption; xiii) combating climate change; xiv) sustainable use of marine resources; xv) protecting terrestrial ecosystem; xvi) justice for all and accountable institutions; xvii) strengthening global partnership.

What is striking is that the new set of 17 goals has 169 targets while the eight MDGs had 21 targets. Many countries are doubtful about implementing so many goals with so many targets. It would be difficult for resource-poor nations to take up all the goals at the same time and follow up on their implementation. There is a belief that more goals mean more aid-money. Though this is fallacious, developing nations generally lobbied for more goals with the hope that they will get more money.

The most important element missing in the SDG discourse is the issue of funds. Who will finance it and what is the amount that will be needed over the next 15 years? According to estimates, to lift one billion people out of poverty (living on $1.25 per day), i.e. SDG 1, would cost around $65 billion each year for the next 15 years. The total amount of funds to make all 17 SDGs achievable would be between $2 and $3 trillion each year for the next 15 years. Evidently, developing countries will not be able to find such enormous funds from within their national incomes. The rich countries will have to help with official development assistance (ODA). SDGs will indeed be an expensive endeavour.

Unfortunately, developed countries have been showing signs of aid-fatigue. Advanced economies may not be keen to dish out such enormous amounts every year. Only the Nordic countries and United Kingdom have lived up to the commitment to give 0.7 percent of their Gross National Income (GNI) as ODA. United States and other developed economies are still lagging far behind.

Tax revenues of a country play the most important role in development programmes. Almost two-thirds of the funding came from internal revenues of countries during the implementation of the MDGs. The remaining one-third was covered by ODA and private financial flows.

Tax evasion by multinational companies and big businesses is a major problem that many developing nations find difficult to curb. Global corporate tax regimes are even worse and are full of loopholes. Multinationals easily circumvent local tax regulations of developing countries where they operate. Besides, massive transfer of illegal funds from developing countries to banks in developed countries has stifled development efforts in many developing nations.

To address this particular missing link, the Third International Conference on Financing for Development (FfD3) was held in Addis Ababa from July 13-16, 2015. The conference in its resolution expressed hope that rich countries will live up to their commitment to allocate 0.7 percent of GNI as ODA. It hoped to reform the culture of tax abuse, clamp down on illegal funds transfer, reduce the burden of debt, and stamp out corruption. The conference concluded with participants expressing confidence that financing SDGs will not be a problem. Sadly, the reality is different.

Even if one assumes that the missing financial link has been bridged, can the developing world meet the 169 targets by 2030? Wars, unstable political situation, unequal social structures, diseases such as ebola and low economic development may not allow developing nations to initiate some of the SDGs. Moreover, the absence of democracy, human rights and justice in many developing nations are impediments to SDGs. Besides, climate change may be the biggest challenge to many developing countries. Coping with natural disasters may drain whatever limited resources they have, leaving the fulfilment of SDGs for a later date.

The underlying base of the SDGs is industrialisation, which will generate employment, thus income and consumption (Goal 12). Industrialisation is welcome, but it is not a benign solution, unless climate friendly technologies are invented.

Many experts have dismissed the SDGs as unsustainable. A close examination of the goals would reveal that they are lengthy and quite cumbersome. Some of the goals are vague and unrealistic, several are debatable. Monitoring 169 targets will certainly be difficult. Fewer focused goals would probably have been more realistic.