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Dr. Salehuddin Ahmed
Dr. Salehuddin Ahmed
Former Governor, Bangladesh Bank
Professor, BRAC University
02 May 2020 12:25:17

Sustainable Development Goals: Realities and illusions

Sustainable Development Goals: Realities and illusions
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The title of this paper should not mislead you, but to provoke you to think seriously and act boldly. We have to keep in mind that the post-2015 global development agenda incorporates actions which are normative and visionary based on reality; results will come only if the actions are implemented. The global treaty does not have instruments of enforcement, achievements depend on national and global actions.

We blame nature for environmental degradation and disasters.

William Shakespeare, in King Lear, Act 1, Scene II, aptly said: “… when we are sick in fortune, often the surfeit (excess), of our own behaviour, we make guilty of our disasters, the sun, the moon, and the stars.”

The Club of Rome, a think tank based in Rome in 1965 started, in an informal way, exploring the depletion of earth’s resources and its impact on socio-economic development of various countries.

An international team of researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the USA conducted a computerised simulation study, leading to the publication of the book “The Limits to Growth” in 1972. That was the first red flag raised and warnings issued on the dangers of neglecting sustainable development approach: still valid and the message of hope worth keeping in mind which stated that “Man can create a society in which he can live indefinitely on earth if he imposes limits on himself and his production of material goods to achieve a state of global equilibrium with population and production in carefully selected balance.”

The question of sustainable development (SD) has become a catchword nowadays, with people interested in its concept and how it can be achieved. The World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) defined sustainable development (SD) as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.

The term SD means differently to different persons but has the problem of conceptual clarity and interpretation. Many people use SD interchangeably with “ecologically sustainable or environmentally sound development.” In contrast, some take SD as “sustained growth,” “sustained change” or simply “successful” development. WCED stated the critical objectives of SD as:

  • reviving growth;
  • changing the quality of life;
  • meeting essential needs for jobs, energy, water, and sanitation;
  • ensuring a sustainable level of population;
  • conserving and enhancing the resource base;
  • reorienting technology and managing risk; and
  • merging environment and economics in decision making

Within the international perspective and concern for “process” dimension, two more objectives are added:

  • reorienting international economic relations, and
  • making development more participatory.

The mainstream formulation of SD suffers from three major weaknesses in:

  1. establishing a linkage between poverty and environmental degradation;
  2. conceptualizing the objectives of development, sustainability and participation, and
  3. formulating strategy in the face of incomplete knowledge and uncertainty.

Global Development Agenda
The international community with the leading role of UN sets up global goals in various fields to contribute to global problem-solving. UN adopted 8 Millennium Development Goals (MGDs) with 21 targets and sixty indicators in 2000 and the terminal year set as 2015.

Several countries are evaluating their respective performances. The goals of MDGs were set to be achieved in the context of the complex relationship between the state and the market within the economy and the relationship with the other countries located in both North and South of the globe.

Bangladesh has attained satisfactory progress in achieving the MDGs. Experts found that Bangladesh has some weaknesses in Goal 5–improving maternal health, specifically maternal mortality rate; weaknesses in Goal 7–ensuring environmental sustainability and Goal 8–developing a global partnership for development. Besides these, Bangladesh has some weakness in employment generation (Goal-1, Target 1.B) and malnutrition (Goal-1, Target 1.C).

In September 2015, the UN General Assembly adopted the SDGs that included 17 goals, 169 targets and 230 indicators. The motto of SDG being "Transform our World by 2030." This is a gigantic task. Given the global situation of cooperation and declining trends in overseas development assistance (ODA), the tasks seem very ambitious with formidable implementation challenges.

A glaring example is the Paris Climate Agreement or Committee of Partners (COP21) which was formulated in 2016. In this agreement all 193 countries were treated as equal stakeholders, some solely affected by carbon emissions, others solely produce carbon emissions and some others - the affected and producer both. It may be pointed out that three-fourth of carbon emissions come from only 12 countries. A nail on the coffin was placed by the USA in June 2017 when President Donald Trump announced the intention to withdraw from the Paris Agreement. I think voters in the USA now should demand a political realignment in favour of solving climate issues. COP25 scheduled to be held in Madrid in December this year should follow more pragmatic and problem-solving approaches.

Some Fallacies
There are challenges both internal (within a country) and external (global) which should be addressed to achieve SDG goals. Before we touch on some areas for scientists, researchers and academia, there are two fallacies which applicable to Bangladesh and many other countries.

Fallacy 1: Rapid growth will bring down poverty, increase the well-being of the people: We can see, in Bangladesh, growth has resulted in increasing income inequality, lack of access of poor to quality and affordable health facilities, lack of quality education at low cost (for the poor). The belief that growth first distribution later is wrong. SDG Goal 1 (end of poverty in all forms everywhere) and SDG Goal 10 (reduce inequality within and among countries) are not competing ones and no trade-off is necessary - these can be achieved together.

Fallacy 2: Participation of people in all phases of development activities is satisfactory: The good governance of all public and private institutions must be established. Overall, democratic practices and rule of law are prerequisites for all efforts to achieve SDG goals.

SDG Goal 8 (promote inclusive and sustainable economic growth) and SDG Goal 16 (promote peaceful and inclusive societies) point out the importance of the above issues. However, we often see, in many countries including Bangladesh, people are by-passed, not consulted and not even considered when making major decisions of reform and development programmes. If people have no confidence and trust on the government, even very pious and beneficial efforts of development can spark agitation and protests as evident in the recent public outcry in Paris (fuel tax), in Hong Kong (extradition measure) and Santiago, Chile (for the hike in metro price).

Suggested areas to be addressed
The following areas are suggested for consideration by Bangladesh.

  1. Inclusiveness: All people to be included in the planning, implementation, monitoring, and evaluation stages of projects.
  2. Financing: Financing is a major challenge. In Bangladesh, an estimate states that additional fund needed will be around 928 billion US dollars (2015-16 constant price). It will be difficult for raising such a huge fund from internal sources of Bangladesh. Financial assistance from developed countries should come, as the developed countries had promised to contribute 1 per cent of their gross national income (GNI) as overseas development assistance (ODA). Their commitment is far from the actual flow of ODA.
  3. Localisation:   Different districts, regions of Bangladesh have different problems; for example, coastal zone problems are different from haor and barind and dry areas. Urban problems and rural problems are different. “Nature SDG Localisation Framework” is an example which the government may incorporate in the 8th Five-Year-Plan (2021-25).
  4. Implementation: For major implementation, a cross-section of stakeholders namely, government, NGOs, civil society organization (CSO), business, development partners and academia must be included. “Institutions” to be strengthened with competent people to run them.

International cooperation
A country has to address issues related to poverty reduction and hunger; ability to take advantage of its openness and globalization; acceleration of growth with equity; social security of the poor; energy need of a growing economy; climate charge; financial architecture to cater to the need of a growing economy and financial inclusion. There may be several areas of global cooperation, such as:

  • Partners in Development: Developing countries with their resources and resources from a developed country or international agency may set up some projects in common areas of interest like health, education, energy, and climate.
  • Sharing experience of good practices: Experiences of one or more developing countries (graduated from LDCs) with other LDCs will also be helpful for global cooperation.
  • Capacity Building: The countries of the South can cooperate in increasing the capacity of the respective countries to accelerate the development process. These countries can also cooperate with developing countries outside LDCs and other global partners to increase project formulation efficiency, implementation, monitoring and evaluation which will help increase the absorbent capacity of using external resources fruitfully.
  • Strengthening of networks: The institutions from different countries of South and North can strengthen their networks to exchange information and experiences to promote development.

Areas for scientists and experts of Bangladesh
Scientists and experts from science, bio-medical backgrounds, social science and various fields may take note of the following aspects for their research and actions.

  1. Networks of professional and experts should provide the policymakers with data/information and analysis on some priority SDG goals to be addressed in Bangladesh immediately. Unfortunately, benchmark data and quality periodic data are not available in Bangladesh for the majority of the 169 targets some are not even quantifiable. So, the challenge must be tackled primarily by the relevant government agencies and complemented by special focus studies by scientists and experts.
  2. Professional and experts should launch new research, action research and demonstrate models to promote innovative knowledge and practices to fulfil SDGs.
  3. Organisations and networks to which scientists, social scientists and experts are affiliated with should come up with measures to solve national as well as global problems.
  4. Scientists and experts should come up with pragmatic designs of projects and programmes along with implementation processes to achieve SDGs in Bangladesh and other countries.

I would like to mention that there are several challenges before Bangladesh. The percentage of poor from 25 per cent now to a much lower level must be reduced by 2030 along with maternal and child mortality rates and increase enrolment to primary schools by 2030. Bangladesh’s education quality needs to be improved significantly. The poor in Bangladesh still suffer from nutritional deficiency which can be improved by increasing entitlement capacity of the poor to have a balanced diet. Without delving into various challenges and caveats we face, I will single out one of the most important challenges: "institutional challenge". Impact of various efforts to improve socio-economic conditions of the poor in the developing countries can be maximized through proper management and implementation of development projects.

Effective project management and its implementation is also crucial for sustainable development. Institutions, which encompass entities at the local, community, and national levels, and project management units, are integral parts of project management and implementation.

However, despite strong statements and rhetoric from politicians and policy-makers about the essential role of institutions, and the realization of its potential contribution in development efforts; the issues of institutions have received relatively little attention by policy-makers, planners and implementers of development projects.

Nobel laureate Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore about 89 years ago lamented in his poem about the ill effects of environmental degradation on human beings:

“কণ্ঠ আমার রুদ্ধ আজিকে, বাঁশি সঙ্গীত হারা,

অমাবস্যার কারা

লুপ্ত করেছে আমার ভুবন দুঃস্বপনের তলে,

তাই তো তোমায় শুধাই অশ্রুজলে—

যাহারা তোমার বিষাইছে বায়ু, নিভাইছে তব আলো,

তুমি কি তাদের ক্ষমা করিয়াছ, তুমি কি বেসেছ ভালো।”

[My voice is choked, my flute is tuneless. My world is dark, the air is poisonous, people who are responsible for these, cannot be pardoned.]

In conclusion, I would like to say the time has come for everyone to act now so that the commitment of SDG “Leaving no one behind” can be achieved throughout the world within the shortest possible time.