India's silence on sustainable development goals is alarming

  • KumKum Dasgupta, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Sep 18, 2015 14:26 IST

While searching for updates on the United Nations Third International Conference on Financing for Development, which took place in Addis Ababa recently, I came across an interesting piece of news: Music maestro AR Rahman and Bollywood superstar Hrithik Roshan would join a seven-day global campaign to popularise the sustainable development goals (SDGs), which are a new set of universal goals, targets and indicators that 193 UN member states will be expected to use to frame their agendas and policies over the next 15 years, starting 2016.

The SDGs follow, and expand on, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which were agreed upon by governments in 2000, and are due to expire this year. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and other world leaders will sign the final document in September-end when they arrive in New York to attend the UN General Assembly. In fact, the last round of inter-governmental negotiations on the final document of the post-2015 development agenda begins today and will continue till July 31.

The old story goes that the draft MDGs were written in a basement office at the United Nations in New York by a few officials without any largescale consultation process with stakeholders. Yet as the Economist noted, the MDGs — leave aside how much the world achieved or did not — played a key role in how we think of development, shifting the debate away from ‘how much is being spent on development towards how much is being achieved’.

This time round, however, the UN conducted the largest consultation programme in its history to gauge public opinion on what the SDGs should include. Alongside the Open Working Group (OWG), which involved over 90 nations, it conducted a series of ‘global conversations’, which included 11 thematic and 83 national consultations, and door-to-door surveys. It also launched an online ‘My World survey’ asking people to prioritise the areas they’d like to see addressed in the goals. The results of the consultations fed into the working group’s discussions. It published its final draft with its 17 suggestions in July 2014.

Despite such efforts, the public in India seems to have given the discussions that are happening worldwide on SDGs a miss. In other words, the buzz that should have been there around the new set of goals and targets is missing. So it’s a wonderful (and brave) idea to have celebrities like Rahman and Roshan talk about the SDGs and their importance.

“India has been very active in the negotiations and there is a lot of buzz in the development sector [vis-a-vis the public sphere] because this time the process of finalising the goals has been inclusive,” Sowmyaa Bharadwaj, deputy director (research and consultancies) of Praxis, a development support organisation, told me.

Like the MDGs, the SDGs will also have to be clear, concise, time-bound and measurable. While the MDGs were set to get us ‘half way’ to the different goals, the SDGs are ‘designed to finish the job’. Unlike the MDGs, the SDGs, however, are applicable to all countries and they are more comprehensive than the MDGs: There were eight goals and 18 targets in the MDGs but the draft SDGs have 17 goals and 169 targets.

At the heart of the inter-governmental negotiations on SDGs is Asoke Kumar Mukerji, ambassador/Permanent Representative of India to the UN. In an email interview, Mukerji said that in policy terms “the single biggest takeaway” for India from the SDG is that the central feature of the vision — the overarching focus on eradicating poverty and hunger — is in sync with the priorities of the Indian government.

He added that India had been able to ensure that “two standalone goals on economic issues in the final package of SDGs, with dedicated focus on economic growth, full employment, creation of infrastructure, and industrialisation” had been included. And the inclusion of a standalone goal on Sustainable Consumption Patterns is a major advance in discussions on international cooperation on environment and was achieved with great difficulty.

The OWG Report also endorsed the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities, something that India has consistently lobbied for, as the basis for continued action, both in sustainable development and also in climate change. “This is of crucial importance for India’s national development policy as it gives India the necessary flexibility to tailor and achieve national developmental goals within the broader supportive framework of the SDGs,” Mukerji explained.

The senior diplomat says three things would be required for the successful transition from MDGs to SDGs: Political will to adopt the SDGs as the core of the post-2015 development agenda; second, international endorsement for the financial resources and a technology facilitation mechanism to implement the agenda; and, third, political will to ensure a supportive international environment for implementing the agenda.

The SDG agenda is ambitious, much more than the MDGs, and so financing will be the lynchpin for its success. But thanks to the ongoing financial volatility, national development plans in many developing economies are under strain. So countries will have to raise resources internally to implement the SDGs successfully.

The recent Addis Conference agreed on measures to overhaul global finance practices and generate investments to fund the SDGs. Economist Jayati Ghosh is unimpressed with the outcome document and says that there are only three major takeaways: The fact that countries agreed to an array of measures aimed at widening their revenue base; second, the document underscores the importance of aligning private investment with sustainable development; and third, that the documents recognise the role of development banks.

The pressure on financial resources also means that the world has to make intelligent choices when it comes to spending on goals: Economists like Bjorn Lomborg [] and Abhijit Banerjee [] have argued for fewer goals so that governments don’t spread the funds thin across too many priorities, many of which are nice sounding and politically correct but may not get us the best value for money. “The uncomfortable reality is that most targets and many goals ought to go,” Lomborg told journalists in Delhi recently.

“Look at the MDGs... they were a success exactly because we did not promise to deal with everything, but promised just seven simple and obvious targets”.

However, in a world of competitive politics, development goals are as much politics as they are about economics and the political leaders must strike a balance between the two with inputs from the public.

On that score, the silence in India’s public agenda on the SDG negotiation process and the goals is alarming, and sad.

Hopefully, Rahman and Roshan would help break this silence.

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