The Economic and Social Council chamber at the United Nations is plush, but in an understated way. Gifted to the UN by Sweden, the most interesting aspect of the hall is the unfinished ceiling above the public gallery — a symbolic reminder that the UN’s economic and social commitments are a work in progress and that there will always be something more that can be done to improve the world. That unfinished agenda will get a mammoth push when 193 member-states adopt the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in New York during the two-day UN Sustainable Development Summit, which begins today. Prime Minister Narendra Modi will address the summit to push for the adoption of the new agenda, which will run from 2016 to 2030. “The new goals are closely aligned with India’s vision for sustainable development and our flagship programmes for the same,” Modi wrote in a recent post.
The SDGs build on the achievements of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which expire this year. While the MDGs drove progress in several areas — income poverty; access to improved sources of water; primary school enrolment; child mortality — the job has remained unfinished for millions of people and the member-states felt that the world needs to push harder for ending hunger, achieving gender equality, improving health services and getting every child into school. The SDGs aim to do just that.
While the SDGs take off from where the MDGs left, there are differences. “The MDGs were a strategic plan developed by engineers and development corporations to fix developing countries’ problems and rolled out through the multilateral system and aid industry,” Thomas Gass, assistant secretary-general, UN, told me at his office that overlooks the recognisable Manhattan skyline. “SDGs are not a silver bullet. But they can become the basis of a new social contract between leaders and people.”
While the MDGs were set to get us halfway, the SDGs are designed to finish the goals; unlike the MDGs, the SDGs are applicable to all countries and not the developing world only, and the SDGs are more comprehensive (eight MDGs versus 17 SDGs). Importantly, while the MDGs were created through a top-down process (led by a UN team), the SDGs have been an inclusive participatory process the world has ever seen with consultations in more than 100 countries and millions of inputs from citizens. When it comes to funding, the focus has moved from overseas aid to the ability of countries to address social challenges through improving their own revenue-generating capabilities.
However, many economists such as Copenhagen Consensus’ Bjorn Lomborg believe that having so many targets is like having no objectives at all. “We expect the developed world to spend $2.5 trillion in official development assistance until 2030, and the goals will also influence the spending of trillions of dollars from national budgets … This is a lot of money, but the crucial point is to realise that our resources are still limited and won’t allow us to solve all of the world’s problems in the next 15 years, which is essentially what the UN dreams about with its targets,” he told me recently.
As with any inter-governmental negotiations, the SDG process has also seen its share of ups and downs, but the mood at the office of the permanent representative of India to the UN in New York is upbeat because negotiators feel that they have managed to leave a strong Indian footprint in the final SDG document and the Addis Ababa Action agenda, which provides a road plan for the financing of the SDGs.
One of the key negotiators Amit Narang, counsellor, said while the United States and the European Union were keen to make the environment/climate the central focus of the SDG agenda, India managed to ensure that the framework has a three-way focus: Environmental, social and economic with poverty elimination as the core one. “India has been successful in incorporating two goals — Goals 8 (sustained, inclusive economic growth) and 10 (reduce inequality within and among countries),” he said.
Two more areas have an Indian stamp: Technology Facilitation Mechanism (TFM) and the discussion on taxation reforms, which is key to generate funds for meeting the goals. India proposed the TFM in 2012 and this proposal now finds a place in the SDG document. This is important because technology is a cross-cutting subject in the SDGs. The mechanism, added Narang, is not about technology transfer but technology matchmaking.
It is often said that money makes the world go round and this holds true for SDGs also: The UN has estimated that the new goals could cost $172.5tn over the 15-year timeframe. With overseas development funds plateauing at around $130 billion for the second year in a row, developing countries have to embrace alternative sources of financial assistance. So Goal 17 calls for revitalising the global partnership and taking up new phenomena like South-South cooperation, private finance, and mobilising domestic tax revenue. But the Addis summit, which was held in July, will be remembered for how Russia, the EU, and Japan, which make global tax rules, blocked a G77 proposal to establish an inter-governmental tax body under the UN. “Though we could not change the present scheme of things, this is the first time that this key issue got so much traction,” added Narang. This means countries like India will still lose more money from tax avoidance and illicit money transfers than what they receive as assistance from rich countries. Unsurprisingly, India is likely to bring up the issue of tax evasion at the UN during the ongoing session.
While the task of meeting the goals is thus daunting because of the number of goals, India’s permanent representative to the UN, Asoke Kumar Mukerji, said that “cherrypicking” development goals is not a solution for India. “We need have a holistic approach and the SDGs provide that”. The SDGs are big, bold and — grandly ambitious, but India has to deliver since, as NITI Aayog vice-chairman Arvind Panagariya says, “Improving the lives of 1.4 billion Indians would make a major dent in the goal of improving the lives of all humanity.”