FE Today Logo

Some thoughts on Sustainable Development Goals

Salehuddin Ahmed | November 12, 2023 00:00:00

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

In his poem 'Prashna', Tagore wrote:

['Today, my voice is choked, my flute is tuneless,/The prison of moonless nightmare/has snared my world in its depth./So I implore you with tearful eyes,/those who are poisoning your air,/those who are extinguishing your lights,/Have you forgiven them, Lord?/Have you loved them?']

The post-2015 global development agenda incorporates actions that are basically normative and visionary, grounded in reality. But the results will come only if the actions are implemented. The global treaty does not have instruments of enforcement. The achievements rely on both national and global actions.

We blame nature for environmental degradation and disasters. William Shakespeare aptly said, "... when we are sick in fortune, often the excess of our own behaviour, we make guilty of our disasters, the sun, the moon, and the stars." [Shakespeare, King Lear, Act 1, Scene II]

The Club of Rome, a think tank founded in Rome in 1965, informally began exploring the depletion of Earth's resources and its impact on the socio-economic development of various countries. An international team of researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the USA conducted a simulation study using computers. This led to the publication of the book "The Limits to Growth" in 1972. That was the first red flag raised and warnings issued about the dangers of neglecting a sustainable development approach. These warnings are still valid and the message of hope is still worth bearing in mind: "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. People have grown increasingly interested in the concept of SD and how it can be attained. 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" ("Our Common Future" 1987, p. 43). Bangladesh's 7th FYP (P. xxxvi) Part-1 defines SD as "... the needs of the present generation without compromising the prospects of future generations."

The term SD holds different meanings for different individuals. There is the problem of conceptual clarity and interpretation. Many people use SD interchangeably with "ecologically sustainable or environmentally sound development". In contrast, some view 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 (WCED, 1987, p. 49).

Within the international perspective and concern for the "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: establishing a linkage between poverty and environmental degradation; conceptualising the objectives of development, sustainability, and participation; and formulating a strategy in the face of incomplete knowledge and uncertainty.

GLOBAL DEVELOPMENT AGENDA: The international community, with the leading role of the UN, sets up global goals in various fields to contribute to global problem-solving. The UN adopted 8 Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) with 21 targets and 60 indicators in 2000, with 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, as well as the relationship with other countries located in both the North and South of the globe.

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

In September 2015, the General Assembly of the UN adopted the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) which encompass 17 goals, 169 targets and 230 indicators. The motto of the SDGs is to "Transform our World by 2030". This is a gigantic task. Given the current global situation of cooperation and the declining trends in overseas development assistance (ODA), these tasks appear exceedingly ambitious, accompanied by 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, despite some being solely impacted by carbon emissions, some exclusively producing carbon emissions, and others being both affected by and producers of carbon emissions. It's worth noting that three-quarters of carbon emissions emanate from just 12 countries. A nail in the coffin was placed by the USA in June 2017 when President Donald Trump announced the intention to withdraw from the Paris Agreement. I believe that voters in the USA should now demand a political realignment in favour of addressing climate issues. COP25 held in Madrid in December 2019 also talked about a more pragmatic and problem-solving approach that should be pursued.

SOME FALLACIES: There are challenges both internal (within a country) and external (global) which should be addressed to achieve the SDG goals. Before I touch on some areas for scientists, researchers and academia, let me share two fallacies which are applicable to Bangladesh and many other countries.

Fallacy 1: Rapid growth will bring down poverty, and increase the well-being of the people. We can see, that in Bangladesh, growth has resulted in increasing income inequality, lack of access of the poor to quality and affordable health facilities, and lack of quality education at low cost (for the poor). The belief that growth first and distribution later is wrong. In fact, 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 the rule of law are prerequisites for our 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 bypassed, not consulted and not even considered in making major decisions of reform and development programmes. If people do not have confidence and trust in the government, even very pious and beneficial efforts of development can spark agitation and protests by the people as evident in the recent public outcry in Paris (fuel tax), in Hong Kong (extradition measure) and in Santiago, Chile (for the hike in metro price).

SUGGESTED AREAS TO BE ADDRESSED: However, there are still several challenges that need to be addressed. Bangladesh continues to face challenges related to income inequality, job creation, and sustainable economic growth. There is also a need to address environmental challenges such as air and water pollution, deforestation, and climate change. In addition, the country faces significant challenges in achieving universal access to healthcare, particularly in rural areas.

Another major challenge facing Bangladesh is the Rohingya refugee crisis. The country has provided shelter to over a million Rohingya refugees who fled violence in neighbouring Myanmar. This has put a significant strain on the country's resources, particularly in the areas of healthcare, sanitation, and education.

The following areas are suggested for consideration by Bangladesh.

Inclusiveness. All people to be included in the planning, implementation, monitoring, and evaluation stages of projects.

Financing: Financing is a major challenge. In Bangladesh, an estimate states that additional funds needed will be around $928 billion (2015-16 constant price). It will be difficult to raise such a huge fund from internal sources in Bangladesh. Financial assistance from the developed countries should come. It may be mentioned that the developed countries promised to contribute one per cent of their gross national income (GNI) as overseas development assistance (ODA). But their commitment is far from the actual flow of ODA.

Localisation: Different districts and regions of Bangladesh have different problems; for example, coastal zone problems are different from "haor" and "barind" and dry areas. Urban problems are different from rural problems. The "Nature SDG Localisation Framework" is an example that the government may incorporate in the 8th Five-Year Plan of Bangladesh (2021-25).

Implementation: For major implementation cross-section of stakeholders namely, government, NGOs, civil society organisations (CSOs), businesses, development partners and academia have to be included. "Institutions" to be strengthened and competent people should be placed to run these.

INTERNATIONAL COOPERATION: A country has to address issues related to poverty reduction and hunger; the ability to take advantage of its openness and globalisation; acceleration of growth with equity; social security of the poor; energy need of a growing economy; climate change; financial architecture to cater to the needs for a growing economy and financial inclusion. There may be several areas of global cooperation, which include: (i) Partners in development: The developing countries with their own 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; (ii) Sharing good practices: Experiences of one or more developing countries (graduated from LDCs) with other LDCs will also be helpful for global cooperation; (iii) Capacity building: The countries of the South can cooperate in increasing the capacity of the respective countries to accelerate development process. These countries can also cooperate with other developing countries outside LDCs and with other global partners to increase the efficiency of project formulation, implementation, monitoring and evaluation which will help increase the absorbent capacity of using external resources fruitfully; and (iv) Strengthen 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 from science, bio-medical backgrounds, social science and experts from various fields may take note of the following aspects for their research and actions: (i) Networks of professionals and experts will have to provide the policymakers with data/information and analysis on some priority SDG goals which are to be addressed in Bangladesh immediately. Unfortunately, benchmark data and quality periodic data are not available in Bangladesh for the majority of 169 targets some of which are not even quantifiable. So, the challenge must be tackled primarily by the relevant government agencies which can be complemented by special focus studies by scientists and experts; (ii) Professionals and experts should launch new research, action research and demonstrate models to promote innovative knowledge and practices for fulfilling SDG goals; (iii) The organisations and networks of organisations to which scientists, social scientists and experts are affiliated with should come up with measures to solve national as well as global problems; and (iv) The scientists and experts should come up with pragmatic design of projects and programmes as well as implementation processes for achieving SDG goals in Bangladesh and in other countries.

CONCLUSION: I would like to mention that there are several challenges before Bangladesh. We have to reduce the percentage of poor from 25 per cent now to a much lower level by 2030. We have to reduce maternal mortality, and child mortality rates, and increase enrollment in primary school by 2030. The quality of education in Bangladesh needs to be improved significantly. The poor in Bangladesh still suffer from nutritional deficiency which can be improved by increasing the entitlement capacity of the poor to have a balanced diet.

I shall not go into the various challenges and caveats we face but will single out one of the most important challenges that are the "institutional challenge". The impact of various efforts for improving the socio-economic conditions of the poor in developing countries can be maximised through proper management and implementation of development projects. Effective project management and implementation are also crucial for sustainable development. Institutions, which encompass entities at the local level, community level, national level, and project management units, are integral parts of project management and implementation. However, despite strong statements and rhetoric from politicians and policymakers about the essential role of institutions, and the realisation of their potential contribution to development efforts; the issues of institutions have received relatively little attention from policymakers, planners, and implementers of development projects.

The time has come for the global community collectively and each nation individually to act now so that the commitment of SDG "Leaving No One Behind" can be achieved throughout the world in the shortest possible time. For Bangladesh, it is imperative to take measures, beyond the present emphasis on the "growth only" objective to a comprehensive, balanced approach for economic, environmental, social, and political stability.

Dr Salehuddin Ahmed is a former governor of Bangladesh Bank (central bank) and a professor at BRAC University.

[email protected]

Share if you like