Achieving SDGs a Stiff Challenge for Modi Government, World

This article as orginally published by The Wire on September 24, 2015

At the end of this week, the leaders of over 190 countries will gather at the United Nations to adopt a set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – an updated and greatly expanded group of global development targets meant to replace the previous Millennium Development Goals – and in the process give people around the world a future and vision that they can work towards.

And yet the very nature of the SDGs – the fact that more than a few of its 169 sub-targets are contingent on the outcomes of other political and global forums that pit multinational corporations and rich-country politicians against NGOs and developing-country diplomats – signifies that they represent a formidable challenge to developing countries such as India.

Bureaucrats, think-tank analysts, NGOs and members of civil society groups who have this week been engaging in consultation and multi-stakeholder dialogue over implementation of the SDGs identify a number of issues that will need to be grappled with over the next nine months as diplomats go back to their host countries with the list of goals in their hands.

The three most contentious, and recurring, issues include: the financing and funding of the SDGs, the climate talks later this year in Paris, and implementation of the SDGs on a country or national level.

India and the Modi government, according to civil society organisations, are affected and challenged by all three obstacles.

Funding the key

If there is one spectre that constantly haunts discussions in the sustainable development summit and the Post-2015 process here, it is the failure of the Addis Ababa Action Agenda – a meeting of countries that was convened earlier this year as a means of finding the estimated $2.5 trillion needed each year to fund the SDGs.

“Addis Ababa could have gone a long way in telling us how we all are supposed to fund the SDGs. It is difficult to count on more aid from the OECD countries. The question then becomes: What do we do in the next one year? The SDGs and the United Nations must look to take advantage of the post-Bretton Woods global financial architecture,” said Sarah Hearn, Associate Director, Center on International Cooperation during a side event consultation on institutional architecture and development.

A United Nations representative to a developing country, during another side event, described the issue of mobilising funds more bluntly when he pointed out: “Without having a conversation on looking at white, grey and black money..without shoring up capital flight, we have to assume that this discussion simply isn’t serious. The foundation of our discussions aren’t serious. ”

With the Addis Ababa conference failing to crack down on global tax avoidance and illicit money transfers, and with official development assistance from developed countries becoming less dependable, developing countries such as India are forced to rely solely on their own resources to achieve the SDGs.

Arvind Panagariya, Vice-Chairman of the NITI Aayog – the institution that will lead India’s implementation of the SDGs – alluded to this state of affairs during an India-specific session earlier this week by linking the potential success of the SDGs to India’s future growth trajectory and Prime Minister Modi’s Make in India campaign.

“We simply cannot overstate the importance of robust economic growth… Without it, none of our objectives, be it eradication of poverty, empowerment of women, provision of basic services or even protection of environment would be possible by 2030. As an example, it was on the back of 8% growth over a full decade that India was finally able to introduce and sustain the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme and greatly expand its public distribution system through the National Food Security Act,” Panagariya said.

Nevertheless, he added, later in his speech, “we live in a highly globalised and democratic world and the sequence of growth first and redistribution later is not a choice”.

The climate change challenge

One of the defining characteristics of the SDGs is of course its sustainable component: Goals 11, 12 and 13 focus on ensuring sustainable consumption, making cities safe and sustainable and taking “urgent actions to combat climate change and its impacts”.

However, the credibility of these specific goals will not be tested this week here, but will instead be decided by the details of a climate-change deal what will be announced in Paris in December.

“The problem of implementation is quite simple. The earlier MDGs were specific, almost technical targets set by a handful of experts. The SDGs have been formulated by a huge number of actors, both governmental and non-governmental, and as such represent a huge array of aspirations. The aspirations of citizens, NGOs and civil society that are formulated here will consequently be tested at different forums where they have a lesser say,” the head of a global civil society coalition told this reporter.

“Here we promise sustainable development… but there is a disconnect when delegates walk into climate change negotiations later this year with different motivations and mindsets.”

Perhaps the most fundamental obstacle surrounding the sustainable development goals is how countries around the world will integrate them into their national development plans. More broadly, a number of civil society and government actors fear that the expansive nature of the SDGs – which number at 17 goals and over 150 sub-targets –  do not lend themselves to easy action plans or prioritisation. The diplomat of an African nation, on condition of anonymity, pointed out that if he took this long list and presented it to the bureaucrats of his government they would “be taken aback by sheer confusion”.

Closer to home, Sindushree Khullar, the chief executive officer of the NITI Aayog, has already stated that the lack of funding and  sophisticated data collection and monitoring mechanisms will prove to be an uphill challenge as India starts work on the SDGs.

When combined with the fact that the Modi government has slashed social sector spending and reduced plan expenditure for the health sector, the first such cut in almost a decade, the resonance that the government claims its policies have with the SDGs appear to be less than accurate.

India nevertheless remains at the centre of the debate on whether, globally, the sustainable development goals will prove to be a success. “The relative success of the MDGs were a result of one country – China. If the SDGs are a success, it will be because of India,” pointed out WPS Sidhu, Senior Fellow, Brookings India, during an India-specific consultation session.

“The SDGs need to involve state governments in the country. If this is to be a success, the NITI Aayog needs to reach both within and without the country.”

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Sep 24, 2015
Anuj Srivas, WPS Sidhu