Last week was a week of celebration at the United Nations, marking two supposedly great achievements: the completion of the era of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and the beginning of that of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), in which 17 goals, to be attained by 2030 (as against the eight meant to have been attained by this year), have been endorsed by the UN General Assembly. However, the reality is that both of these are far from the achievements that they are purported to be.
First, the MDGs were only partially met at best, despite the deliberate watering down of the criteria for success. Moreover, this was largely due to factors that had nothing to do with the goals themselves, but with shifts in the world economy — such as rapid development in China and the global commodities boom that it brought about, which benefitted many developing countries. For some goals, such as the one concerning environmental quality, there have been elements of regress, even though defenders of the MDGs have claimed success. The oft-overlooked final goal, describing the responsibilities of the North, was a colossal failure. For instance, global aid flows have languished and have only recently returned to their level in the early 1990s, and are still beneath their level in the 1970s and 1980s. It is hard to imagine how this could be presented as a great success for a new way of generating accountability of the main actors in development. Crucially, there is little or no evidence of a better trend of improvement in most indicators after the goals were adopted.
Second, the SDGs portend an era in which development priorities are vague and confused and the vaunted goal of accountability is, if anything, diluted as a result. Whereas the MDGs were focused most on lowering poverty and deprivations, even if they were also a grab-bag, the SDGs adopt a still wider variety of concerns, often the result of lobbying. The goals show confusion between means and ends, are either much too vague or much too specific, and provide no guidance as to how, in practice, tradeoffs may be made or complementarities exploited. The case for global goals has never been made in a sufficiently deliberative and public fashion.
At the beginning of the week that the SDGs were announced, I spoke at a seminar organised by the permanent mission of India and other partners in the UN. It was widely agreed there that the success of the SDGs will depend greatly on India, although it was not spelled out why. We might, however, think of three reasons for this: The first is that as very substantial progress toward the elimination of severe poverty and deprivation has occurred in China, India is the single country with the largest remaining population of the poor and the deprived in which these ills must be attacked. Moreover, it faces challenges in relation to particular goals that are greater for other major countries and regions (such as to “Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls”). India will also be a very important player in a range of other goals, for example, to “Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts”, as its footprint in the world economy and environment increases. By the end of the period, India is projected to have 1.5 billion people, the largest population in the world.
The second is that the legitimacy offered by India’s endorsement of the SDGs, which has been far more wholehearted than that of the MDGs, which it very largely ignored, has already given a considerable fillip to the SDGs. But the extent to which the SDGs remain influential will depend on whether India and other major developing countries continue to offer them this support, in speech and through action.
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The third is that the solutions that are found to work in practice (for instance, in relation to agriculture, water, education, human settlements, or energy) will have to be pioneered in particular countries. Although having been officially classified as a lower middle income country, India’s economic and social profile continues to be much more similar to poorer developing countries than China and it, therefore, is in a particularly advantageous position to share its experiences as well as to learn from others, if the opportunity is taken for mutual learning.
Ironically, India appears unlikely to grasp the nettle. The dismantling of the apparatus of monitoring and planning in India, and the resulting lack of a comprehensive approach to adding up the consequences of actions on different fronts, cannot help. In his statement at the New York meeting, vice chairman of the Niti Aayog, Arvind Panagariya, while tempering his usual arguments in this direction, still emphasised the importance of pursuing a strategy that prioritises growth. This point of view is one that is implicitly disavowed by the SDGs, and indeed by the MDGs before them, which are based, rather, on the insistence that all goals (such as growth, social inclusion and environmental protection) must be attained together as much as possible. The appointed task is to find ways to do that, hard as it may be.
The writer is associate professor of economics, The New School for Social Research, New York, US.