September 2015 could prove to be a globally important month. Heads of state are expected to gather at the UN from September 25-27 to deliberate and adapt the next generation of development goals — the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Unlike the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), SDGs have been formulated through an open and consultative process of nearly two years.
Emerging from the Millennium Declaration of 2000 were eight MDGs, each with a clear set of targets to be achieved by 2015. These included the goal to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger (MDG1), achieving universal primary education (MDG2), promoting gender equality and empowering women (MDG3), reducing child mortality (MDG4) and improving maternal health (MDG5), combating HIV/AIDS, malaria and other deadly diseases (MDG6). There were two further goals — environmental sustainability (MDG7, which included targets of reducing by half the proportion of population without improved water and sanitation), and developing a global partnership (MDG8).
The performance on a few MDGs has been spectacular. According to the UN’s 2015 MDG report, extreme poverty (proportion of population living below an income of $1.25 per day, popularly known as the “dollar a day” poverty line) has decreased from 1.9 billion (47 per cent of the population) in 1990 to less than 840 million (14 per cent) in 2015. Critics argue that much of the success is owed to countries such as China and that the lives of millions who have moved just above $1.25 per day are not necessarily great, since any poverty line is an artificial construct.
With regard to universal primary education (MDG2), the report notes that the net primary school enrolment rate in developing countries is above 90 per cent in 2015, as compared to 83 per cent in 2000. The number of children of that age not in school has decreased to around 54 mn, from around 100 mn in 2000. With regard to MDG3, the report notes that gender equality in primary, secondary and tertiary education in developing countries has improved significantly, with the enrollment ratios for boys and girls now more or less comparable.
In 90 per cent of countries, there are more women in parliament now than in 1995. However, according to the Inter Parliamentary Union dataset, as of June 2015, worldwide (both Houses combined) there were 34,000 male MPs compared with some 9,800 women MPs (22 per cent). In the Nordic states, 41 per cent parliamentarians were women — 19 per cent in Asia and 16 per cent in the Pacific countries. Currently, only 22 countries have a woman president or prime minister. Just five of the top 100 corporate firms in the FTSE 100 have female CEOs. According to an ILO report called “Women in Business and Management: Gaining Momentum”, less than 5 per cent CEOs are women. Thus, it seems that the MDG on gender equality remains far from being realised. There appears to have been some progress on infant and child mortality (MDG4) — seven million fewer children die from preventable causes.
While significant progress has been made on some MDGs, the main criticisms were that MDGs were arbitrary, lacked a theory of change, were chosen without consultation and imposed on developing countries. By 2015, development assistance provided by non-OECD countries like China, India and Brazil is significant. For instance, according to this writer’s estimates based on AidData 2.0, in 2000, Africa received some $33bn from OECD Development Assistance Committee donors, while China’s aid to Africa was about $3.5bn. By 2006, China’s aid had peaked to $22bn, as compared to the OECD’s approximately $60bn.
That the drafting of the new set of goals was done by wide consultation, over two years and through open fora, is an amazing achievement in itself. However, opinions differ on the fact that there are 17 goals and 169 indicators. Sceptics argue that having many goals is fine, as long as there is clarity as to whether there should be any priority and weights attached to the goals. However, sustainable development of a society cannot be achieved with outstanding performance in some dimensions but appalling performance in others. As Sir Richard Jolly pointed out at a recent conference in Helsinki, for the first time since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, these goals will be universal and apply to both developed and developing countries.
On September 28, it is quite possible that we will enter a new era of global consensus that sustainable development would be closer by climbing all 17 steps proposed and agreed by nations big and small.
The writer is a reader in environmental economics and public policy at the University of Bradford. Views are personal
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