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Opinion: Will We Find the Resources to Create a Better World?

Dr Palitha Kohona, Sri Lanka’s former Permanent Representative to the United Nations, was also Chief of the UN Treaty Section.

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka, Nov 6 2015 (IPS) - The UN General Assembly adopted the ambitious Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) at a global summit of world leaders in September. They agreed on 17 new universal goals, and 169 targets that will provide the framework for economic and political policies of UN Member States over the next 15 years to make the world a better place for humanity.

Amb. Palitha Kohona. Credit: U.N. Photo/Mark Garten

Amb. Palitha Kohona. Credit: U.N. Photo/Mark Garten

The indicators, against which their performance will be measured, will be finalised by March 2016. Some, including the UK and Japan, wanted fewer goals. The trillion dollar question, despite the familiar hype that follows the launch of any UN initiative, is whether the resources so necessary for the realisation of the SDGs would be generated through the goal: revitalisation of global partnerships.

The SDGs are expected to seamlessly expand on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Agreed by governments in 2000, the MDGs, numbering eight, were also to be accomplished in 15 years. Impressive successes were recorded by some countries with regard to these goals, mostly through their own efforts.

The MDGs were essentially intended to accelerate the development of developing countries in the eight sectors identified. The substantial non-realisation of the last goal, global partnerships, including the non-delivery of the expected level of development assistance by developed countries, impacted on the full attainment of the other goals in many poor parts of the world.

The SDGs will apply to every country. Even their partial attainment in the coming 15 years will pose a gigantic challenge to all of humanity. In a world where, embarrassingly, more than 1 billion people still live on less than $1.25 a day, more than 800 million go to bed hungry, 57 million children have no access to education, 2.4 billion live without proper toilet facilities, 663 million lack access to safe water, one third of all schools lack safe water and toilet facilities, millions of women still die in childbirth and many more children do not live to reach their fifth birthday, the SDGs may turn out to be simply too daunting.

One pressing and distracting challenge ballooning from a destabilised Middle East is the massive outflow of displaced persons across borders. More than 38 million remained displaced the world over in 2014.

The targets, assiduously refined by the negotiators, have given substance to the SDGs. A target under goal one, for example, includes reducing by at least half the number of people living in poverty by 2030, and eradicating extreme poverty (people living on less than $1.25 a day).

The enormous cost of meeting these goals has not begun to be fully absorbed yet. Even if the world will eventually pat itself on the back for achieving some of the goals, the cost of reaching them is simply mind boggling.

Rough calculations made by the intergovernmental committee of experts on sustainable development financing have put the cost of providing a social safety net to eradicate extreme poverty at 66 billion dollars a year, while annual investments to improve infrastructure (water, agriculture, transport, power) could be up to 7.0 trillion dollars globally.

The Addis Ababa conference on Financing for Development (FfD) last July, which preceded the SDG summit, formulated conclusions with a view to identifying funding sources for the SDGs. The UN ritually hailed the Addis Ababa action agenda (AAAA for short) as containing “bold measures to overhaul global finance practices and generate investment” for tackling the challenges of sustainable development.

On closer analysis, the commitments made by the multilateral financial institutions, the UN agencies, the private sector charities and the bilateral donor community, though impressive, do not appear to come even close to the sums required to achieve the SDGs. The search for funding for the SDGs continues to be constrained by thinking based on an old framework that really did not deliver the desired results.

A worryingly emerging development is the determined effort by traditional donor countries to shift responsibility to entities that are difficult to hold to account internationally (e.g. private charities and corporations), signalling an abrogation of their long recognised obligation to provide development assistance.

If history were a guide, it is unlikely that even a meaningful portion of the estimated costs will be met through bilateral and multilateral development assistance. The 40-year-old commitment to transfer 0.7 per cent of gross national income (GNI) to developing countries, despite the recommitment in Addis Ababa, is still an elusive goal for most developed countries.

Even with the imaginative accounting practices adopted by some donors in recent times, including counting environmental assistance in development financing, the target remains distant for most.

The international community may have reached a point where it is necessary to acknowledge the elements and approaches that failed in previous development exercises. Likewise it needs to recognize the approaches that succeeded and are sustainable. Little Singapore at one end of the spectrum and large China at the other end offer examples of success. But what succeeded in one place may not necessarily work elsewhere.

While it is expected that developing countries themselves will raise some of the necessary funding, including through the building of strong institutions, better taxation, reduction of corruption and stemming the illicit outflow of funds, these measures will not necessarily produce significant results in the short term.

A widely hawked policy approach to development encourages public-private partnerships. Since the financial crisis of 2008, state involvement in the economy is no longer dismissed even by the conservatives. While some developing countries will follow this path with success, it is difficult to imagine that many, especially the smaller ones, with their limited economic opportunities, would or could.

The lack of personnel trained in modern economic management, costly and usually imported energy sources, economic limitations that do not encourage the ready flow of foreign investments are critical constraints. Bilateral development assistance will continue to play a role, especially for the large number of such small developing countries.

Many of the SDGs interface with others. For example, the goal on climate change with its cross cutting importance, impacts, directly or indirectly, on a range of others. Ending poverty and hunger, ensuring food security, nutrition and sustainable agriculture, managing water resources and sanitation, achieving sustainable economic growth and employment and sustainable industrialisation, and using renewable energy, among them.

The oceans, inter alia, are the major influence on weather patterns, the biggest sink for GHGs, the predominant source of protein for humanity and a major employment generator. The sustainable use of the oceans, seas and marine resources will need to be kept in mind when addressing climate change.

A holistic and proactive approach to the SDGs could also be a catalyst for innovation, development of new technologies and establishment of new industries.

Countries will meet at the end of November in Paris to address the now undeniable threat of climate change. This meeting cannot be only about GHG emission targets, however ambitious.

The SDGs, especially sustainable production and consumption patterns, among others, will need to be confronted with honesty in Paris. Unless efforts are made to identify realistic funding sources, especially for the less developed countries, and the requisite technologies, we may have to leave Paris with more regrets than achievements.


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  • eusebio manuel

    Happy Sustainability 2015