National strategy needed to make new development goals work: Debapriya Bhattacharya

Published in The Daily Star on Friday, 15 May 2015.

National strategy needed to make new development goals work

Sajjadur Rahman

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One of the major achievements of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) package is that it includes means of implementation of the goals, which was totally absent in the Millennium Development Goals, said Debapriya Bhattacharya, distinguished fellow of Centre for Policy Dialogue.

This time, financing and other means of implementation are being agreed upon upfront, he said.

The United Nations is going to hold a summit in New York in September to approve the proposed SDGs. Before that, in July, another important meeting will be held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, to discuss the financing for implementing the SDGs.

Another high-level meeting will be held in Paris in December to ink a global deal on tackling impact of climate change.

“The strength of the SDGs is, it is based on extensive consultation,” Bhattacharya said.

“In fact some of us were worried because tying up all the diverse perspectives could become difficult in the end.”

Indeed, the Open Working Group has done an excellent job in producing the final outcome document in July 2014 providing the draft 17 goals and 169 targets, he said.

Currently, at the inter-governmental negotiations, G77 — a group comprising all developing countries including China, Brazil and India — is opposing a move to open up the outcome documents of the Open Working Group as they want to endorse it in full at the summit in September 2015.

“However, there is criticism regarding too many goals and of the ambitious targets and how they will be implemented at the country level given the resource and governance constraints,” he said.

The MDGs were mainly about the poor people in the low-income countries, but SDGs are supposed to be for productive employment, urbanisation, infrastructure, standard of governance, income inequality and environmental aspects.

The number of goals reflects the ambition of the agenda. There are 17 overarching goals and 169 targets in the SDGs compared to only eight goals in the MDGs. So, questions are there: will it be possible to successfully implement the SDGs?

Bhattacharya has high hopes about the implementation of the new goals. “The Addis Ababa conference (on financing) is taking place before adoption of the SDGs,” he said. Moreover, implementation issues are there for each of the proposed goals, particularly, the Goal 17 is essentially about the means of implementation and global partnership.

Another important feature of the SDGs is incorporation of environmental aspects, which according to Bhattacharya will give enhanced momentum to the implementation of the new agenda. It will also set a new target on developed countries’ CO2 emission and their sustainable production and consumption structure that means reducing energy intensity and greenhouse gas emission.

The scope of governance-related targets has also been defined beyond orthodox measures. Now it includes broader elements beyond corruption, such as conflicts, violence against women, and human rights.

How smooth was the journey in shaping the new global agenda? Bhattacharya said tensions were there: for example, in balancing economic, social and environmental dimensions of SDGs, and in interpreting a “universal” agenda when countries are at different levels of development.

The adoption of MDGs was an exceptional moment of international development cooperation, which redefined the relationship between the low-income countries and the developed countries. The most important feature of that redefinition was putting forward poverty alleviation as the core goal in international development. Also, MDGs have re-energised the national governments to refocus on poverty alleviation and human development as national priorities. Some kind of budgetary allocation within the countries and reallocation of foreign aid took place in support of the MDGs.

“Automatically, when the MDGs are coming to an end in 2015, there was a spontaneous expectation that it will be succeeded by another set of international goals,” Bhattacharya said. In fact, the UN decided in 2010 to formulate a new set of goals that will consolidate the achievements of the MDGs and improve further.

According to him, MDGs were not fully out of faults despite tremendous success in addressing the overarching goal — poverty alleviation.

“It (MDGs) did not address the issue of productive employment, and environment-related aspects were marginally touched upon,” he said.

The forthcoming new agenda should be informed with the lessons learnt from the MDGs implementation process and address its revealed shortcomings. Bhattacharya explained how the process of the MDGs has led to formulation of the post-2015 agenda.

But there was another process – the Rio+20 Conference on sustainable development in 2012 decided that an Open Working Group made up of the member states will be set up to give shape to this new set of goals where the MDG process and the Rio+20 process – development and environmental dimensions – will come together. Along with the Open Working Group, a number of tracks were opened to do public consultation on the new agenda – within the UN system and beyond because one of the criticisms of the MDGs process was that it was a top-down process and most member countries were never consulted.

This time, he said, the outcome of the Open Working Group is the definitive document that is going to characterise the final outcome of the SDGs. “It is currently based on a very fine political balance,” he added.

Bhattacharya also mentioned two other processes — the July conference on financing and the Paris climate conference in December this year by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) — that will also impinge the progress of the SDGs.

Besides multiple UN processes, there are other parallel processes that will impact the SDG process. Of these, the most important one is the WTO Doha Round, he said. If Doha Round does not deliver, many of the trade and investment-related targets will not be complied with, he said, citing examples of duty-free and quota-free market access, removal of non-tariff barriers, and service exports.

Bhattacharya said, for countries like Bangladesh, there is another important process — the Istanbul Programme of Action (IPoA) that charts out the international community’s vision and strategy for the structural transformation of least developed countries (LDCs) for the next decade with a strong focus on developing their productive capacities.

The IPoA has thought of many goals, targets and matters of interest that need to be integrated in the SDGs. The good thing is that the IPoA is now trying to set up a technology transfer facility. A high-level panel has been set up including representatives from Bangladesh for that.

“What I am trying to say is that there are also many parallel processes, which will complement and define success of SDGs,” he said. So, knowledge and negotiation capacity would be of vital importance for countries like Bangladesh to reap benefits from these multiple processes and discussions, he said.

“Unfortunately, capacity of low-income countries including Bangladesh is not up to the mark. We have neither financial resources nor human skills, which is always a matter of concern,” he said.

Bhattacharya also addressed how the SDGs will require responsive statistical systems with the capacity to track the development progress of countries across a much broader spectrum of development challenges. Bangladesh lags behind in this area despite some improvement in recent years. He said, out of 120 indicators selected for the Bangladesh country study, data was readily available for only 67 indicators (56 percent). It was also observed that data for a number of important indicators are not available at the level of disaggregation needed. Goal areas related to energy, infrastructure, governance and environment are the ones that particularly suffer from paucity of data.

He said international development framework must take cognisance of national context of the developing countries in this regard. He said the SDG moment is a unique opportunity to address all these issues.

He, however, hailed Bangladesh for its success in achieving the MDGs faster than many other countries. In fact, Bangladesh is one of the above average countries in the global landscape in terms of performance in MDGs as well as for its regular reporting and for providing good inputs in the global reports. In many ways, many countries look upon Bangladesh as a leader, he said.

Though MDGs were North-South relationships underwritten by foreign aid or official development assistance (ODA), that scene has changed now. “Our study shows, MDGs were achieved not for ODA but for own money that came from taxes,” he said.

Now Southern countries have 50 percent of the global trade; also there are remittances and innovative finances such as diaspora and sovereign bonds and carbon taxes.

The real challenge is how a country will strike the right balance of all those different sources of financing in its country context, said Bhattacharya.

He said the national-level challenge will start with the point that how a country will integrate SDGs with its national priorities. The next challenges would be data availability and coordination among so many ministries and agencies, he said.

“SDGs are multi-sectoral and multi-dimensional and the role of the line ministries, such as education, health, planning etc, will be supreme. Each ministry will be a leader in its own field. So, coordination among ministries and agencies will be an extraordinary challenge,” he said.

There has to be engagement of the private sector, NGOs as well as parliamentarians and local government representatives to create a platform to make SDGs work. Last but not the least — the accountability mechanisms of the governments and other stakeholders have to be in place. “All these things are not easy to achieve for a low-income country,” he said.

“On one hand we can rejoice for a global agenda and aspiration, and on the other, the resources for delivery are also very scarce. There is a mismatch,” Bhattacharya said.

“We would soon need to formulate a national strategy in this regard.”

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