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Sustainable Development Goals: No More Complacency, Urgency Needed!

“We face mounting challenges in the form of growing numbers of conflicts, rising inequality, erosion of human rights, unprecedented global humanitarian crisis….climatechange is moving faster than we are; yet we see insufficient political will to meet commitments.” Remarked UN Secretary General António Guterresin the closing of the High Level Political Forum (HLPF).

“We are ashamed of our indicators on gender equality, continuing domestic violence…we are not doing enough” lamented the Minister from Dominican Republic, an island nation in the Caribbean, in his country context at the HLPF.

These are some alarming admissions by the world leaders who met during the HLPF at the UN headquarters in New York from 9 – 18 July 2018. It is the major review point for the 2030 Agenda and this year 46 nations presented their voluntary national reviews (VNR) in a packed schedule that included participation by governments, UN, civil society, private companies and others.

The Agenda 2030 and its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), adopted in September 2015, is into its third year of implementation. There have been some achievements in basic education, maternal and child mortality situations etc. These are encouraging signs, but the inequality of benefit distribution paints a shoddy picture i.e. three quarters of children affected by stunting live in Southern Asia and sub- Saharan Africa.Meanwhile, access to energy has also increased over the last years.

It is worthwhile to discuss countries’ progress on the SDGs as reported at the HLPF. Senegal reported on its social protection mechanisms, which cover health, education etc for street children, women and people in informal sectors. While Switzerland has a well-established social protection system and mechanism to protect environment and forest, it is facing challenges on rising inequality and groups like women and persons with disabilities are being left behind. Laos is growing fast with 7% GDP growth and 84% rural electrification – while it has a green growth strategy, it admits to the widening inequality between rural and urban areas.

Andorra, a small European nation highlighted its success in banning the single use of plastics. Bhutan, a landlocked and least developed country, achieved in terms of minimizing inequality, keeping unemployment rate less than 2.5%, near universal coverage of water and sanitation, rural electrification and primary education. Bhutan exemplifies that with political will and right policies in place, the SDGs are achievable. Albania impressively has 47 percent women in Parliament and 50 percent in the government.

Several countries aired concerns on the impact of climate change on food security, especially in Africa e.g. Niger. Nonetheless, it’s noteworthy that by 2017, 147 countries have policies on renewable energy compared to 48 in 2004. “Bhutan for Life” programme protects forests, Swiss clean-tech start-ups promote investment in research and use of innovative technology and Lativia has a system of green public procurement.

The alternative reports have however challenged some government claims – e.g. Sri Lanka claimed that access to sanitation is 87%, but the Voluntary People’s Report prepared by civil society noted the issues around sanitation – girls face difficulties as many school toilets are unusable and many marginalized people have difficulties accessing sanitation facilities.

The world is becoming more unequal and the challenges around climate change; conflicts and migrant issues are huge. In 2017, the number of international migrants was 258 million worldwide, an increase of 50 percent since 2000. World hunger is on the rise again. These warrant urgent and serious actions by global leaders. The commitment from the developed countries is discouraging. Official development assistance (ODA) dipped by 0.6% in real terms between 2016 and 2017. The top 8 people have the wealth equivalent to the bottom 50% of the population in World. Transformative steps for redistribution of resources and political power to the masses is clearly needed, but there was no such commitment or clear roadmap to balance wealth except some patchy interventions. The presentations by member nations were characterized by complacency – “we are doing great, just a little bit more needs to be done!”

The Ministerial Declaration adopted by member-nations at the end of the forum meeting is full of rhetoric – “We reaffirm” “We reinstate” “We commit” without any clear guidelines.

The disgruntled CSOs at the HLPF presented a joint statement  “Urgent action and accountability for the 2030 Agenda: now or never” pressing for transformative actions by countries.

If this is how countries perform on SDGs – cherry-picking easier goals while sidelining crucial ones – they will not be achieved, which will lead to continuing conflicts, social unrest, climate change effects and depletion of natural resources. The HLPF as a key body for monitoring the Agenda 2030 has not yet delivered its potential. It needs to be reformed to provide direction to the world towards intergenerational justice.