Last month, 193 countries gathered together at the UN Summit on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), to adopt an ambitious new global development agenda. Along with other world leaders, Prime Minister Modi too expressed India’s commitment to work towards achieving these goals by 2030. Comprising 17 goals and 169 targets the SDGs expand on the millennium development goals (MDGs) adopted in 2000 which are due to expire this year. But how different are the SDGs to the MDGs and what will be the key challenges in achieving them? This blog looks into some of them.
SDGS: An improvement over MDGs?
One of the most common critiques of the MDGs has been their limited and vague scope and the fact that they set such low bar targets leading to “defining development down”. Lant Pritchett and Charles Kenny have argued that having poverty targets set at just halving the proportion of people with income less than $1.25 per day, or ensuring universal enrolment etc. meant that even if targets were met, “billions could still be living on less than $2 a day, with only the most basic literacy and numeracy, lacking access to basic medical care, living in houses without indoor sanitation, working in subsistence agriculture or hawking on the street to make money”. If MDGs were minimum standards, the SDGs- integrating environment, social and economic dimensions are one the most comprehensive list of global goals the world has ever committed to. While the number of indicators will be finalized by March 2016, it is expected that there will be 100s if not 1000s of indicators accompanying the goals.
Another significant critique of the MDGs was the process of developing them. As the story goes, MDGs were drawn up by a group of men in the basement of the UN headquarters – so much so- that they almost forgot to include the 7th goal on environment sustainability. The SDGs, on the other hand, are the consequence of 3-year long consultation programmes. From establishing an Open Working Group, to consultative conversations across both themes and countries, the UN even launched an online My World Survey portal asking people to vote to ascertain issues/goals that matter most. Further, while the MDGs were seen much more as applying to the developing world and measured progress via averages, the SDGs make the promise of universality and “leaving no one behind”.
Looking at these comparisons, at least in both process and target setting, the SDGs definitely appear to be a significant step up from the MDGs.
But do global commitments such as SDGs even matter to India?
The short answer is Yes. The sheer size and scale of the country means that, the success of the global goals, to a large extent, depends on progress made by India.
Further, the SDGs can play an important role in generating greater public debate and forcing Ministries and departments (at least in theory) to think about development not just in silos but as a collective exercise. A recent study by Brookings Institution evaluating media and journal references to MDGs (seen in some ways as a proxy for debate and conversation) found that Indian newspapers had amongst the highest number of articles on average per year, next only to Nigeria. Similarly between 2002-2014, journals such as the Lancet had as many as 1223 articles on the MDGs. This is relevant in so far as indicating instances of public discourse.
But, global and national commitments aside, the big question that remains is how the SDGs will be taken forward. Given India’s mixed results with even the ‘low bar’ commitments of MDGs and often overestimated definitions of progress, this is going to be the greatest challenge. See image below:
Challenges for India in attaining SDGs
For me, there are broadly 4 main areas of concern.
Defining Indicators: Past record indicates that we have been not very successful in setting relevant indicators to measure outcomes. Quality education has not successfully been defined. India’s myopic definition of “safe” drinking water (with hand pumps and tube wells considered as safe as piped water supply) means that official data suggests 86% of Indians have access to safe drinking water and, as a result, we are “on track” for the MDG goal on drinking water.
However, the number of waterborne diseases and deaths due to diarrhoea clearly indicate, this is not the case.
Financing SDGs: A new study estimates that implementing SDGs in India by 2030 will cost around US$14.4 billion. Given the recent cut in social sector schemes by the Union government, unless states devote a significant portion of their resources on the social sector, there is likely to be a significant funding gap. High growth and redistribution itself are also not enough. According to the United Nations MDG 2014 report, despite high economic growth, in 2010, one-third of the world’s 1.2 billion extreme poor lived in India alone. Given these constraints, it is likely that domestic revenues aside, private finance could be a crucial source for financing the SDGs.
Monitoring and Ownership: Relatedly, a third significant challenge is going to be with respect to ownership. Reports suggest that NITI Aayog will play a significant role in tracking progress. However, members at the Aayog have expressed reservations on being able to take on this mammoth task. Moreover, if states are expected to play a pivotal role (giving the devolution post 14th Finance Commission), it will require ownership not just nationally, but also at the state and local level.
Measuring Progress: Lastly but most importantly is the question of measuring progress or achievement. By the government’s own admission, non-availability of data (particularly in respect to sub-national levels), periodicity issues and incomplete coverage of administrative data, made accurate measuring progress of even MDGs virtually impossible.
These 4 challenges aside, it is important to remember, that while SDGs provide broad goals and targets, it will be up to the national, and state governments to identify priorities, decide appropriate locally relevant policies, harness innovation and ensure that an implementation and monitoring plan is in place. Only then we will have any chance in ensuring that the ‘S’ in SDGs, also stand for successful.
Avani Kapur works as Senior Researcher: Lead Public Finance, Accountability Initiative at Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi. Her work is focused on public finance & accountability in the social sector.
Avani tweets as @avani_kapur