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Reviewing the United Nations’ sustainable development goals

By ‘Femi D. Ojumu
07 December 2022   |   4:14 am
The mark of civilisation in an objective sense, is how a society treats its citizens, the vulnerable, women, youths and children; its demonstrable actions towards poverty reduction...

The mark of civilisation in an objective sense, is how a society treats its citizens, the vulnerable, women, youths and children; its demonstrable actions towards poverty reduction; its regard for the environment and terrestrial ecosystems; its commitment and consistent adherence to the rule of law and strong institutions; the prioritisation of, and sufficient allocation of resources to, qualitative education and effective healthcare; consistent access to clean water, effective sanitation. Plus, how it simplifies access to finance and digital inclusion. Rocket science? No! Utopian ideals? No! Virtuous aspirations in the 21st Century? Absolutely!

As I explained in an earlier column on the United Nations, on November 16, 2022, whilst it may not be the panacea to all the cascading and interlinked problems confronting humanity, by and large, it remains a seminal vehicle established to foster international cooperation and to help facilitate improved outcomes across a variety of socio-economic indices globally. The challenges are tough and multi-dimensional, straddling political, economic, social, technological and legal complexities across frontiers. Plus, asymmetrical environmental, sustainability and governance quandaries often impede the ability to meet these rational aims.

By way of illustration, the implementation of well-planned, costed and necessary primary healthcare projects in Country x, aimed at benefitting tens of thousands of people, could be immediately upturned by ethno-religious conflict and terrorism. Ditto, scaling up digital access programmes in Country y, aimed at benefitting hundreds of thousands of primary school students, could be upended by weak governance structures, sub-optimal regulations, resulting in poor connectivity and, by extension, lower digital literacy outcomes.

Equally, without robust institutions, performing markets and economic growth, employment outcomes are jinxed. The inexorable corollary is a vicious cycle of inequalities and poverty.

And that’s precisely the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) raison d’être. First off, goals do not exist in isolation. They need to be contextualised and deployed for performance and progress evaluation using the right qualitative and quantitative metrics periodically. That thesis accords with the philosophy espoused by the leading management scientist, Peter Drucker, who is quoted as saying that “you can’t manage what you can’t measure.”

Transforming Our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, adopted by all United Nations Member states, reinforces the locus for the common aims of peace and prosperity for people and the planet, now and into the future. Sustainable development is, therefore, no arcane concept. It plainly encompasses universal advancement on the economic, social and environmental fronts underpinning the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda. There are 17 SDGs. These are specific, measurable, actionable, realistic and time-bound (SMART) objectives, collaboratively agreed by all developed and emerging nations, aimed at eliminating poverty, reducing inequalities, stimulating health and education, catalysing economic growth and entailing proactive efforts to tackle the adverse effects of climate change and environmental protection.

The 17 SDGs are i.) No Poverty; ii.) Zero Hunger; iii.) Good Health and Well-Being; iv.) Quality Education; v.) Gender Equality; vi.) Clean Water and Sanitation; vii.) Affordable & Clean Energy; viii.) Decent Work and Economic Growth. Plus, ix.) Industry, Innovation & Infrastructure; x.) Reduced Inequalities; xi.) Sustainable Communities & Cities; xii.) Responsible Consumption & Production; xiii.) Climate Action; xiv) Life Below Water; xv.) Life on Land; xvi.) Peace & Justice and Strong Institutions; and xvii.) Partnerships for Goals.

However, are these goals truly achievable? Does the demonstrable political will exist to do so? Geopolitics, competing national interests and divergent ideological perspectives often conspire against well-intended universal declarations surely: how are these strategic risks mitigated? Do they take account of cultural sensitivities given the heterogeneous nature of UN member states? So, how can UN member states’ performance be assessed against the SDGs? Are the disparities amongst the richest and poorest countries converging or widening? Do the SDGs metrics include qualitative and quantitative metrics capturing the dynamic nexus between human and planetary health? Regarding tangible outcomes, relative to the SDGs, what did the COP 27 Summit accomplish?

These are mighty questions negating mechanistic and simplistic one-size-fits-all answers. For a start, the SDGs are certainly achievable albeit subject to the political will to do so by UN member states and practical evidence thereof. Just because nations signed up to the Sustainable Development Agenda 2030 is, in of itself, not a sufficient reason to assume that they intend to honour those commitments nor that they possess the financial capacity to do so. Complex choices and sacrifices often have to be made for a variety of reasons. Some countries may well justify inaction on the grounds of socio-cultural conservatism.

A laudable aspiration by all characterisations, SDG 1, aims to eradicate poverty in all its manifestations everywhere by 2030. However, the enormous strides accomplished in poverty reduction were undermined by the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic and its aftershocks still reverberate in countries like China. In that period, social security and business support “furlough” schemes in high-income countries averaged 52.2% whilst similar programmes in low-income countries barely topped 0.8%.

How about SDG 5, which aims to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls? It would take women approximately 40 years to be equally represented in national political leadership on current trends. In 2022, women had a global representation in national parliaments of approximately 26.2% (UN Statistics). Countries with the least gender equality include Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Yemen, Syria, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Saudi Arabia. How sustainable is this phenomenon?

Tracking SDG 7 for instance, ensuring access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all, the evidence the World Bank’s 2022 Energy Progress Report affirms that on current projections, the world is not on track to meet this goal. That’s because globally, 733 million people lack access to electricity and a further 2.4 billion people – a quarter of the world’s 8 billion people – still use cooking fuels harmful to their health and the environment. In fact, the global energy access chasm has broadened across the world.

The 20 countries -including, but not limited to, Guinea Bissau at 33.4%, Mozambique at 30.6%; Liberia at 27.5%, Sierra-Leone and Niger at 26.2% and 19.2% respectively – with the least access to electricity, are home to a whopping 76% of the global population, consigning them to the 21st Century’s equivalent of a modern dark age! It is no surprise that approximately 90 million people in Asia and Africa who previously had access to electricity, can now no longer afford to pay for their basic energy needs. Equally concerning, is that by 2030, approximately 670 million people will remain without electricity and the extant Russian/Ukrainian debacle is expected to further imperil the global energy crisis – therefore making this a super tough challenge indeed.

SDG 16 is interesting too. It aims to promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, providing access to justice for all and building effective and inclusive institutions at all levels. How then does this goal square the circle of autocratic regimes, enforcing repressive policies, in countries like Afghanistan, Cambodia, Eritrea, Laos and Myanmar? After all, “providing access to justice for all” is the very anti-thesis of repressive regimes. Besides, 100 million people had been forcibly displaced as of May 2022; 25% of the global population live in conflict affected regions and the UN reports that corruption plagues every region in the world.

More optimistically, the very fact of the subsistence of SDGs is proof of a genuine commitment thereof not just on the part of the United Nations, but by the member states who have committed to honour the goals irrespective of their divergent political ideologies. At the end of the day, improved healthcare and educational outcomes, access to clean water and energy, promoting terrestrial ecosystems and biodiversity, environmental and planetary protection are inherently noble objectives.

Practical actions taken towards embedding the SDGs across regions, have included dissemination of good practice guidance, entrepreneurship development programmes, capacity building projects on digitalisation, women and youth owned micro, small and medium enterprises. Other heroic initiatives have included facilitating proactive collaborations amongst subject matter experts, framing interlinkages between the SDGs towards more beneficial outcomes for all.

A case in point is the nexus between SDG 13, advancing urgent action to tackle climate change and its adverse impacts; and a tangible outcome from the 27th Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP 27), of November 2022 in Egypt. The latter concluded with the strikingly significant decision to establish and operationalise a loss and damage fund for countries most affected by climate change implicitly applying the polluter pays principle.

Summing up, of course, competing national interests, geopolitics and ideological divergence between nations play a significant part in honouring agreed commitments towards accomplishing the SDGs. Notwithstanding, it is submitted that the SDGs are rational aspirations for improving mankind’s quality of life, safeguarding environmental ecosystems and planet earth. If these do not represent giant strides towards modern day civilisation, what does? The SDGs therefore, need to be nuanced and adaptable to a dynamic world springing new challenges. Furthermore, a greater emphasis needs to be placed on re-engaging those countries unwilling to demonstrably commit to meeting the SDGs as tactfully as possible and ensuring the goals remain fit for purpose.

It is in this perspective that the Columbia University scholar, Stijn Debrouwere’s take makes sense: “Metrics are for doing, not just staring. Never measure just because you can. Measure to learn. Measure to fix.”
Ojumu is Principal Partner at Balliol Myers LP, a firm of legal practitioners in Lagos, Nigeria.

So, how can UN member states’ performance be assessed against the SDGs? Are the disparities amongst the richest and poorest countries converging or widening? Do the SDGs metrics include qualitative and quantitative metrics capturing the dynamic nexus between human and planetary health? Regarding tangible outcomes, relative to the SDGs, what did the COP 27 Summit accomplish?