Sustainable Development Goals, A paradigm shift?

Pakistan & the SDGs, Sustainable Development Goals, Transforming Our World, UN General Assembly, global development goals, Millennium Development Goals, gender equality, action for the people, Peace and Partnership, sustainable industrialisation, quality education

After lengthy consultations at the global level, a resolution titled ‘Transforming Our World: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development’ was adopted by the UN General Assembly on September 25, 2015, heralding the commencement of yet another 15-year cycle of global development goals following the footsteps of Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) for 2000-2015. This post-2015 global agenda contains 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and 169 targets and reflect the scale and ambition of the global community seeking to realise human rights, gender equality and empowerment of all. The SDGs are a plan of action for the people, planet and collective prosperity by seeking to strengthen global peace and larger freedom, and eradicating poverty in all its forms and dimensions. In all, this development agenda revolves around five Ps: People, Planet, Prosperity, Peace and Partnership.


The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are a set of global goals with three major aspects: economic, social and environmental. These goals emphasise that eradicating poverty in all its manifestations, including extreme poverty and hunger, inclusive and equitable quality education, gender equality, inclusive and sustainable industrialisation are prerequisites for sustainable development in the coming decades. Other goals such as ensuring sustainable consumption and production patterns, taking actions to combat climate change, ensuring healthy lives and promoting wellbeing for everyone are also important components of the SDGs.

SDGs build on the legacy of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Though many countries in Europe and North America, as well as a few developing countries have been able to eradicate absolute poverty and achieve certain levels of standard of living for their respective populations, yet there still remain uneven developments and serious disparities between and within the countries. This assertion is corroborated by the fact that in many Asian, African and Latin American countries, vast majorities of the people still are crying for decent living standards. The aspiration for SDGs, just like the case of MDGs, emanates from the realization that uneven developments and serious disparities at the country as well as global levels are unsustainable. And, it is due to these uneven developments and disparities that sporadic yet long-lasting economic, social and environmental crises still roil the common masses in most countries. Thus, specific actions are needed to combat such crises.

Here a question arises: although the SDGs seek to address the aforementioned crises, how they are actually different from the MDGs? The answer lies in a paradigm shift that is characterised by three major changes under the SDGs. The first key change is that of agenda, that is, while the MDGs emphasised primarily on the aspects of social development, the SDGs, in contrast, represent a much wider agenda which, besides social development, also addresses the other two pillars of sustainable development: economic and environmental. The second major change is the shift in the focus from an agenda, which, under the MDGs, was applicable only to a group of countries, to one that is universally applicable and all countries irrespective of the differences in their levels of development subscribe to it.

The third divergence from the MDGs is that while the MDGs were characterised by a ‘North-South’ model, which was dependent on typical ‘donor-recipient’ relationships, the SDGs advocate the mobilization of domestic resource as the key to achieving the goals. It is evident that global ‘dissatisfaction’ with the processes, deliveries and progresses of the MDGs also led countries to go for such goals under the SDGs.

The ‘discontent’ with the performance of MDGs is reflected by the fact that a large number of countries lagged behind in implementing the MDGs by considerable margins. According to the MDG Track Global Index, which was published by TAC Economics, out of the 140 countries, only 6 countries could implement MDGs between 70 percent and 77 percent, only 18 countries could implement MDGs between 60 percent and 69 percent, 30 countries could implement MDGs between 50 percent and 59 percent and the rest 86 countries could implement less than 50 percent of the MDGs.

Pakistan failed to meet most of its MDGs such as the eradication of extreme poverty, promotion of primary education, checking child mortality, promotion of gender equality and ensuring environmental sustainability by a depressingly wide margin.

It is important to note that the MDGs had eight goals with 18 targets whereas the SDGs have 17 goals with 169 targets. Therefore, given the weak performances of the MDGs and the very wide coverage of SDGs, questions will remain whether achieving such wide and “ambitious’ goals and targets within next 15 years by majority of the countries is feasible and realistic.

One of the major challenges for the SDGs is that many of the proposed indicators, related to the targets, are non-quantifiable. This will be problematic while monitoring the progress in achieving SDGs. Also, there are indicators that do not specify any targets for the year 2030. Besides, relevant data for some of the indicators are also not readily available, and a number of indicators appear to be overlapped or repeated.

One of the most critical issues is the resources needed for implementing the SDGs. As mentioned in the preceding paragraphs, domestic resource mobilisation is the key to achieving SDGs, however, the most critical question is: how to mobilise required amount of resources domestically when a large number of countries suffer from weak institutions and infrastructure? Let it be very clear, mere generation of resources would not ensure implementation of the SDGs if institutional and governance-related aspects are not properly addressed.

Another major challenge for the SDGs is the changing global scenario. The MDGs period and whatever success achieved under them was coined with growing globalisation and trade integration among the countries. However, recently emerging strong scepticism in such globalisation and trade integration process, as reflected by Britain’s BREXIT and the presidential election in the United States, has casted shadows on the future of the ‘global partnership’ for SDGs. There are risks of trade wars between the dominant countries in the coming years, which will certainly undermine the prospects of such ‘global partnership’.

Despite the aforementioned challenges, the SDGs have the promise of bringing some very important changes in the lives of millions of people across the world. There is a need for a strong political commitment for negotiating with the challenges in the implementation of SDGs. Generating political capital for SDGs, both at the country and global levels, will remain the most critical task over the next one and half decades.

Pakistan & the SDGs

Pakistan missed the MDGs mainly because of an acute lack of parliamentarians’ oversight, awareness and education among the citizens and no indigenous research and development besides ineffective governance, poor performance, undermining ownership and due to centrally-planned, top-down approaches to foreign technical assistance programmes. However, despite failing on most counts of the MDGs, Pakistan opted to become a signatory to the SDGs. There are bright prospects for Pakistan in these goals as the country is projected to become a middle-income country by 2030, with an estimated per capita income of $9,000, almost zero poverty, resilience to climate-induced disasters and the ability to provide food for an estimated 215 million population, if it remains successful in effective implementation of the SDGs.
Although the first year hasn’t been very encouraging for Pakistan as on global assessment of the United Nations’ health-related SDGs, Pakistan was ranked 149th out of 188 countries, yet there are all hopes that the country will succeed in achieving these goals because these are in line with what Pakistan has to do in order to embark on the path of development and prosperity. By virtue of being goals set out by the United Nations, the adoption of SDGs into national policy would mean international support and even funds in order to achieve them. And while Pakistan’s development outline Vision 2025 is synchronised with the SDGs, there would be a greater focus on taking concrete steps.

Work on improving development indicators has to be started so that Pakistan can get the support of international organisations to address these issues. Such work would also help in improving the image of Pakistan abroad as a country that is committed to making the lives of its people better, and helping the world achieve its SDGs. After all, it is such measures that add up into a transformative force that changes the fate of nations.

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