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Beyond the glitz

February 18, 2018


THE faddish peddling of half-baked ideas by international development agencies has long framed the development narrative for most countries seeking to escape the traps of destitution, disease and discord. Pakistan has been no exception. A proclivity for signing up to reforms often unfit for purpose, shaping policies that flirt with — rather than being wedded to — local nuances, and gradual descent into a governance model anchored in crisis management with its hunger for quick wins, has saddled Pakistan with burdens.

Launched in 2015, the 2030 Agenda and Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were, prima facie, yet another call to arms against poverty, inequality and climate change drummed up by a coterie of usual suspects, from inside meeting rooms. Early reactions from the likes of Deaton and Easterly were unflattering, but the inclusive process that led to their development and their content have since been received more positively.

The 17 SDGs envisage a substantial role for the private sector. Nearly half the goals are directly linked to action by the private sector. Business leaders’ interest has been piqued by the significant economic opportunities linked to the SDGs globally — all $12 trillion of them ($5tr in Asia alone), with a potential employment footprint of 380 million by 2030, according to the Business and Sustainable Development Commission. My own estimates for SDGs-related opportunities in Pakistan are north of $65 billion, with bright prospects for job creation and value addition in select sectors. But how can Pakistan step up to claim the prize?

The SDGs envisage a substantial role for the private sector.

First is to use the SDGs framework to do things differently. Pakistan became a world leader in securing parliamentary assent to use the SDGs as the guiding framework for all things development, but predictably, a predilection for favouring structure over function ensued. Establishing bureaucracy-run SDGs units in Islamabad and provinces and adding layers of expert committees atop mounds of existing ones, have consumed focus over the past three years. Second, an SDG’s localisation and mainstreaming approach has seen pilots run in districts, which would make good sense for countries with empowered local governments; for Pakistan, where local ‘government’ is a euphemism for local administrations serving as extensions of provincial departments, it is fanciful at best.

With this inward-looking outlook, where and how does Pakistan’s private sector fit in?

Government-led efforts appear to lean towards using diktat, rather than making a business case, and seem to target the formal sector. Two key and interrelated risks emerge from this predicament: first is a perception risk, with the SDG agenda viewed as falling within the domain of large, corporate structures; and the second is a glitz-ditz risk, unfurling in the form of an appetite for awards, and many a variant of photo ops devouring the hard grind of policy and regulatory reform.

The perception risk can shift attention away from the supply and value chains and spotlight business houses. This suits government and development partners: far easier to work with the converted, than the teeming masses of informal SMEs that make up the Jodia bazaars and the vendors in Ghakkar Mandi, who would need to be informed, mentored and financed to improve compliance on, for example, standards for occupational safety and health, fair wages, gender equality and child labour. If these concepts appear alien, irrelevant and unnecessary for Pakistan, you likely work for the very government agencies whose responsibility it is to help ensure compliance with international standards. For businesses, non-compliance by supply chains has resulted in a choke on exports.

The glitz-ditz risk also manifests itself in the misguided conception of partnerships as fundraising platforms, or worse, as an end in itself, as trophy partnerships. Engagement with business must surely have a higher purpose than receiving a cheque or getting fodder for a tweet. The annual cost of financing the SDGs globally is estimated between $4.5tr and $5.5tr and Pakistan will certainly need to raise additional financing. But innovations in financing (eg social impact bonds) should form the raison d’être for partnering businesses, rather than financing per se.

To mitigate these risks, the various chambers and sector-based associations should be coming together to determine a joint path. It is encouraging that the Pakistan Business Council and multinational companies in general are busy educating members on sustainability, gender and related issues, but most Pakistani businesses remain unaware of what the SDGs are, what the government is doing to achieve them and how they can become part of the journey. Pending support from government and its development partners, leadership by the private sector — in the shape of an SDG programme that includes micro, SMEs and startup, and the larger formal sector — could change Pakistan’s development narrative.

The writer is a student of public policy, private sector dynamics and political economy influences.

Published in Dawn, February 18th, 2018