Whither sustainable development?

Updated 21 Sep 2020

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Come September and it’s time to reflect on the hits and misses in global goals. This week, in the midst of the pandemic, the leaders of member nations will be attending virtual sessions for UN annual meetings to make sense of the evolving situation, assess the loss to sustainable development goals (SDGs) in the historic health crisis and ponder over the way forward.

Covid-19 has imperilled the progress on the pledge to leave no one behind and make the world a better and safe place. The highly communicable disease has infected over 27 million people and killed over 0.9m globally so far. The dent to businesses and economies is colossal. It’s now clear that the aftereffects hit the poor and vulnerable the hardest.

The Sustainable Development Goal Report 2020, the annual stocktaking exercise on progress across 17 goals, finds that for the first time since 1998 global poverty will increase in 2020 as 71m people may fall back into poverty. Lost income, inflation and scant social cover mean survival risks have escalated for previously secure families. About half of the world workforce (1.6 billion workers) will be significantly affected. The relevant data shows a 60 per cent fall in their earnings in the first month of the crisis.

As expected in the absence of public pressure, the government in Pakistan did what it always does: let the SDG business take care of itself. To be fair to the rulers, they have been grappling with the pandemic challenge since March and seem to be managing the spread and mortality rate better than others.

Pakistan ranked 134th on the Global SDG Index this year, down from 130th in 2019

It, however, did not stop the country from slipping four positions to rank 134th on the Global SDG Index this year, from 130th in 2019, out of the 193 countries. The said report traces, tracks and reports the nation’s performance on 17 goals.

Sadly, Pakistan was graded the worst performer in South Asia with Sri Lanka ranking 94th, Nepal 96th, Bangladesh 109th and India 117th. Tangible progress could be made in six out of 17 goals during the year, with climate change being the only goal where progress is said to be perfectly on track (see the chart).

The efforts of the PTI government for course correction — bringing people at the heart of development efforts — have yet to reflect in the recorded social indicators. The leaders of the ruling party were in perfect denial. They blamed the bureaucracy for Pakistan’s poor rating on the index. “Yes, officialdom is responsible for embarrassing Pakistan. They did not update social indicators diligently and landed the country in a sorry place. The old data can’t reflect the current reality,” snapped a PTI leader, privately denying negligence on their part.

In the absence of an annual national assessment report on SDGs, the government has little ground to contest the global grading, but it did not stop the PTI top tier in Islamabad from casting doubts on the findings of the global report.

Kanwal Shauzab, parliamentary secretary on planning and special initiatives who presented the Voluntary National Report on SDGs in the United Nations last year, did not mince words disparaging senior officers in federal and provincial SDG units for the poor showing. “The buck stops there. The bureaucracy has failed the nation. These self-serving control freaks are conditioned to look busy doing nothing. Why has the dashboard of indicators not been up after explicit directions from the government? There is no defence for feeding the outdated data to global bodies. They are responsible for tainting the country’s image.

“Under the PTI rule, every dime allocated for the people’s welfare has transparently been utilised. We disbursed more in direct cash grants to the needy in two years than any past government did in its full five-year term. Today, I am confident that no one sleeps hungry in this country and if the world still views us as a passive partner on SDGs, then they are misled.”

Dr Shabnum Sarfaraz, head of the federal SDG unit, gave a wordy response to Dawn queries. She wrote, “A draft framework for the SDG report of 2020 is in place. The report will, however, be issued after the datasets of annual national assessments/surveys are received, which were delayed due to the pandemic.”

On the question about Pakistan’s poor ranking, she started with challenging the credibility of the report that she said “is not a UN report but issued by (the) Sustainable Development Solution Network”. She challenged the findings on technical grounds: “… owing to changes in the indicator selection, the 2020 ranking is not comparable to the last year… progress that Pakistan made remains unaccounted.”

The officers posted in the provincial SDG units were complacent. They felt for the first time in the country’s history, with the help of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), some sense of ownership has evolved around SDGs across all regions in Pakistan that will bear results if not today then may be tomorrow. They argued that the legal and administrative frameworks are in place at all tiers of the government to align future policies and budget priorities with the global commitments. The work on the localisation of SDGs is near completion with pilot projects already launched in Punjab and Balochistan.

“If the requisite flow of funds is ensured, I am confident that Pakistan will join the ranks of high achievers by 2030, the terminal year of SDGs,” Zulfiqar Durrani, project coordinator for Balochistan’s SDG unit, noted. Many posts in the Punjab SDG Unit are vacant, including that of the project coordinator.

Rafique Mustafa Shaikh, project coordinator for the Sindh SDG Unit, also sounded positive. “We have covered the difficult phase of creating the legal framework to facilitate SDGs. In partnership with the UNDP, we are working with aligned departments and other stakeholders to provide coordination, knowledge and technical support to integrate policies, plans and budget with the 2030 Agenda. To this end, we set 169 targets and agreed on 168 indicators,” he said.

“A suppressed growth rate, lack of focus and inter-provincial coordination, exclusion of corporate entities from the development matrix and low public awareness about global goals are translating into a slow pace of progress. Name-calling and pointing fingers are easy. It will be better if the government puts its act together and strives harder to revive growth without which development is not going to come about,” an economist remarked.

“To nudge the corporate sector towards the desired direction, the Securities and Exchange Commission of Pakistan (SECP) needs to recast the CSR Voluntary Guidelines 2013 as businessmen can’t think beyond philanthropy when talking about social responsibility,” a business analyst noted.

“We did a baseline survey on SDG Reporting in collaboration with the UNDP on the listed companies and started the SDG Leadership Programme, which is an awareness-raising initiative for companies to start the SDG journey. The Pakistan Stock Exchange (PSX) is also encouraging SDG reporting by inserting it in their assessment criteria of successful firms,” Nazish Shekha, researcher at the Centre for Excellence in Responsible Business, said on the participation of the corporate sector in SDGs.

“People, planet and profits are interlinked and need to be aligned for stability,” noted a CEO reluctant to own the quote.

Ehsan Malik, CEO of the Pakistan Business Council, forwarded his view: “With the need for both inclusive and sustainable development in Pakistan, the private sector can use guidance from the SDGs to develop a business strategy that can lead to long-term value creation. This is an important factor for investors who are looking to invest in businesses, which have positive social and environmental impacts. Through this strategy, investors can

channel capital towards impact-focused opportunities, which currently stand at more than $3 trillion in investments.”

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, September 21st, 2020