When goals are egalitarian, society must chase them with a lover’s heart. Some nations are progressing fast on Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and some are not. Practicalities aside, the basic reason is that some nations have fully committed to SDGs while others have not. Sadly, Pakistan seems to have put itself in the second category.

Societal ownership of SDGs seems amiss. There are no socio-economic policies in place to make progress towards meeting the goals. Resource reallocation required to hit SDGs is not at the heart of economic policies. Some policies for better documentation like digitisation of financial transactions, financial inclusion, e-commerce and e-banking are pursued. By extension, these policies can also help with women empowerment and eradication of poverty and hunger through the promotion of micro and small business enterprises.

But SDG-centric outcome of these policies cannot be achieved in the absence of e-governance policies that still remain a dream. The reason is our hybrid political system and over-aggrandised state institutions have an aversion to transparency and accountability for all and unambiguous separation of authority and responsibility. This keeps the entire policy push for SDGs devoid of spirit.

Fiscal and monetary policy coordination does exist. But its purpose keeps changing to suit short-term interests — sometimes pro-politics like what we saw in the previous PML-N regime and sometimes to accommodate the International Monetary Fund conditions that we are experiencing now.

SDG-centric outcome of these policies cannot be achieved. The reason is our hybrid political system and over-aggrandised state institutions have an aversion to transparency and accountability

That is understandable given the fragility of our democracy and the resultant inability of the political class to use fiscal and monetary coordination as a pivot for promoting SDGs.

But SDGs are about our society and its future. They cannot be left at the mercy of the status quo, political or otherwise. The Covid-19 pandemic has shaken different societies including our own to their core. Now, we see that societal ownership of anti-pandemic state measures is fast building up.

Pakistan will have to show similar societal ownership of SDGs. There can be no other way of meeting such lofty targets like eradication of poverty and hunger, ensuring quality education and health and well-being facilities to all and achieving gender equality, to name a few out of the list of 17.

By the end of 2020, only 14.5m of bank accounts in Pakistan were owned by women — and 38.7m by men

Even when SDGs are owned at a societal level, policies will be required to meet the targets. Since all the 17 SDGs are interwoven, the best approach to achieving them could be to find connectivity of various political, social and economic policies. In the domain of economic policies, the challenge facing Pakistan is how to weave a web of SDG-promoting policies using some new initiatives and remodelling or improving the existing ones.

For example, policies on domestic and foreign trade and investment, policies on skill development and higher education and policies on energy and environment etc need to be so aligned to each other that positive results of one particular policy can create ripples of positive results in other policies as well. This is a big challenge and meeting it requires not only expertise but a National Will.

“Women’s ownership or control of land is critical to their economic empowerment,” asserts the SDGs 2021 report. Banks and financial institutions can help women gain ownership or control of land through pro-women agricultural lending. Sadly, it is not happening in Pakistan.

To add insult to injury, even the financial inclusion of women is not progressing well. By end of 2020, only 14.5 million bank accounts in Pakistan were owned by women — and 38.7m by men.

Only recently the State Bank of Pakistan (SBP) has launched Banking on Equality, a policy to reduce the gender gap in financial inclusion. The policy is expected to ensure that by 2023 the number of active bank accounts owned by women will hit the target of 20m.

Customers’ Digital Onboarding Framework, another initiative introduced recently by the SBP should provide further impetus to meet this target. This initiative is designed to help all citizens instantly open bank accounts without physically visiting bank branches.

Reducing the gender gap in financial inclusion can contribute meaningfully to SDGs only if women actually experience enhanced access to bank financing and insurance facilities. But the problem is that even in agriculture, where women participation in work is the highest, financing made available via bank accounts officially owned by women go to male family members or worse, to big landlords for whom they work.

This issue cannot be addressed unless the political system of the country identifies it as a barrier to SDGs, finds out and present its socio-economic solutions. That requires a rethink about resource allocations at federal and provincial levels and reinvigoration of the third-tier governance. The SBP’s policies for financial inclusion can produce results that can give us numerical evidence of women empowerment.

But underneath such numerical evidence may remain buried several ugly facts of the status quo. The SDGs are about changing those ugly facts for the better. And, this purpose cannot be served with a central bank’s policy or for that matter any institution’s policy alone.

The same holds true for small loan seekers in the agriculture and services sector. Increased volumes offered to micro, small and medium enterprises may paint a rosy picture of financial inclusion. But if such lending is accompanied by higher energy costs, can we expect that MSMEs would play their due role in the eradication of hunger and poverty?

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, September 27th, 2021

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