For a greater global role, take SDGs seriously
On 19 July, India presented its first voluntary national report on the implementation of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) at the UN. Although India was just one of 43 countries to do so this year, it was, doubtless, the most anticipated report; there is broad consensus that the success or failure of the hard-negotiated 17 SDGs will largely depend on whether India is able to achieve them or not.
For instance, the target of Goal 1—to “End poverty in all its forms everywhere”—is unlikely to be achieved unless India attains it. According to one estimate, India alone is home to more than 30% of the global estimate of over one billion people who live in extreme poverty. According to another estimate, India has more poor than 26 of the poorest countries in Africa. In fact, according to World Bank president Jim Yong Kim, a single Indian state—Uttar Pradesh (UP)—accounts for 8% of the world’s population living in extreme poverty. Thus, if UP were to succeed, the world would be well on its way to achieving SDG Goal 1.
Clearly then, India’s voluntary reporting at the High Level Political Forum (HLPF) on sustainable development was the perfect opportunity to not only present India’s commendable achievements since the SDGs were adopted in 2015 but also enhance India’s global standing and leadership credentials at the UN. After all this was as much a political forum as it was a discussion on development. While India partly achieved the first objective of highlighting some of the progress it had made on select SDGs, it did not make as much of a convincing case of leading the world on SDGs.
Consider the following: while the Narendra Modi government asserts that its national development goals are “mirrored in the SDGs”, and that as many as 11 of the 17 SDGs—including “Goal 5: Achieve gender equality and empower women and girls” and “Goal 11: Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable”—are already being worked on, it chose to selectively report on just six goals (Goal 1—end poverty; Goal 2—end hunger; Goal 3—ensure healthy lives; Goal 5—achieve gender equality; Goal 9—build resilient infrastructure; Goal 14—conserve and sustainably use oceans; and Goal 17— revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development). India argued this year’s HLPF was focusing only on these six.
In contrast, an umbrella of Indian civil society organizations, including some representing marginalized and minority groups, led by the Wada Na Todo Abhiyan, highlighted several other crucial SDGs, notably Goal 16—promotion of peaceful and inclusive societies—in their shadow report. In doing so the Wada Na Todo Abhiyan revealed another unintended benefit of the SDGs—the creation of rights movements among Indians to achieve the goals. This aspect has been completely missed out in the official reporting, which still treats the achievement of the goals as optional rather than mandatory.
Moreover, even on the six goals the official report is found wanting. For instance, while the report makes a strong connection between national economic growth (facilitated by foreign direct investment and the private sector) and achieving the SDGs, it pays only lip service to the role of the corporate world. Similarly, while the official presentation describes civil society organizations as “key stakeholders”, the report make a perfunctory one paragraph reference to them and their imprimatur on the report is impossible to discern.
In contrast, the role of state governments, many of whom have adopted the SDGs, partly to leverage greater largesse from the Central government, has been justifiably highlighted. The efforts of many of the states, including Bihar, have been stressed though UP is a crucial omission.
The report also does not present a unifying theme (apart from the unimaginative Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam). In fact, parts of the report do not add up to a neat summation. If the report—prepared by NITI Aayog—was part of an inter-agency process as might be expected, then the process needs to be revisited.
Apart from the missing grand strategy, the report also makes little effort to connect how India’s success in the SDGs would benefit not only India but also other developing countries. It also fails to make the case that India’s achievement of the SDGs will enable it take on more global governance responsibilities.
Instead, the report makes a cursory reference to “South-South” cooperation, fails to mention South-North-South triangular cooperation entirely, and yet pleads for more overseas development assistance from the leading Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) donors. In doing so, it dents India’s case for taking on more global responsibility and also its burgeoning role as a donor. According to one estimate, India now provides development assistance to the tune $4.5 billion per year, which could easily be reduced if the national development goals become a priority.
India’s inability to link its SDG efforts with its global ambitions is telling, especially when compared to China. Last year, while presenting its voluntary national report, China highlighted its presidency of the G20 as being key for supporting industrialization in Africa and also announced the setting up of the China-UN Peace and Development Fund to “finance projects concerning peace and development”.
While India might overcome the various challenges in implementing the SDGs, including developing reliable indicators to measure implementation, the efforts will have limited impact unless India also successfully leverages the SDGs to play a greater global role.
W.P.S. Sidhu is visiting professor at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs and associate fellow at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy.
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