Even with a focused approach, India will face several challenges, external and internal, in implementing selected Sustainable Development Goals
Even before the historic 70th United Nations General Assembly meeting later this month formally adopts the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), they have become the centre of a raging controversy. At one end, they have been described as “stupid development goals" and dismissed as “worse than useless" and unimplementable. At the other extreme, they’re seen as a formula to end poverty and build global prosperity. The reality lies somewhere in the middle.
The SDG agenda negotiated by the UN membership over the past three years is, perhaps, the most ambitious roadmap ever drawn up by the world body. It lists 17 goals ranging from “Goal 1. End poverty in all its forms everywhere" through “Goal 10. Reduce inequality within and among countries" to “Goal 17. Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development" and a staggering 169 targets that need to be monitored and implemented by 2030. In contrast, the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), adopted by countries in 2000 to reduce extreme poverty by 2015, had a mere eight goals and 18 targets—less than half and around one-tenth—of the SDG goals and targets respectively. Yet, while many countries, including India, made significant progress, they did not meet all the MDG targets. If the MDGs were relatively successful, it is because of the domestic efforts of a single country—China—that pulled more people out of poverty than any other. Similarly, UN experts opine the overall success or failure of the SDGs will also be determined by the results of a single country—India.
Today, India is home to more than 30% of the global estimate of over 1 billion people who live in extreme poverty. In fact, according to World Bank President Jim Kim, a single Indian state—Uttar Pradesh (UP)—accounts for 8% of the world’s population living in extreme poverty. If UP were to succeed, the world will be on its way to achieving SDG One.
The Narendra Modi government has already acknowledged India’s pivotal role and responsibility in ensuring the success of the SDGs. It has asserted 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 part of their agenda and Modi will be there at UN when these goals are adopted to underline India’s commitment. It is sensible in being selective about the SDGs that it will focus on.
However, even with this focused approach, India will face several challenges, external and internal, in implementing selected SDGs. Externally, India will have to raise adequate resources and also acquire the necessary technology to help achieve its SDG objectives. While effort has been made in this direction, it is yet to achieve necessary results.
The internal challenges for India are even more daunting. While the MDGs were implemented primarily by the central government, there is broad agreement that the SDGs can only be achieved with the help of state and local governments, industry and civil society. This all-of-government, cross-domain approach has not been undertaken before on such a scale. Although the newly constituted NITI Aayog is working towards creating this crucial alliance, it remains a work in progress at best.
In particular, the panchayat, which will be crucial to ensuring inclusion at the local level, remains the weakest link. Similarly, the government’s selective approach in working with civil society is another hurdle to the SDGs’ success.
Finally, NITI Aayog, which also has the task of monitoring progress on implementation of the SDGs, will have to innovate to keep track of all 169 targets. These formidable challenges notwithstanding, were India to succeed in addressing them, it will not only help achieve the SDGs, but would also put India on the path of becoming a global power.
W.P.S. Sidhu is senior fellow for foreign policy at Brookings India and a senior fellow at the Center on International Cooperation, New York University. He writes on strategic affairs every fortnight.