Sustainable Development Goals

August 10, 2015, On August 2, 2015, the UN Inter-Governmental negotiations on the post-2015 development agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals’ process (SDGs) came to fruition with consensus on the outcome document, titled ‘Transforming our World: The 2030 agenda for Global Action’. As a follow up to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which will come to term in September 2015, the SDGs are the world’s next big promise. Framed as 17 goals with 169 outcome-based targets, the framework is meant to be embraced by governments later this year at the UN General Assembly and Pakistan will be amongst the 190+ countries, expected to adopt it officially.

2015 is a watershed moment for ‘development’ for several reasons. In particular, owing to three major international development convenings, each of which is pointing towards a development paradigm, which is quite distinct from what the world has known since the MDGs were adopted in 2000. In July, the Third International Conference on Financing for Development (FfD) framed a new lens on development financing. The UN meeting to adopt the SDGs is scheduled for September and December brings hopes for a legally binding treaty on climate change.

The emerging new development narrative brings in its wake four salient changes compared to what was the convention in the era of the MDGs. First, a shift in responsibility from ‘donors’ to ‘countries’. The post-cold war optimism and G8 fiscal space, a milieu in which the MDGs were born are a stark contrast to the austerity, which marks the world today. Therefore, whereas the MDGs were developed for the aid system, the onus of responsibility for implementing the SDGs is squarely on governments. In its ‘Means of Implementation’ section, the outcome document clearly outlines that “each country has the primary responsibility for its own economic and social development….”, as it should.

Secondly, development thinking has become more systems-focused, which is evidenced in the emphasis on “institutions and infrastructure” in the new development narrative—and just as well since systems plagued by show-stopping constrains cannot deliver on desired goals.

Thirdly, there is a clear shift from the ‘future of people’ to the ‘future of planet’, as is evidenced by the five “Ps” of the 2030 universal agenda for sustainable development—People, planet, prosperity, peace and partnerships. Sustainability is the organizing principle of the new development paradigm with the goals’ text, referring to it more than 10 times in terms of sustainable economic growth, sustainable consumption and production, sustainable agriculture, sustainable management of water and sanitation, sustainable energy, sustainable industrialization, sustainable cities, sustainable oceans and sustainable terrestrial ecosystems. It has been reiterated all along that the process of achieving economic and human development goals must respect the earth’s natural systems, which provide natural resources and ecosystems services for the economy and the society.

In the fourth place, the new framework underscores the importance of inter-connectedness of risks and the sectoral inter-dependencies involved in public policy solutions, therefore making a case for whole of government and whole of society approaches and partnerships, an area where public institutions are particularly weak.

Through 17 asks, the SDGs also implicitly call for systemic governance reform, which is the first step to delivering on its wide-ranging agenda at the country level. This in its own right underscores the need for a major international development effort.

There is a fair share of systems-level reorganization that is needed domestically in Pakistan to deliver on this agenda over time. This notwithstanding, what should Pakistan do in the short term, in the run up to September, prior to officially adopting the framework in the next few weeks?

Several steps should be considered by the government, beginning with assigning focal institutional responsibility in the country. Getting clarity on where the country stands with respect to policy positions in relation to the 17 goals should also be a logical first step. Many elements of the new agenda are part of existing policy norms in Pakistan and a review is needed, so that Pakistan pitches a clear position at the UN Summit. The UN process to develop indicators will soon follow, which warrants assigning responsibility as well. Clarity on the federal government’s reporting mechanisms is another imperative.

Also, we must view this in the context of the post 18th Amendment lens, where a complex dynamic is at play. The federal government has responsibility for ensuring compliance with international agreements, as mandated by the Constitution’s Entry 32 of the Federal Legislative List Part I. Provincial governments exercise control over several mandates but sustainability is a shared national agenda—not federal, not provincial, but a subject of the federation. It would make sense to convene stakeholders in a timely manner for a discourse on roles in that regard.  

The SDGs draw attention to myriad issues, in which our country is already mired. Pakistan should accord attention to the SDGs for reasons beyond its responsibility as a member of the committee of nations given that the aspirations centred on building peaceful, just and inclusive societies, human rights and environmental protection, women’s empowerment, and universal access to education, health and social protection are deeply in the country’s own interest.


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