Eleventh edition of the Asia Pacific Forum on Sustainable Development (APFSD) recently held. in Bangkok. Source: ESCAP - Photo: 2024

Will Agenda 2030 be Postponed to 2062?

By Jan Servaes

BANGKOK| 28 March 2024 (IDN) — The widening gap between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ is reflected in the progress reports on the feasibility of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

After the African Union already postponed the date for achieving their development goals to 2063, the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) also fears that these cannot be achieved before 2062, which is at least 32 years later than planned.

During the eleventh edition of the Asia Pacific Forum on Sustainable Development (APFSD), recently held in Bangkok, the main item on the agenda was the discussion of the implementation status of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), or the so-called Agenda 2030.

Traditionally, the event also coincided with a new regional progress report on the SDGs. Once again, the Asia Pacific SDG Progress Report confirmed the dire status of the region’s quest for a sustainable, just and more resilient future.

While there have been some improvements, especially in reducing the number of people living in poverty (Goal 1) and promoting sustainable industry, innovation and infrastructure (Goal 9), the vast majority of targets and indicators are not on track.

The Europe Sustainable Development Report 2023/24 also emphasizes that at the current pace, 1/3 of the SDG targets will not be achieved by the EU by 2030. With significant differences between European countries. These range from an average of a quarter in Northern and Western Europe to approximately half in Southern Europe and Central and Eastern Europe. The report highlights in particular the stagnation and even reversal that has occurred in many European countries in terms of social objectives, with increasing problems around access to and quality of services for all, as well as poverty and material deprivation that have been at least partly caused by multiple crises since 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic has had devastating consequences and ongoing crises and conflicts are disrupting global supply chains and creating unwanted uncertainty.

Globally, the international financial architecture is failing to channel global savings into SDG investments at the required pace and scale, leading to a reversal of SDG progress in many parts of the world, especially in the poorest and most vulnerable countries. The total investment costs to achieve the SDGs by 2030 are between $5 and $7 trillion per year globally and between $3.3 and $4.5 trillion per year in developing countries.

As we argued earlier, the absence of an 18th SDG – Communication for all – is a missed opportunity.

Growing inequality

The richest one percent in Thailand controls 58 percent of the country’s wealth and the top 10 percent earned 35 times more than the bottom 10 percent. In Indonesia, the four richest men there have amassed more wealth than the poorest 100 million people, and about 50 percent of the country’s wealth is held by the top one percent. In Vietnam, 210 super-rich earn more than enough in one year to lift 3.2 million people out of poverty. The richest man in the country earns more in a day than the poorest person does in ten years. While only 0.6 percent of Malaysia’s 31 million people live below the poverty line, 34 percent of the country’s indigenous population and seven percent of children in low-cost urban housing projects live in poverty. In the Philippines, the average annual household income of the top 10 percent in 2015 was estimated at $14,708, nine times more than that of the bottom 10 percent, which was $1,609.

This is the uncomfortable truth about Southeast Asia, home to some of the fastest growing economies in the world, with a combined economy of $2.6 trillion, or about the size of Britain’s economy.

According to the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific report, the Southeast Asian sub-region has not been successful in its efforts to reduce inequality. In fact, the region is the only sub-region within Asia-Pacific where inequality is still growing. Southeast Asia is also the only sub-region where the situation is deteriorating for SDG Goal 2, aimed at zero hunger, food security, improved nutrition and sustainable agriculture.

“Southeast Asia is the sub-region that has made the most progress towards achieving Goal 9, focused on industry, innovation and infrastructure. The country has also made some progress towards Goal 8, aimed at decent work and economic growth. Yet Southeast Asia has seen inequality rise, a setback that must be overcome to achieve Goal 10 (reducing inequality within and between countries),” the report stated.

The uncomfortable truth is that inequality runs deep in many parts of Asia and the Pacific, writes Shamshad Akhtar, Executive Secretary of ESCAP. “There is no silver bullet. But an integrated, coordinated approach can eventually return our economies and societies to a sustainable footing,” he wrote.

The ESCAP publication also reported on Southeast Asia’s struggles in reducing suicide mortality, reducing road deaths, increasing access to safe drinking water, improving manufacturing employment and improving health of the oceans. Southeast Asian countries see the loss of natural forests accelerating and air pollution increasing every year. This is one of the reasons why the sub-region has not made progress in achieving the SDGs on climate action and life underwater.

But it is not all gloomy for the countries of the ASEAN bloc. As a sub-region, Southeast Asia is on track to achieve 20 of the 53 goals. Progress is good for Goal 4 (Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all), Goal 7 (Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all), Goal 9 (Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization and promote innovation), and Goal 11 (Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable). Progress in Southeast Asia is better than in the Asia-Pacific sub-regions on all these objectives. Southeast Asia has also achieved the level of quality education targeted under the 2030 SDG.

However, inequality will have negative consequences for economic growth, as well as political and social problems. Inequality, exacerbated by food insecurity, loss of natural capital such as biodiversity and ecosystem services from forest and maritime ecosystems, as well as unaddressed climate issues and impacts, could jeopardize ASEAN’s future growth. Therefore, regional and national policymakers must reconsider their priorities and work together to prevent the current trend from continuing.

Asia and the Pacific region

How much progress has been made on each of the 17 goals of the SDGs? For an overview, see here. The length of each bar shows the region/subregion’s progress since 2015. If a bar reaches or exceeds the current year line, the region/subregion has made the expected progress to date. However, whether a goal can be achieved by 2030 depends not only on the distance covered so far, but also on the pace of progress in the future.

Hence, progress towards the 2030 Agenda remains uneven and inadequate within the region. Asia and the Pacific will make only a third of the necessary progress by 2030.

From 2023, the average progress towards achieving all SDGs has increased incrementally to 17 percent. An unfavorable global context contributes to this slow performance.

These challenges are gradually becoming apparent in the data. Recalibrating domestic policies is imperative to address these challenges. Positive steps have been taken towards eradicating poverty (Goal 1) and strengthening sustainable industry, innovation and infrastructure (Goal 9) with improved access to information and communications technology.

In other critical areas, however, progress has been more modest. Efforts to reduce hunger (Goal 2), improve health and well-being (Goal 3), ensure the availability of clean water and sanitation (Goal 6), expand affordable and clean energy (Goal 7 ) and building sustainable cities and communities (Goal 11) are less pronounced and require more attention for substantive improvement.

Highlighting climate action (Goal 13) as an immediate priority remains imperative, especially given its continued decline. Integrating robust climate action measures into national policies, strategies and plans is of paramount importance. Resilience and adaptability to tackle climate-related hazards such as natural disasters need to be strengthened. However, available data to measure progress towards this goal remains woefully inadequate, underscoring the critical need for strengthened statistical systems to support effective policy responses. At the same time, urgent corrective measures are warranted to improve access to decent work and support economic growth (Objective 8). Similarly, promoting responsible consumption and production (Goal 12), protecting life underwater (Goal 14) and life on land (Goal 15) are critical for the Asia-Pacific region to continue its progress to accelerate the 2030 Agenda. Furthermore, establishing partnerships that strengthen sustainable development (Goal 17) is indispensable.

Notably, these areas have seen the least progress since 2015, requiring increased attention and coordinated efforts to achieve substantial improvements.

Among the different groups, small island developing states (so-called SIDS) stand out as the most deprived, facing significant challenges in making progress. towards the SDGs.

Historically, the progress of countries in special situations, including SIDS, Least Developed Countries (LDCs) and Landlocked Developing Countries (LLDCs), until 2019 closely mirrored that of the broader region. However, since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, combined progress in these countries has slowed significantly.

The current pace of progress in countries in special situations remains insufficient to achieve even one of the SDGs. Among these groups, SIDS face the greatest challenge. The pandemic caused a serious setback, wiping out all the progress SIDS had made since 2015, leaving them unable to keep up with the rest of the region. Compared to all other countries in special situations in the region, the SIDS show much slower progress towards almost all SDGs.

Although the 2030 Agenda is universal, the effective implementation of the SDGs varies significantly between different segments of the population. The Asia and the Pacific SDG Progress Report 2024 shows progress towards the SDGs across several dimensions, including gender, urbanization, education, age and income. Within Asia and the Pacific, the report shows that women and girls face significant challenges when it comes to accessing education and employment. These challenges make it more difficult for them to enter the labor market.

Location remains a key factor in determining levels of poverty and inequality. People living in rural areas face pronounced disadvantages, such as limited access to drinking water and sanitation facilities. In addition, the lower availability of clean fuels for cooking in these areas contributes to serious respiratory diseases. In general, urban areas have better conditions, but paradoxically, it is in these areas that the poorest boys and girls face significant barriers to completing upper secondary education.

Success stories in individual countries illustrate strategies to strengthen data systems and policies in biodiversity and nature conservation, public digital infrastructure, social protection and access to education.

Well-informed environmental decisions are crucial to achieving climate action goals (Goal 13). In the Maldives, improved climate change adaptation, mitigation and conservation of marine and coastal biodiversity has not only demonstrated the effectiveness of an integrated strategy, but also laid the foundation for replicable practices across the region.

The implementation of national environmental portals in 14 SIDS in the Pacific has highlighted the importance of enhanced regional cooperation and partnerships, crucial elements for promoting sustainable development (Goal 17). This joint effort has strengthened the capacity for reliable data production and management, promoting informed decision-making in the Marshall Islands, Samoa, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu.

Furthermore, the integration of national strategies aimed at mitigating and adapting to climate change has played a crucial role in advancing data collection and analysis. These efforts have been particularly instrumental in driving initiatives aimed at achieving affordable clean energy and meeting emissions reduction targets in countries such as Fiji, Kiribati and Tonga.

A wide range of measures have been initiated across the region to support population groups in vulnerable situations. Vietnam’s extensive nationwide digital training programs attest to the importance of public-private partnerships. These collaborations have significantly accelerated digital transformation, especially in bridging the skills and employment gap for youth and migrant workers, in line with the objectives set out in Goal 8.

Inadequate data

However, assessing progress towards the SDGs is hampered by insufficient data. Of the 231 SDG indicators, only 133 have sufficient data to assess progress, demonstrating that data unavailability remains a significant barrier to achieving the 2030 Agenda.

In the Asia-Pacific region, on average, only 52 percent of indicators have two or more data points, while more than a third of indicators have no data at all. Despite a positive trajectory indicating an increase in annual data availability, the pace of improvement in data availability has slowed. Gender equality (Objective 5) and peace, justice and strong institutions (Objective 16) remain data-insufficient. Conversely, goals such as good health and well-being (Goal 3), affordable and clean energy (Goal 7) and living on land (Goal 15) recorded greater data availability, with coverage reaching more than 70 percent of SDG indicators.

A positive development occurred in 2023 when the increased use of progress assessment dashboards in voluntary national review processes strengthened the use of SDG indicators by Asia-Pacific countries. Despite this progress, improving coordination, data sharing and data integration remains a top priority to successfully achieve the SDGs in Asia and the Pacific.

Call to action

Achieving the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development in Asia and the Pacific will require an extraordinary collective effort. On the current trajectory, the region will not achieve any of the 17 SDGs within the agreed deadline. This worrying situation warrants an immediate call for action from governments and civil society. Unfortunately, that sense of urgency seems to be missing.

Even at the SDG Summit, which released its Political Declaration in September 2023, concrete measures were not taken. The way power is exercised and shared between the people and the ‘power’ is paramount to initiating change. But, as the example of Thailand indicates, the traditional ‘elite’ remains deaf to the problems at the grassroots.

Different forms of policymaking must become a central aspect of the conversation about the transformations that Agenda 2030 can bring, with real, consistent and positive consequences for the lives of the impoverished majority. Making Agenda 30 much more inclusive, accessible and relevant for the citizens of the region require not only more resources, but also a change in mindset, something that cannot be underestimated given the conservative mindset prevalent in the Asia-Pacific region. Civil society, and especially young people, must be able to enter into dialogue with each other in order to implement proposed changes step by step.

To avoid remaining a ‘talking shop’, the way must also be cleared for experiments in more participatory and bottom-up decision-making, where young people and other members of civil society have a real opportunity to influence the policy-making process. [IDN-InDepthNews]

Photo: Eleventh edition of the Asia Pacific Forum on Sustainable Development (APFSD) recently held. in Bangkok. Source: ESCAP

IDN is the flagship agency of the Non-profit International Press Syndicate

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