Global Trends by Martin Khor

Monday 22 April 2013

Goals to save the world

Governments and NGOs at the United Nations are formulating a set of economic, social and environment goals to catalyse actions to improve people’s lives and save the environment.


What goals and targets can be set to guide countries and people around the world to take actions to promote economic growth, create jobs, improve people’s well-being and save the environment at the same time?

This ambitious task is being attempted by governments, and watched by civil society groups, at the United Nations.

They have set themselves the difficult, some might say impossible, aim of agreeing to goals that must combine economic, social and environmental concerns within an overarching framework of sustainable development. 

For example, significant economic growth and full employment are among the goals that almost all countries aspire to.

But achieving this is not good enough.  Growth has to create jobs to absorb the unemployed and rising population.  It should be “inclusive” so that the benefits are spread throughout society and especially reach the poor.  It must also be environmentally sound.

Similarly, strong actions must be taken to turn back the environmental crisis.  But measures to curb climate change, reduce pollution and stop deforestation should be designed to benefit and not be at the expense of people, especially rural communities and the urban poor.    

This important exercise of setting goals that will apply to all countries is being done as a follow up to the Sustainable Development Summit held last July in Rio, Brazil.

That summit adopted a lengthy declaration, The Future We Want.  It mandated a United Nations working group to formulate Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that will fire the imagination of the public worldwide.

The goals should cover the three pillars or dimensions of sustainable development – economic, social and environmental.  Setting goals, with targets, in one pillar alone is challenging enough but keeping in mind the other two pillars at the same time will require even more creativity.

The SDGs group met at the UN in New York for the third time last week and debated the overall conceptual aspects of SDGs as well as the concepts on a single issue – poverty eradication.

Many delegates proposed that there be goals and targets not only for countries to achieve but also aimed at reforming the international economic and social systems.

Developing countries made the point that goals such as full employment, poverty eradication and providing health care and education for all cannot be achieved unless they obtain international support and unless international barriers are removed or at least reduced.

The supports needed include aid and other financing especially in times of recession or external shocks, technology transfer, and pro-development trade rules.  The barriers to be removed include high prices of technology and needed products such as medicines (often due to monopolies), unfair agricultural subsidies by rich countries, and inappropriate conditions for loans or aid, as well as unfair trade and intellectual property rules.

The Group of 77, representing developing countries, argued that the SDGs should include the international factors, under a section on Global Partnership for Development. This should cover global commitments to support developing countries in implementing the SDGs.

Each SDG that is agreed to should also be linked to the international factors. The G77 mentioned these as actions by developed countries such as targets for financing, associated trade and economic policies, technology transfer and other resources to assist and enable the developing countries’ efforts to achieve the goals.

Ambassador Peter Thomson of Fiji, chair of the G77, also stressed that the global economic and financial crisis should be placed at its heart of the SDG agenda in order for it to be relevant, and include the social and environmental crises as well.  “It must address the structural factors and root causes that give rise to these crises,” he said.

‘The current turmoil in the world economy demonstrates that the international arrangements lack mechanisms to prevent financial crises with global repercussions. It is clear that the international monetary and financial arrangements need deep-set systemic reforms.’  

He stressed the urgent need for macroeconomic coordination in order to achieve a long lasting recovery; disciplines of the macroeconomic order must be applied to all countries and the financial sector should be made transparent and properly regulated.

The G77 also proposed issues from which the SDG can be drawn.

Economic issues include an adequate rate of inclusive economic growth; employment opportunities and decent work; financial stability; international financing for development; external debt restructuring; trade and development; technology transfer; industrialization in developing countries; sustainable agriculture; addressing the problem of speculation in commodity markets; productive capacity, infrastructure development and sustainable transport; having adequate policy space and instruments for sustainable development, as well as ensuring increased voice for developing countries in global economic governance.

Social issues include poverty; promoting social protection measures; greater equality at national and international levels; gender equality and empowerment of women; ensuring access of all particularly the poor to affordable health, food, energy, water and sanitation, and education beyond the primary level; access to an effective justice system; and policies and measures to mitigate food security problems.

Environmental issues include the atmosphere and climate change; natural hazards; toxic chemical and waste; forests; oceans and seas; water; biodiversity; sustainable cities and human settlements; sustainable agriculture; desertification and land degradation; and sustainable consumption and production patterns.

As can be seen, this is a long list of the problems and aspirations the world should address. The developed countries will also add other issues to such a list.

Putting goals and targets to all or some of these issues is a complex but exciting task.  This process should not be done by governments alone.  Indeed, many NGOs and researchers are also getting into the act of selecting priorities for the world to tackle through goals and targets.

Of course, there are pitfalls to relying only on goals and targets.  Saving the environment and promoting the right economic and social policies cannot be achieved only through setting goals.

Critics also point out that it is too simplistic and it could be misleading to prioritise certain issues at the expense of others left out, as happened with the previous exercise of formulating the Millennium Development Goals.   Therefore the goals and targets should be chosen carefully and moreover supplemented by a longer action plan that includes and explains issues in a more detailed way.