SDGs and grim global realities

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Actors stage a tug of war between the rich and the poor to depict the world’s struggle against inequality on September 24, 2015 in New York ahead of the UN 2015 Sustainable Development Summit. DON EMMERT/AFP

In recent times, the development discourse all over the world has been heavily influenced by the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) set up by the UN in 2015 for the year 2030.

The goals are in the form of specific targets set up for key areas of development, protection of the environment and various forms of life, et cetera.

If these goals are achieved then these 15 years will be the most successful years in human history in terms of reducing distress. Hunger is sought to be almost eliminated while poverty will be reduced greatly.

If SDGs help to establish the right priorities in terms of such objectives then this is a very good initiative.

However we cannot ignore some disturbing aspects. The most ambitious goals of reducing distress have been set for a time period (2015-2030) about which other available evidence indicates may be a period with some very adverse trends.

For example, if we look at the previous 15 to 30 years, then it is clear that the world has been passing through times of very high and perhaps unprecedented inequality.

The SDGs also talk about reducing inequality, but not specifically about how exactly these trends will be checked and how actually the forces responsible for these trends will be checked.

Destructive weapons overload

Similarly it is clear that these are times of very heavy spending on arms and ammunition, as well as increasing overall military budgets.

The world is not only overloaded with destructive weapons (including weapons of mass destruction) but this high-risk load is spreading and increasing rapidly.

The statistics of high arms spending are generally presented mainly in the context of the spending of various governments, but in addition there is also the heavy spending on arms and ammunition, legal and illegal, by individuals, criminals and private militias. All this has been increasing.

The sum total of government and private expenditure on arms and ammunition is truly massive. This is also very expensive in terms of snatching away resources from meeting the needs of people.

There are deeply entrenched reasons why weapons go on proliferating despite everyone knowing how destructive and expensive these are. There are also very powerful forces which want this to continue.

But SDG documents do not tell us exactly how this trend can be checked or resolved, or what big, new and different initiatives will be taken on this important issue.

Thirdly, the period of SDGs is also a highly sensitive one when life-threatening environmental changes like climate change are likely to increase and cause a lot of destruction and distress.

This has been well recognised for about three decades, yet the world has badly lagged behind in terms of the steps necessary for checking this.

There are powerful forces which are responsible for this and there are also important weaknesses in the efforts.

The SDG documents do not tell us how these forces will be challenged, and how these weaknesses will be removed.

As there are no details of any specific initiatives which are significantly different from the earlier efforts that failed, there is no assurance at all that inequality (and the huge wasteful consumption which inevitably accompanies big inequalities) will be curbed, and there is even less assurance that the destructive arms proliferation will be checked.

Again there is no assurance that climate change will be checked before it is too late and tipping points are reached.

In such a situation it is not at all clear how highly ambitious goals of meeting basic needs of all human beings and particularly all other forms of life will be achieved.

Tough questions

Thus, while the SDGs are laudable objectives and can be helpful in improving priorities to some extent, several questions arise when these are examined with reference to the grim realities of several important existing trends.What are the structural problems due to which the performance of the earlier few decades has been so disappointing?

What are the weaknesses at the level of global governance due to which the most serious global problems (WMDs, climate change, ocean pollution, currency and trade reforms et cetera.) could not be tackled effectively so far.

We need to find frank and truthful answers to these tough questions, and we need to take the necessary remedial action on the basis of these truthful answers for correcting structural problems and injustices as well as for significantly improving global governance and its capacity to solve the most pressing problems.

It is not adequate merely to set up good targets for priority areas, we should face the grim reality of the very tough conditions within which these targets have to be reached and take adequate steps to improve the overall conditions. The Statesman/asia news network