UNDP speaks about improving SDGs at the European Parliament

In a sitting of the Development Committee (DEVE) of the European Parliament on Tuesday 20 February 2018, Achim Steiner, Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), discussed the shortcomings of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and ways in which these need to be reestablished. He talked about the mounting pressure on people and the environment, including from ongoing conflicts and displacement as well as extreme weather phenomena such as in the Horn of Africa.

The SDGs’ failures and the new strategic plan

The 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were adopted in 2015 to cover a wide range of development-related issues. They replaced the earlier Millennium Development Goals. The goal of the SDGs, also known as the 2030 development agenda, is to “transform the world.”However, the rate of progress is slow, according to the United Nations, and already there are doubts whether the goals will be obtained. Some critics have stated that the SDGs are by nature contradictory; for instance, seeking GDP growth can be seen as contradictory to the SDG related to ecology or increasing wages can work against the cost of living. Thus there is an inherent tug of war between different SDGs. Another important factor is the high cost of achieving the SDGs; the Economist has estimated that alleviating poverty and achieving the other sustainable development goals will require about $2-$3 trillion USD per year for the next 15 years which is “pure fantasy”. Apart from these however, progress towards the achieving the SDGs suffers from continued conflicts and environmental disasters.

UNDP Administrator Achim Steiner discussed the SDGs’ shortcomings in the European Parliament last week, as well as the UNDPs plans to strengthen the development agenda. He explained that the SDGs were conceptualized on the basis of economic growth as the driver of all the economic policy and the liberalization of the markets as a precondition for globalization to succeed. In other words, economic success was the driver of all policy processes. This is, according to Steiner, what the UNDP seeks to avoid now -the SDGs should first of all be a framework for dealing with the complexity of development, and they should not be seen as vehicles of prioritizing economic development, Steiner argued.

“We are looking also at the SGDs as a framework for mobilizing resources well beyond public finance”, Steiner noticed. As for investments, the UNDP wants to engage the private sector, financial markets and domestic resources.Discussing the challenges of connecting finance with development investment opportunities, Steiner brought the example of the estimated reserves from Africa’s central banks: even though they account for about 1000 Billion Dollars, 600-700 billion dollars currently are not invested in the African economy or in the African continent; on the other hand “they are packed in the stock exchanges of NY, Hong Kong and Zurich.”

The interoperability of the SDGs

Steiner described the SDGs’ premise should be that investing in one goal must yield benefits for other goals too. For instance, dealing with climate change and galvanizing economies, “a shortcut of access to clean energy”, as Steiner said, can be created in Africa. In turn, this can allow looking at renewable energy as an accelerator, i.e.to use energy as a policy area that when tackled can directly affect multiple development priorities and have a multiplier effect across the SDGs. It could, as per Steiner’s example, be used to bring power to the rural economy in Africa, where the majority of the population lives. “And, before you know it, you are addressing 3-4 goals with one investment”, Steiner argued.

The resources also have to be harnessed better. According to the UNDP, a holistic approach will be followed to stick to the notion of ‘leaving no one behind’. Working with the middle income countries as well as with least developed countries is critical. The basis of the new agenda is that simply using the indicator of GDP per capita to determine where there are needs of development is not an ideal way to create a modern and holistic development agenda.

SDGs and universality

In a nutshell, the plans of the UNDP are to use the already existing goals as a foundation upon which to build the next generation of SDGs. Importantly though, universality was stressed as the goals speak to fundamental principles that will allow development to succeed. Sustainable development has to be seen as not only a way to improve living conditions, education, and infrastructure, but actually to build social cohesion, UNDP stressed. Humanitarian development has to be related with investment strategies that are far more preventive, far more interoperable, and always humanitarian. This was described as the UNDP’s and as the Secretary General António Guterres’s vision.