The govt should re­dou­ble ef­forts to meet the goals of the UN agenda

New Straits Times - - Opinion - john@ukm.edu.my The writer is head of the Strate­gic Cen­tre for Pub­lic Pol­icy at the Grad­u­ate School of Busi­ness, Univer­siti Ke­bangsaan Malaysia

Pub­lic pol­icy can carry us only so far. We need the pri­vate sec­tor and non­govern­men­tal or­gan­i­sa­tions to carry the bur­den of im­ple­men­ta­tion as well.

MANKIND has come a long way — from a hunter-gath­erer so­ci­ety through agrar­ian and in­dus­trial to a sus­tain­able so­ci­ety. Con­cern over sus­tain­abil­ity emerged in 17th cen­tury Europe. For­est con­ser­va­tion then, as now, was a burn­ing is­sue. John Eve­lyn, an English writer, rea­soned in his 1662 es­say,

Sylva, that “sow­ing and plant­ing of trees had to be re­garded as a na­tional duty of ev­ery landowner, in or­der to stop the de­struc­tive over-ex­ploita­tion of nat­u­ral re­sources”.

Since then, sus­tain­able de­vel­op­ment has broad­ened its scope to en­com­pass so­cio-eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment that en­riches the cur­rent gen­er­a­tion with­out im­pov­er­ish­ing nei­ther pos­ter­ity nor the en­vi­ron­ment. Since the last cen­tury, the United Na­tions has cham­pi­oned sus­tain­able de­vel­op­ment — from the set­ting up of the World Com­mis­sion on En­vi­ron­ment and De­vel­op­ment in 1980, through the Rio Sum­mit and its Agenda 21, to the 2000 Mil­len­nium De­vel­op­ment Goals MDGs). With the lat­ter’s ex­piry in 2015, the 2030 Sus­tain­able De­vel­op­ment Agenda is the most re­cent and largest-ever UN ini­tia­tive to keep up the pres­sure for sus­tain­able de­vel­op­ment.

Go­ing be­yond the largely so­cioe­co­nomic de­vel­op­ment agenda of the MDGs, the 2030 agenda shifts the think­ing of what de­vel­op­ment should be. Its 17 sus­tain­able de­vel­op­ment goals (SDGs) es­pouse the right of all mankind to en­joy the fruits of so­cio-eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment in a fair and eq­ui­table way.

And, no one should be left be­hind in en­joy­ing health and well­be­ing, qual­ity ed­u­ca­tion and clean wa­ter, and in liv­ing in sus­tain­able cities and com­mu­ni­ties. It shines the spot­light on ur­ban­i­sa­tion, in­fra­struc­ture, gen­der equal­ity and en­vi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tion — an is­sue made ur­gent by cli­mate change.

These are le­git­i­mate con­cerns wor­thy of pur­suit. But, have we stretched sus­tain­able de­vel­op­ment too far to blur the fo­cus on any one of them?

The UN views these goals as highly in­ter­con­nected. This in­te­grated ap­proach makes sense. For ex­am­ple, poverty has many root causes, such as ill health, poor ed­u­ca­tion, in­jus­tice and in­equal­ity. The sys­temic ap­proach also im­plies that in­vest­ments in one goal, like the game of bowl­ing, can have a pos­i­tive im­pact on most or all oth­ers.

Govern­ments the world over are do­ing the heavy lift­ing to in­te­grate SDGs into their de­vel­op­ment plan­ning. Their ac­tions range from trans­form­ing in­sti­tu­tional struc­tures to tweak­ing them.

Malaysia, as a sig­na­tory to the agenda, is ahead of other coun­tries in the re­gion in de­vis­ing a gov­er­nance struc­ture, with the prime min­is­ter at the helm. The Eco­nomic Plan­ning Unit has crafted an im­ple­men­ta­tion roadmap to en­sure that the SDGs are in­cor­po­rated in de­vel­op­ment plan­ning. This com­mend­able ac­tion is a cul­mi­na­tion of past ef­forts at specif­i­cally dove­tail­ing sus­tain­abil­ity in our de­vel­op­ment agenda. The 2010 New Eco­nomic Model, which in­forms de­vel­op­ment plan­ning and which es­pouses high in­come, sus­tain­abil­ity and in­clu­sive­ness, is among the more re­cent ones.

There is much to be done to en­sure ef­fec­tive ex­e­cu­tion of the SDGs. It will surely profit the gov­ern­ment to be mind­ful of the fol­low­ing six key ex­e­cu­tion is­sues.

FIRST, given the bud­get con­straints, greater work on pri­ori­tis­ing these 17 goals and their 169 sub-goals would be the next log­i­cal step. Are we go­ing to go for

the low-hang­ing “fruits” or com­plete the un­fin­ished agenda of the pre­vi­ous MDGs? Are all the goals rel­e­vant? Will the goal of “free­dom from hunger” be in our scheme of pri­or­i­ties when we have al­most erad­i­cated poverty?

SEC­OND, pri­ori­ti­sa­tion it­self brings ten­sions of its own, as the goals need to be seen as a pack­age, that is, the goals, at least in prin­ci­ple, are in­di­vis­i­ble. Even as­sum­ing pri­ori­ti­sa­tion is pos­si­ble, the is­sue of trade-offs across goals will have to be con­tended with. For ex­am­ple, while oil palm plan­ta­tions are im­por­tant for eco­nomic growth, they come at the ex­pense of de­plet­ing for­est cover.

Trans­par­ent co­or­di­nat­ing mech­a­nisms need to be erected to en­sure that trade-offs among goals and pro­grammes are made pro­fes­sion­ally and in an ev­i­dence-based man­ner. Trade-offs will re­quire cost-ben­e­fit analy­ses across al­ter­na­tives. They will also in­volve in­tense ne­go­ti­a­tions and con­sul­ta­tions among stake­hold­ers to min­imise the ad­verse im­pact of the choices that will in­evitably have to be made.

THIRD, the gov­ern­ment has a big task ahead of en­sur­ing align­ment of the SDGs with the cur­rent strate­gic thrusts and fo­cus ar­eas of the 11th Malaysia Plan. This is not a big is­sue at the level of the broad goals. How­ever, to make the match more mean­ing­ful, sub-goals or tar­gets have to be also aligned with the cur­rent de­vel­op­ment strate­gies.

FOURTH, pub­lic pol­icy can carry us only so far. We need the pri­vate sec­tor and non-gov­ern­men­tal or­gan­i­sa­tions to carry the bur­den of im­ple­men­ta­tion as well. How can the gov­ern­ment then cause busi­nesses and civil so­ci­ety to min­imise their car­bon foot­print?

FIFTH, syn­er­gies in ex­e­cut­ing the MDGs are im­por­tant. They con­duce to an ef­fi­cient use of re­sources. For ex­am­ple, bet­ter ed­u­ca­tion can up­lift com­mu­ni­ties from poverty or low in­come and en­sure well-be­ing. We need to have a mech­a­nism that ex­plic­itly ex­ploits such syn­er­gies. Al­lud­ing again to the game of bowl­ing, we need to knock down as many ten­pins in one shot.

SIXTH, should Par­lia­ment, as the cus­to­dian of pub­lic in­ter­est, have a role in all this? Par­lia­ment has many se­lect com­mit­tees — some are more ac­tive than oth­ers. Should Par­lia­ment not have a se­lect com­mit­tee on sus­tain­able de­vel­op­ment to or­ches­trate the pri­ori­ti­sa­tion, trade-offs and syn­er­gies in the im­ple­men­ta­tion of the SDGs?

Malaysia has put her hand to the plough. As the SDGs are de­serv­ing of sup­port, the gov­ern­ment should re­solve to re­dou­ble its im­ple­men­ta­tion ef­fort. As Fran­cis Drake, the great English sea­farer, once said: “There must be a be­gin­ning of any great mat­ter, but the con­tin­u­ing unto the end un­til it be thor­oughly fin­ished yields the true glory.”

File pic­ture show­ing peo­ple at a wa­ter­fall in Tem­pler Park, Rawang. The United Na­tions 2030 Sus­tain­able De­vel­op­ment Agenda es­pouses the be­lief that no one should be left be­hind in en­joy­ing health and well-be­ing, qual­ity ed­u­ca­tion and clean wa­ter.

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