In recent times the development discourse all over the world has been heavily influenced by the Sustainable Development Goals set by the United Nations in 2015 for the year 2030.
These goals are in the form of specific targets for key areas of development, protection of the environment and so on.
If these goals are achieved, then these 15 years will be the most successful years of human history in terms of reducing distress. Hunger is to be almost eliminated, while poverty will be reduced greatly. If the 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) that other evidence indicates might bring 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 or how the forces responsible for these trends will be checked.
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 in addition this high risk load is spreading and increasing rapidly. The statistics on arms spending are generally presented mainly in the context of spending by 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. It 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 they are. There are also very powerful forces that want this to continue. But the 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 for the SDGs is also a highly sensitive one when life-threatening environmental changes like climate change are likely to increase and cause massive destruction and distress. This has been recognized for about three decades, yet the world badly lags behind in terms of the necessary steps to change course. There are powerful forces responsible for this and there are also important weaknesses in the efforts. The SGD documents do not tell us how these forces will be challenged or how these weaknesses will be removed.
As there are no details of any specific initiatives that differ significantly from earlier efforts that failed, there is no assurance at all that the inequality (and the wasteful consumption that inevitably accompanies large-scale inequality) will be curbed, and there is even less assurance that 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 the highly ambitious goals of meeting the basic needs of all human beings, and particularly all other forms of life, will be achieved.
Thus, while the SDGs are laudable objectives and can be helpful in improving priorities to some extent, several questions arise when they are examined with reference to the grim realities of several important existing trends.
What are the structural problems that caused the performance of the past few decades to be so disappointing? What are the weaknesses at the level of global governance that prevented the most serious global problems (WMDs, climate change, ocean pollution, currency and trade reforms, etc.) from being tackled effectively? 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 to correct structural problems and injustices. We also need to significantly improve 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 writer is a freelance journalist who has been involved with several social movements and initiatives. -- Ed.
(The Statesman/Asia News Network)