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The long and winding road

The long and winding road
Leaders from around the world are all set to adopt a new set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) at a United Nations (UN) conference in New York later this year (September), following the culmination of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that they had set out in 2000. The 2000 Millennium Declaration was a document that was filled with aspirations for just and lasting peace and regard for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It also encompassed a list of specific targets drawn from a decade of UN conferences; cutting in half the proportion of people living on less than a dollar a day (later raised to $1.25 in 2005 dollars); universal completion of primary school and gender equality in education enrollment; reduction of maternal mortality by three-quarters and of under-five child mortality by two-thirds and reversal of the spread of HIV/AIDS, the scourge of malaria and other major diseases. 

These targets formed the core of six millennium goals, conjoined by a goal on environmental sustainability and one outlining a global partnership for development. The final MDG Report, documenting the 15-year bid to achieve these goals and what remains to be accomplished for the successor set of SDGs, was released early this month in New York. Despite chronicling the progress made thus far, the MDG report has not refrained from conceding that “progress has been uneven across regions and countries, leaving significant gaps”. It did not mince words when it lamented that gender inequality persists despite greater representation of women in different parliaments and more girls going to school. Women continue to face discrimination in access to work, economic assets and participation in private and public decision-making.

Notwithstanding the notable headway made by the MDGs, about 800 million people still live in extreme poverty and suffer from hunger. Children from the poorest 20 per cent of households are more than twice as likely to be stunted as those from the wealthiest 20 per cent and are also four times as likely to be out of school. In countries hit by conflict, the proportion of out-of-school children increased from 30 per cent in 1999 to 36 per cent in 2012. It is also a reflection of the state of affairs that about 50 per cent of people living in rural areas lack improved sanitation facilities, compared to only 18 per cent of people in urban areas. Since 1990, global emissions of carbon dioxide have increased by over 50 per cent.  Water scarcity continues to hit 40 per cent of the global population and is projected to increase. Over-exploitation of marine fish stocks led to a decline in the percentage of the stocks within safe biological limits, down from 90 per cent in 1974 to 71 per cent in 2011.

Other somber statistics that are bound to provoke concern include: 16,000 children die each day before celebrating their fifth birthday, mostly from preventable causes; one in three people (2.4 billion) still use shoddy sanitation facilities—946 million people still defecate in the open and 880 million people are estimated to be living in squalid and slum-like conditions.

A companion document “Making it Happen”, jointly prepared by UN ESCAP, ADB and UNDP as the Asia- Pacific Regional MDGs Report 2014-15 hit the nail on the head by contending that the region will “need to address three key areas of implementation: extending the benefits of technologies to all; mobilizing the necessary financial resources and building statistical systems that can monitor the progress of the poorest groups and ensure that no one is left behind”. While lauding the progress scored in compassing most of the MDG goals in the Asia-Pacific region, it said the formulation of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as a successor signpost offers “a fresh opportunity” to build on the MDGs—completing “unfinished business” in such vital areas as maternal and child mortality, while addressing other major concerns that have risen to the top of the global agenda, notably climate change and rising levels of inequality.

The report noted that even in countries that receive significant development assistance, the most important source of financing for many of the proposed SDGs remains revenue accrued by national governments. Developing Asia could do more to glean taxes—progressively. But Asia lags behind much of the developing world in its ratio of tax revenues to GDP, averaging 18 per cent compared to 29 per cent worldwide. With most poor people below the income tax thresholds and wealthier individual finding easier ways to evade income tax, governments could make greater efforts to tax capital gains while introducing taxes on wealth and by beefing up their enforcement machinery. They could also raise revenue from more non-tax sources such as fees and licenses. For indirect taxes, the best option is value added tax, which has boosted income in a number of Asian countries. 

As developing Asia loses sums that average 3.8 per cent of its GDP in illicit financial outflows, governments in the region should forge close regional and international cooperation to end harmful tax competition. It has also drawn attention to the advent of new international financial institutions like the China-promoted Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and the BRICS-promoted New Development Bank that can complement extant public and private financial institutions, and help foster greater cooperation in financing for development.

According to the joint report, the Asia Pacific region in 2012 had $7 trillion dollars in private savings, received $212 billion in remittances and reported $1.3 trillion in insurance premiums- sums far larger than official development assistance. Hence unlocking private sources of funds through public policy and market intermediation would be critical to scoring the ambitious post-210 agenda. This calls for aligning capital markets more closely to sustainable and inclusive schemes, “involving a broader view on pricing and products affiliated to human needs, infrastructure and cross-border public goods”. A further potential source of funds is taxation on financial transactions. Globally, a tax of 0.005 per cent on trading in the four major currencies could yield $40 billion per year, while a tax of 0.01 per cent on stocks, bonds and derivative transactions could increase over $200 billion annually.

Pitching for “alliances for a shared future”, the report said the public-private partnerships (PPP), quite often used as long-term financing for transport infrastructure, can also be used for building schools or hospitals. This is premised on the understanding that the notion of public funds for public goods and private funds for private goods does not hold water since development deficits plague both categories, retarding social and physical progress of societies in many developing countries.

At the end of the day, what matters is the quality of life and no amount of statistical and cosmetic 
presentations can sidestep the daunting challenges of stunted development and growing inequalities and inequities. It is time leaders of the free world, as they foregather in New York in a couple of months, to take stock of the state of affairs and draw a different set of sustainable development goals. IPA
G Srinivasan

G Srinivasan

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