Achieving sustainable development goals amid the virus fallout


The year 2000 saw 189 UN Member States agree on certain socio-economic development goals. Discussion carried out between economists, politicians and development experts since 1984 was able to identify certain least common denominators required for achieving several shared objectives. 

The Brundtland Commission set up through a UN mandate in 1984 provided the necessary incentive in this regard. The United Nations Millennium Declaration set forth quantified and time-bound eight goals towards this end. Attached to them were twenty targets and more than sixty indicators. These came to be known as MDGs (Millennium Development Goals).

These goals related to the eradication of hunger and extreme poverty; achieving universal primary education (with special emphasis on gender empowerment to promote gender equality); improvement of maternal health and reduction in child mortality; combating several diseases that have acquired anxiety throughout the world- HIV/AIDS and malaria, in particular; ensuring environmental sustainability and developing a global partnership for development.

Fifteen years later, in 2015 on 27 September, international leaders from more than 190 Member States of the UN agreed on another Declaration. They identified 17 Sustainable Development Goals, associated 169 targets with 304 indicators. It was a very complex paradigm that aimed to address several tiers of parameters related to sustainable development plans of comparatively undeveloped countries seeking to move forward in a holistic manner despite resource constraint.

It has been noted by development economists and sociologists that the world has witnessed significant progress in achieving some of the MDGs. Statistics have revealed that global extreme poverty has declined by an estimated 180 million. Child mortality rates have fallen from 103 deaths per 1,000 live births to 88. 

Life expectancy has also risen from 63 years to nearly 65. Another remarkable achievement has been that an additional 8.0 per cent of the developing world population now has access to clean water. There have also been similar gains in the provision of improved sanitation services- by 15 per cent.

Unfortunately, such progress has not been uniform. The African continent appears to be lagging behind due to political instability and lack of available resources. Disparity in income in certain parts of the world has also led to continuance of rural poverty in some countries. This in turn is generating internal migration to urban centers and the creation of slums with its attendant challenges.

Bangladesh, compared to other developing countries has performed remarkably well, especially over the last twelve years. Analysts agree that we have made major progress in the following areas- reducing headcount poverty and the poverty gap ratio (more than 45 per cent of the extreme poor have been pulled out of the poverty trap); decreasing malnourishment and the number of underweight children under five years of age; 

attaining gender parity in primary and secondary education in both rural and urban areas; increasing the net enrolment ratio at the level of primary schools; lowering infant mortality rates and the maternal mortality ratio; increasing the percentage of one-year old children immunized against measles and polio, reducing deaths from malaria and tuberculosis and in the provision of improved drinking water. The British Medical Journal in an article published on 15 September, 2015 has also taken note of the advances made by Bangladesh with regard to women and children’s health.

Nevertheless economists over the past two months now have correctly pointed out that Bangladesh will have to overcome quite a few other challenges- after COVID-19. They include- employment to population ratio; proportion of population below minimum level of dietary energy (calorie) consumption; completion of primary schooling up to Grade 5; 

adult literacy rate of 15+ year-old population till the age of 24 (only 58.5 per cent); ratio of girls to boys in tertiary education; share of women in wage employment in the non-agricultural sector; proportion of seats held by women in the Parliament; proportion of births attended by skilled health personnel; antenatal care coverage and proportion of population with access to essential medicines on sustainable basis.

There is also agreement that some other factors also have to be addressed. They include the existence of poverty pockets; functional unemployment and underemployment among the rural and urban youth; continuing dropout rate, quality of education at the primary and secondary levels; universal access to reproductive health and also resource constraints related to the providing of safe drinking water in all parts of the country. It has been estimated that Bangladesh needs to spend about US$ 3.0 billion per year to meet all these goals. After this COVID-19 experience this might not be so easily possible. 

The government has set targets to bring down poverty to 13.5 per cent by 2021 and also achieve universal literacy by the end of this decade. These are ambitious targets and will require not only political will and resources but also public private partnership and corporate social responsibility. After this Virus attack it will also be more difficult.

This will also require the government addressing some underlying causes. That will include- enhanced vulnerability due to natural causes and climate variability, social exclusion and income opportunity. Yes, we seem to be having a growing informal economy and that is facilitating tertiary growth. Nevertheless, such growth at the end of the day is bound to hurt good, accountable and functional governance.  It will also promote corruption and erosion in values.

One way forward for the government would be to implement with greater coordination and seriousness the Social Safety Net Programmes (SSNP) that are in place to meet the basic needs of the people in the following sectors- food, shelter, education and health. The programmes covered within SSNP include Food for Work (FFW), Vulnerable Group Development (VGD), Vulnerable Group Feeding (VGF), and allowances for disabled, old age pensions and grants for orphanages. If concerted efforts can be taken, then we can take serious strides forward, particularly in the non-urban areas.

We will also need to improve human resources potential through technical education and vocational training, eradicating poverty and removing inequality, ensuring sustainable food security and nutrition for all, particularly the marginalized communities. In addition there will also have to be emphasis on universal access to health and family planning services and environmental sustainability through the creation of climate change resilient infrastructure. This might be facilitated through a slightly wider engagement with the civil society.

However, one must at this point, also draw attention to two basic facts that have hampered the functioning of achieving MDGs by the developing nations. Firstly, developed countries failed over the last two decades to allocate the necessary funding to the Least Developed Countries (LDCs) and Lower Middle Income countries to enable them to come out of the puddle. 

They have failed to fulfill their commitment of providing 0.07 per cent of their Gross National Income (GNI) as development aid to the LDCs. The other disappointing factor has been the absence of transparent and accurate statistics in matters of development within the LDCs. This second feature has hampered the correct identification of measures that need to be taken in the socio-educational and cultural sectors.

It is understood that this time round the financing plan for the SDGs would be guided by the 134 point Addis Ababa Action Agenda (AAAA). This was adopted in July 2015. This document mentions importance of the private sector within the equation of development and lays stress on private investment initiatives. 

One expects that this can be achieved through the creation of infrastructure financing through development finance institutions and blended finance that combines concessional public finance with non-concessional private finance. There are also suggestions regarding risk mitigation instruments and pooled funding structures.

From this point of view, the government needs to bring forth greater coordination between their relevant authorities and private sector institutions like the- Bangladesh Employers Federation (BEF), the FBCCI, and other important Chambers of Commerce. This will enable the examination of new business opportunities and that will facilitate at the end of the day necessary growth within the matrix of achieving the SDGs. Sustainable development needs to be inclusive, integrated and integral- particularly while we face the difficulties created by the Virus.


Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialized in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance, can be reached at <muhammadzamir0@gmail.com>