Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in Pakistan are often hailed as a panacea for improving livelihoods, the environment, and health of masses at large – thanks to a better framework for programming and monitoring of development activities.
The debate to ensure meaningful sustainable development, however, constitutes a paradox as many of its goals don’t fit with our existing governing structures and the SDGs themselves can serve as self-defeating.
For example, the population of a province carries more than 80pc weightage in the National Finance Commission (NFC) Award formula, which means that there are no incentives for provinces to promote population control by design as reducing population rates will be synonymous to foregoing future revenue shares from the federal tax pool.
This also means that fiscal inequities between Balochistan and the rest of Pakistan will increase with time due to the disparity in growth rates. Fertility control schemes (SDG no 11 and 1), to bring the masses out of chronic poverty, stand no chance in the long-run due to these inherent politics of population.
A simple fix to such a disastrous and unsustainable NFC award could be giving more weightage to tax collected by provinces on behalf of the federal government and reciprocal weights to their per capita income – with no mention of population or area.
Pakistani governments, however, have used the SDGs achievement fund to cater instead to the pet projects of parliamentarians – with all political meddling happening under the umbrella of SDG frameworks.
Despite consensus on a system of devolution, the planning commission has always creatively engineered the transfer of development funds by maintaining a parallel structure of advisors – without getting noticed by the Supreme Court – like it happened to the People’s Works Programme in the past.
Similarly, while all governments over-emphasise the 11th SDG – aiming to promote a resilient infrastructure – this is used only as a vehicle to channel money from public finances to campaign coffers and special interest groups. Spending on the name of SDGs is establishing new cycles of direct patronage and influencing local vote banks, affecting the dynamics of the election campaign in the long run.
Besides politicising SDGs and inherent inconsistencies in SDG framework, what we don’t realise is that SDGs aim to make a very much Western problem look like an Asian problem. With exorbitant, extravagant lifestyles, the West is hell bent on pushing the emerging economies of Asia take steps – even though the average carbon footprint of an Asian is a tiny fraction to that of an American citizen.
So, when China banned foreign plastic waste imports for recycling, it received huge backlash from American companies and was accused of being selfish and not thinking of the global environment. While Vietnam and Malaysia have been at the receiving end of waste from rich nations for decades, at the same time, they are also blamed for polluting the seas and marine life.
Similarly, the European Union’s (EU) proposal to ban Malaysian palm oil on the pretext of halting deforestation – without taking into account the damage being inflicted on small farmers who account for over 50% of output – is another case of ‘greenwash’ sustainability as it is actually aimed at promoting European oils such as rapeseed and sunflower.
Likewise, in Pakistan’s Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) 2021, our ministry was under pressure to make stringent commitments related to coal power plants. In a bid to score brownie points, we pledged to build no new coal power plants and to ban the use of imported coal for energy generation.
Such a drastic step, however, is uncalled for as countries like the United Kingdom (UK) have traditionally used coal to provide around 50% of national power (with exception of the last few years). Hence, it is grossly unfair for developing economies to abandon coal at once.
Moreover, green renewable energy plants can’t run baseline load which has to be taken by gas or coal powered plants.
Similarly, former Sri Lankan president Gotabaya Rajapaksa decided to ban chemical fertilisers in the spirit of sustainable agriculture (SDG no 2) that single-handedly led to a food crisis and sovereign default.
In a nutshell, SDGs have further aggravated the dichotomy between rich, unsustainably developed countries and developing countries who sometimes receive aid but are surely at the receiving end of climate change.
The politics behind the use of SDGs make it a slippery slope; our local government uses them as tools for sponsorship while the Western establishments deploy them as an economic and strategic weapon to shift their burden.
It’s important to be aware of these factors and work to ensure that SDGs are implemented in a way that is inclusive, equitable, and free from political manipulation as well as structural inconsistencies.
THE WRITER IS A CAMBRIDGE GRADUATE AND IS WORKING AS A STRATEGY CONSULTANT