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Sustainable Development Goals: How India and the world are doing

The goals run from 2016 to 2030, meaning we are almost at halftime on their designated time-frame. It would be informative to take stock and see how well the world (and India) is faring on its SDG promises. Unfortunately, the short answer is that we are nowhere near halfway.

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Elusive sustainable development targets

We have compelling statistics on how the world and India have been delivering on their promises from the work of Jeffery Sachs and colleagues at the University of Columbia, as updated last in their Sustainable Development Report 2022 (bit.ly/3DKs1Gr). Their work attempts to estimate how much each and every country fulfils each part of the SDGs, measured from 0% to 100% fulfilment. They also aggregate the scores to estimate completion of the full SDGs for individual countries, along with estimates of completion for country groupings and even the world. Needless to say, the underlying statistics for assessing global progress across a wide range of very fuzzy goals and targets is less than perfect, but the Sachs-lead data is the most consistent, global and long-term coverage that the world has.

If we look at the first graph, we see how the world has steadily experienced an increase in its collective SDG achievement from 2000 to 2019, just before covid hit. At the turn of the century, nations across the world achieved just over 59% of all SDG promises, whereas in 2019, this had increased to 66%. The first decade of this century saw a slower increase, whereas the rate of increase has been fairly constant in the 2010s.

It is perhaps not surprising that the world was fulfilling SDGs way before they were even put on the agenda. It simply reflects that SDGs are mostly promises of good things that everyone would like to see happen—like fewer poor and starving people in a world with more opportunity and less destruction. As the world has improved, with better education and fewer poor, our global SDG score has increased.

But we are nowhere near 100% completion of the SDGs by 2030, as promised by all nations, including India. To achieve that, we should have seen a global 2.4 percentage point increase every year from 63.8% in 2015. Instead, we have actually seen an increase of just 0.36 percentage points up to 2021, almost seven times slower. Part of this is due to the covid pandemic, which saw global progress completely stalled from 2019-21. But even if we just use the very optimistic trend line for 2015-19, the vast majority of the promised goals in 2030 would remain unfulfilled.

Another way to describe the discrepancy between promises and reality is to linearly extrapolate when the world will reach 100%. This is a simple heuristic rather than a prediction, since nations getting closer to completion will likely shift their emphasis and funding to other targets.

On current trends before the covid pandemic, the world will complete its SDG promises only in 2078, almost half a century late. Taking 63 rather than 15 years means that progress is more than four-times slower than had been promised.

As compared to other parts of the world, India seems to be an outlier and performs better than World Bank income groupings would suggest. While India starts out somewhat below its own lower-middle income group, it almost catches up, especially over the last four-year period before the covid pandemic, 2015-19, where India spurts with a 4-percentage point growth, compared to 3.1 for lower-middle income countries in general.

On current 2015-19 trends, India is likely to overtake its lower-middle income country group before 2030. On current trends, the country is set to complete its SDGs around 2059. While this is still almost three times slower than the promise of 2030 for SDGs, it is much better than the performance of any grouping of countries by income category, or indeed the world.

One reason for the slowness is that some of the promises, like the elimination of war, poverty, climate change, hunger and disease, are impossibly ambitious. Another reason is that promising everything makes it hard to focus—having 169 targets is effectively equivalent to having no priorities. Most nations manifestly are unable or unwilling to set aside sufficient resources to achieve all their promises. Roughly, our empirical results show that nations are only spending enough to go at one-fourth of the promised speed.

Instead, we should focus our resources more effectively. Economic cost-benefit analysis can help identify policies where few resources can help a lot and highlight where even very large resources achieve little. In the current SDG world, where we are not achieving everything, we should allocate more resources to the policies that will deliver the most effective return for an extra rupee, dollar or euro. Globally, evidence shows that each rupee spent evenly across all 169 targets will deliver ₹7 of social benefits. But this is mostly because a few incredibly effective targets produce immense social benefits. If we focus on just the 40 best targets, each rupee spent would deliver ₹21 of social benefits.

The world and India ought to focus on the most effective targets first. Cost-benefit analysis can help us identify these very best promises to fulfil first.

Bjorn Lomborg, Bibek Debroy & Aditya Sinha are, respectively, president, Copenhagen Consensus; chairman of the Economic Advisory Council to the Prime Minister; and additional private secretary, research, EAC-PM

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