The framers of the SDGs have very ambitious goals: “End hunger” and “End poverty in all its forms everywhere” by 2030. The SDG framers, led by the economist Jeffrey Sachs, further envisioned a world where all people shall enjoy peace, prosperity and partnership in an environmentally secure planet Earth. The vision is very much Christmas-like.
What are the SDGs? They are the Sustainable Development Goals adopted by the United Nations in 2015 to succeed the old Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Under the old MDGs, UN member-states agreed to adopt eight “millennial” targets: 1) eradicate extreme poverty and hunger; 2) achieve universal primary education; 3) promote gender equality and empower women; 4) reduce child mortality; 5) improve maternal health; 6) combat HIV/AIDs, malaria and other diseases; 7) ensure environmental sustainability; and 8) develop a global partnership for development.
According to the UN MDG Monitoring Office, there were marked successes in meeting these global development targets, claiming that the MDGs “have saved the lives of millions and improved conditions for many more.” Several hundreds of millions were lifted out of poverty, mostly in surging China.
At the same time, Wu Hongbo, the UN undersecretary for social and economic affairs, was frank enough to admit that despite some notable gains in the MDG program implementation, there were also setbacks. He wrote that “the poorest and most vulnerable people are being left behind,” mostly in Latin America, Africa and poor countries in Asia.
The Philippines, through the Neda-based MDG monitoring group, reported substantial gains in MDG targeting and implementation, particularly in relation to achieving universal primary education, promoting gender equality and improving maternal health. Still, the country failed to meet its target of halving poverty by 2015 (from 1990 level). Gains came in minimal increments, as reflected in the modest decline of poverty incidence from 28.8 percent in 2006 to 24.9 percent in 2013. Incidentally, poverty estimates by the Social Weather Stations are virtually double those given by the Philippine Statistics Authority.
Also, the first decade of the millennium witnessed several MDG-gutting developments. First, the 2007-2010 global financial crisis, like the 1997-1998 Asian financial crisis, made millions in both developed and developing countries dislocated, poor and vulnerable overnight. Up to now, certain countries in Europe, such as Greece, are still unable to recover from the crisis.
Second, global efforts to forge global partnerships for development have become difficult with the increased rivalry for global leadership among big powers, for example, the United States versus China and Russia. There is also the rise of populist, sectarian and sometimes isolationist leaders around the world. And, yes, the emergence of Islamic fundamentalist terror groups is creating divisions in many parts of the world and whipping up religious and racial conflicts in some countries.
Third, studies after studies are showing that inequality in the world and in individual countries has been deepening and widening. Oxfam claims that the wealth of the eight richest people is equal to the wealth of those owned by half of the world. Thomas Piketty, in his celebrated book Capital in the 21st Century (2013), explained that this happens because the rate of return on wealth has been consistently higher than the rate of growth in the United States and Europe since the Industrial Revolution of the 18th century. In the Philippines observers claim that 40 families virtually lord over the whole economy. In Riding the Wave (dated 2018), the World Bank warned that those in the bottom of the Philippine income pyramid tend to get stuck at the bottom. Further, there are dangers that some of those in the slippery middle can slide to the bottom because of limited improvements in income distribution.
Now the United Nations has replaced the MDGs with the SDGs from 2016-2030. The eight MDGs have become 17 ambitious SDGs. They are as follows:
Goal 1. End poverty in all its forms everywhere.
Goal 2. End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture.
Goal 3. Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages.
Goal 4. Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.
Goal 5. Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.
Goal 6. Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.
Goal 7. Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern
energy for all.
Goal 8. Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all.
Goal 9. Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovation.
Goal 10. Reduce inequality within and among countries.
Goal 11. Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.
Goal 12. Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns.
Goal 13. Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts.
Goal 14. Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development.
Goal 15. Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss.
Goal 16. Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels.
Goal 17. Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development. The foregoing is a fairly long list of ambitious aspirations. But it cannot be denied that these goals, converging toward the building of an inclusive, equitable and sustainable global society, are precisely what the world needs. The problem is how can these goals be translated into actionable or doable programs at the national as well as global levels.
Also, can the SDGs tame the Race to the Bottom, which has been raging in many parts of the world under economic globalization? The Race to the Bottom among big corporations and transnational firms competing in a borderless global economy is seen by trade unions and civil-society organizations as the root cause of exclusion for the many and the deepening inequality within and among countries. In the process of competition and in the name of growth, labor, human, community and environmental rights are often set aside. The Race to the Bottom is also at the roots of chronic or recurring regional and global economic crisis, which is traceable to a major contradiction: the global overproduction of goods created in low-cost production platforms or value chains organized by the transnational firms and the global underconsumption of the same goods and services because the mass purchasing power of the working people is eroded in an unequal labor market.
Perhaps, it is time for the United Nations to convene, too, a global agreement on how to tame the Race to the Bottom and build a new architecture for a just, fair, inclusive and sustainable economic order.