A UN report on SDGs progress in 2017 released recently shows that the Asia Pacific region is failing to meet targets for almost two-thirds of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
In 2015, the UN member countries agreed on a set of 17 global goals to be achieved by 2030. Under each of the 17 goals, there are 169 specific targets to be measured by certain indicators.
Released by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UN-ESCAP), the report considered 57 sustainable development targets for the Asia-Pacific region. The region is lagging behind on 37 targets; seven targets are considered to be in “a deteriorating situation”, according to the report.
In her foreword, Dr. Shamshad Akhtar, the UN’s under-secretary-general and Executive Secretary, United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific states: “At the regional level, satisfactory progress has been made towards eradicating poverty (Goal 1) and promoting good health and wellbeing (Goal 3). But at the current rate of progress, only Goal 4 focused on achieving quality education and lifelong learning opportunities will be met.”
Environmental stewardship still inadequate
Since 2015, there has been deterioration in the health of the Asia-Pacific’s oceans. Measures to conserve and sustainably use ocean, sea and marine resources (Goal 14) need to be strengthened. The report finds there has been no progress made towards protecting, restoring and promoting the sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems (Goal 15). The news about the region’s forests is also dire: the protection of forest areas and the reduction in degradation of natural habitats has weakened at the regional level since 2015. In terms of biodiversity loss, “the whole region is regressing” (p. X).
Niall O’Connor, SEI Asia’s Centre Director said, “These are clear signs that greater efforts need to be made towards protecting the environment, and working with governments, civil society and the private sector, to ensure the natural resource base that underpins much of the economic growth of the region, is sustainably managed. Failure to do this will have negative impacts on many other targets.
“Being clear on how one target impacts another is critical to prioritizing investments and support for long term achievements of the SDGs. SEI’s SDG Interaction tool helps stakeholders do just this and can highlight synergies and trade-offs that we must take into account when working to deliver the SDGs”.
The countries in the Asia and the Pacific region are some of the most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Under a business-as-usual scenario, a 6-degree Celsius temperature increase is projected over the Asian landmass by the end of the century. This could devastate the region’s weather system, agriculture and fisheries sectors. However, despite the existential threat posed by climate change to many countries in the region, progress towards climate action (Goal 13) is very limited.
Southeast Asia, in particular, is found to have “made no progress towards SDGs on climate action” (p. 15). “The situation has worsened due to increased air pollutants”, says the report in its summary.
Widening inequalities is of serious concern
One of the most pressing concerns is the failure of the Asia-Pacific region to reduce inequalities (Goal 10). In fact, the report finds the opposite: “inequalities to be widening relative to 2000, as some countries have enjoyed much stronger growth than others and have not always been successful in sharing its proceeds equitably (p. X). High income countries are not only moving backwards in reducing inequalities but have also diverged over the past 17 years. In terms of gender inequality, “South and South-West Asia had “made very little progress” in 2017, according to the report (p. 17).
For Southeast Asia, not only has the subregion not succeeded in reduced inequalities but it is the only subregion with “widening inequalities” (p.15).
“Inequalities are found to be widening compared to 2000 because rapid economic growth has not always been equitably shared”, said Dr. Akhtar.
Coupled with a clear deterioration in Goal 16 (peace, justice and strong institutions), O’Connor said, “The region continues to risk further inequality, notable in gender equality, income disparity and access to resources, which increases the vulnerability of many, and may lead to climate and economic migrants becoming the norm in the region”.
One of the challenges in compiling an assessment of the SDGs’ progress across the Asia-Pacific is the limited or uneven data availability, and the report highlights the need for a more integrated and inclusive approach for generating statistics.
The report reveals that: “Only a quarter of the official SDG indicators can be used to assess progress in Asia and the Pacific due to limited data availability. The Asia-Pacific region must urgently address the large data gaps, which limit a comprehensive and robust progress assessment of the SDGs.
For example, to assess progress on climate action and life below water, the report had no indicator available, so the entire analysis was done based on proxy indicators.
Reflecting on the constraints posed by lack of data, Niall O’Connor said, “As highlighted in the recent ASEAN State of the Environment Report 2017, investing in a good statistical system to monitor and evaluate achievement or otherwise is crucial to the success of any development-oriented endeavor.
“There is a need for countries to invest in appropriate data collection methods, which allow for open and transparent review to ensure we can truly assess performance against globally agreed goals”.
An amended version of this article was published by the Bangkok Post on 1 June 2018.