SDGs: global partnerships

Global partnerships are especially important to Africa where the strain on resources and institutions requires more support from developed nations

Former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon 

By Andrew Donaldson

Responding to climate change protests in the British capital in April this year, the London Sunday Times said that activists should be reminded of the country’s exemplary record in tackling global warming. The UK was “well on track” for an 80% reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 (relative to 1990 levels). Its share of global emissions was little more than 1%, the newspaper said, while the three biggest carbon emitters — China, the United States and India — accounted for half the total. The editorial’s insular position, suggesting that Britain is beyond reproach, was echoed by much of the country’s rightwing establishment. Contempt for climate activists, particularly the 16-year-old Swedish schoolgirl Greta Thunberg, was palpable.

The Sunday Times columnist Rod Liddle, for instance, concluded: “the poor child does not know what she is talking about.” Regardless of such opinion, the activism has borne fruit. On 1 May, Britain became the world’s first country to declare a national environment and climate emergency. There’s no word yet of the measures needed to tackle such an emergency but, as commentators suggest, climate and the environment are now at least at the centre rather than on the fringes of Whitehall’s policy decisions. Activists have urged other countries to follow suit. After all, global warming is, by definition, a global problem: any effective response must be systemic, and actions by individual countries will be fruitless without the constructive involvement of others. This principle of international cooperation underscores perhaps the most crucial of all the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, SDG 17, which relates to the development of effective structures and partnerships to further sustainable development, both locally and internationally.

This is of particular importance to African countries. Historical disadvantages and governance issues aside, more than half the world’s population growth between now and 2050 is projected to occur on the continent. The resultant strain on resources and institutions suggests an increased reliance on support from developed nations. In this regard, Britain is, in fact, doing rather well with SDG 17, according to a 2018 progress report by UK Stakeholders for Sustainable Development (UKSSD), an umbrella body of business, civil, academic and public organisations. According to the report, out of 19 targets related to SDG 17 the UK scored nine as “good”, four as “inadequate” and three as “poor”, with the remaining items either grey or having no data. Yet, and despite claims to the contrary, the same report describes the UK’s actions on climate change, SDG 13, as “inadequate”.

Despite a strong international presence, the country faces certain domestic challenges. There are disagreements, for example, about the science and actions required to tackle climate change. Regarding the latter, British lawmakers are at loggerheads over “incoherent” climate-change aid policy. According to The Times, one group in Whitehall spent almost £5 billion between 2010 and 2016 on carbon-emitting projects, including offshore oil and gas extraction operations in Ghana, Colombia and Brazil. Elsewhere, roughly the same amount was spent between 2011 and 2017 to support projects tackling climate change in developing countries, including Ghana. The newspaper quoted a cross-parliamentary committee report as urging more “joined-up thinking”. “Given the urgency and scale of the challenge, spending climate finance has to be more than a box ticking exercise to meet a commitment,” the report said.

“Climate finance must be spent strategically, it needs to be spent with Former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urgency, and it has to be transformative.” Distrust of the science, meanwhile, is waning, and there is now little doubt the primary cause of global warming is human activity. Thanks to clearer understanding of the issues, 2015 was a watershed year for global accords committed to sustainable development: the Paris Agreement, the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015–2030, and, importantly, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a set of 17 global goals for 2030 set by the UN. Tackling and adapting to climate change is a key objective of all these agreements. Political commitment to these ideals remains crucial. As the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) stressed in a 2017 technical paper: “Unprecedented levels of coordination and coherence will be needed.”

In this respect, water scientist Cláudia Coleoni points to the synergies and trade-offs needed to achieve the social, economic and environmental objectives of the SDGs. A research assistant on natural climate solutions and the UN SDGs at the Oxford Martin School’s Institute for New Economic Thinking, Coleoni told Africa in Fact: “Progress with one goal may lead to the progress of other goals. So, for instance, when you’re talking about clean water and sanitation, if you achieve that goal, then you’re going to be tackling poverty to some extent, because you’re providing basic services to a population, to a society.” Progress with one SDG, however, may hinder progress elsewhere. As an example, Coleoni cites SDG 9, which concerns industry, innovation and industrial development. Investment here is a crucial driver of economic growth and development. But that investment, she says, could impact negatively on SDG 7, which concerns affordable and clean energy.

Similarly, there is “growing recognition”, according to the UNFCC, that resources shared across national boundaries need to be “co-managed” by relevant parties. “A common example of this,” the organisation said, “is a border-crossing river — while a country upstream may wish to install hydroelectric power generation facilities as part of its adaptation strategy, this may be maladaptive for a downstream country that relies on the same river for fishing resources.” An SDG 7 development in one region would thus be disastrous for the SDG 2 or food security development of a neighbouring region. Matters become more complicated as climate changes affect the flow of people, goods and finances around the world. These “transnational climate impacts” affect agricultural production and import-dependent countries that find themselves hostage to fluctuating commodity prices and must now concern themselves with the resilience of agrarian systems half a world away.

A 2016 study by the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) found that Senegal, for instance, was particularly vulnerable to international rice prices, and could be at risk if Vietnamese and Thai crops were affected by climate change. Rice is central to the Senegalese diet, and the country is now investing in its own rice production with the aim of achieving self-sufficiency, as well as introducing programmes to diversify diets. In addition, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) is considering a grain reserve for the region. The SEI further suggests that improved cooperation between the parties could benefit adaptation, sustainable development and disaster risk-reduction efforts. This emphasis on interdependence evolved from the SDGs’ predecessors, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which the UN launched in 2000. The MDGs attained some success.

In 2015, for instance, the world body reported that, in regard to MDG 1 (eradicate extreme poverty and hunger), “the number of people living in extreme poverty had declined by more than a half” over the previous two decades. Yet, Ban Ki-Moon, then UN Secretary-General, noted that “inequalities persist and … progress has been uneven”. A 2013 academic study concluded that the MDGs had been created “by only a few stakeholders without adequate involvement by developing countries” and that critics had claimed they were “unachievable and simplistic”. In 2017, analysts at the Brookings Institute reported that while there were dramatic shifts, particularly in Africa, the diversity of outcomes on basic needs had raised some hard questions — with depressingly familiar answers. The 2018 Africa SDG Index & Dashboard report rates 51 African countries according to their SDG progress.

Morocco leads the continent with a score of 66.1%, meaning it is about two-thirds of the way to achieving its 2030 goals. The top-ranking countries are all North African and small island states. The highest scoring sub- Saharan countries are Gabon and South Africa, both with 59%. The overall average for the continent is 52.2%, barely over the halfway mark with little more than a decade to 2030. Twenty nine of the 51 countries surveyed are below average. At the very bottom of the pile, heavily indebted and mired in civil conflict, are Somalia and the Central African Republic (CAR), with scores of 36.2% and 35.8%, respectively. These performances are particularly woeful in a broader context. According to the global SDG Index, Morocco, Africa’s best performer, ranks only 77 out of 156 countries. The world’s worst performers, in other words, include at least 50 African countries. The best performers — Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Germany, France, Norway, Switzerland, Slovenia and Austria — all scored 80% or more.

“This result is not surprising,” the African SDG report states, “but it must be an urgent call to action for all countries — and in particular, a mobilisation of global support for those countries facing major challenges to achieving this bold development agenda.” Some commentators believe that such mobilising efforts are, frankly, doomed to failure. Writing in global economic guide Quartz ahead of last year’s G7 meeting on SDG progress, Jeffrey Smith, an advocacy officer for Robert F Kennedy Partners for Human Rights, argued that the very causes of the world’s most persistent social ills — lack of respect for democratic values and basic human rights — are seldom, if ever, raised at such occasions. There are “countless” global conferences based on the SDGs, Smith continued, and billions of dollars have been spent as government agencies, scientific bodies, NGOs, civil society and philanthropic organisations committed themselves to the project.

“There is one glaring problem: the SDGs are pushing an agenda carefully calibrated to avoid upsetting the world’s dictators, kleptocrats, and this century’s worst human rights offenders,” he said. “Search the 17 SDGs and you will fail to find a single mention of the word ‘democracy’. Out of thousands of words of text, ‘human rights’ is mentioned merely once (and not as its own category, but as a secondary bullet point). “Critically important terms like ‘anti-corruption’, ‘civil liberties’, ‘free expression’, ‘press freedom’, ‘independent judiciary’, ‘separation of powers’, ‘free and fair elections’, and ‘civil society’ are also absent. In other words, the basic freedoms that underpin and advance human development are missing from the SDG equation.” Smith’s thesis is that the SDGs are in many ways an authoritarian project. On this view, they support a status quo in which, according to the Human Rights Foundation, 93 countries and an estimated four billion people are ruled by despotic regimes, a situation which, according to Freedom House’s Freedom in the World 2018 report, has worsened in recent years.

Such criticism points to a fundamental problem with the SDGs: a lack of data. Consider, for a moment, that there are 232 indicators in the 169 targets identified across the 17 SDGs. The 2018 Africa SDG Index, however, based its rankings on only 97 indicators. The rest of the data just wasn’t there. And when it is, there are problems with the quality of the data. When, for example, Ethiopian leader Meles Zenawi died in 2012, western leaders were quick to praise his progressive efforts in lifting millions out of poverty. But investigations by The Economist and The New York Review of Books, among others, soon revealed the regime in Addis Ababa had fabricated developmental statistics. More recently, the world was quick to question the results of the 2017 Rwandan election, according to which the incumbent, dictator Paul Kagame, received 6.675 million votes while his strongest rival, Philippe Mpayimana, a mere 49,000. Faced with such outrageous claims, can the SDG indicator numbers regarding Rwanda’s literacy rates, life expectancy and economic growth be trusted?

According to their November 2018 SDG update, officials from Britain’s Office for National Statistics have visited both Rwanda and Ghana to train statisticians to prepare and manage data for presentation on national reporting platforms. “Long-term,” they said, “we hope Rwanda and Ghana might use this training to assist other African countries in the development of their own websites.” Such assistance is sorely needed. The 2018 Africa SDG Index states that many countries simply don’t have the capacity to collect, manage, and report on demographic, social, economic, and environmental data. “This is especially alarming,” the index states, “in an increasingly digital, knowledge- and information-based world.” Consider, for instance, the vital records of a nation’s births and deaths. According to the 2018 Africa SDG Index, only four of the 51 African countries surveyed have a better than 90% coverage of live birth registrations from data sources like civil registries, censuses and household surveys after 2005.

Only six countries have the same coverage of death registration from the same sources. Data collection, in general, has been problematic, according to Dr Hannah Ritchie, a researcher who worked on the development of the SDG-Tracker, an online resource built by University of Oxford academics and scientists with the Global Change Data Lab. This unique user-friendly innovation is designed to plot data across all 17 SDGs — from eradicating poverty to ensuring clean energy. It is an “interactive hub” that allows users to track progress across all SDG indicators and targets. In many cases, Ritchie told Africa in Fact, information was simply out of date or not available altogether. “We are a few years behind [in collection],” she said. “This is disappointing.

From a policy perspective, it obviously makes things difficult to see whether you’re on track or not.” For example, due to insufficient data the 2018 Africa SDG Index was unable to rate Malawi’s progress, whether on track or not, towards the following goals: SDG 4 (quality education); SDG 10 (reduced inequalities); and SDG 12 (responsible consumption and production). Malawi, incidentally, is ranked 22nd on the index. Lastly, the global growth of populism and nationalism threatens to derail the international cooperation required for the SDGs, and a growing number of governments appear unwilling to forge stronger multilateral ties abroad. Others seem determined to tear up existing treaties. Donald Trump, for one, has stated that he wants to pull out of the historic Paris Agreement, claiming that it was “bad” for the US economy.

He notably framed his decision as “a reassertion of America’s sovereignty”, adding that he had been “elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris.” But the exit process is a lengthy one, and the US must formally remain in the agreement until the next presidential election, in November 2020. Until then, though, there’s no denying the devastating effects of climate change related catastrophes and disasters. These have been coming on hard and strong, the water scientist Cláudia Coleoni has pointed out, and they cross party-political lines. “When politicians realise they have a crisis on their hands, they must in theory act in the interests of the electorate. They should not violate that pact. It is what got them elected in the first place.”

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Andrew Donaldson is a freelance journalist, writer and editor. A veteran commentator on South African political, social and cultural affairs, he is now based in the United Kingdom.