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Regional cooperation essential to implementing the SDGs in Asia

| Updated: November 09, 2020 21:18:54

Regional cooperation essential to implementing the SDGs in Asia

The 2030 agenda with its 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs) and 169 targets aims to achieve universal economic, social, and environmental progress through a collaborative partnership. This study attempts to capture the significant aspects of the implementation of the 2030 Agenda in the Asian region to evaluate its progress, identify challenges, and learn from cross-country experiences. It is based on a comprehensive review of secondary literature and analysis of relevant regional and country-level data from global databases. The report first analyses the trends, progress, and prospects of selected SDGs. Then it examines the challenges of policy alignment, regional and sub-regional institutional architecture, resource mobilisation, the efficacy of participation and partnerships, and the capacity to monitor progress through the generation of required data and information.

IMPLEMENTING THE SDGS IN ASIA: Despite having significant development in many sectors, Asia and the Pacific will not be able to attain any of the SDGs by 2030 according to UNESCAP estimates (Asia and the Pacific SDG Progress Report 2019). While notable improvements have been made in areas of SDG 1 (no poverty), 4 (quality education), and 7 (affordable and clean energy), progress has been slow or stagnant for SDG 2 (zero hunger), 9 (industry, innovation, and infrastructure), 10 (reduced inequalities), 11 (sustainable cities and communities), 13 (climate action), 14 (life below water), 15 (life on land), 16 (peace, justice, and strong institutions). Areas of - SDGs 6 (clean water and sanitation), 8 (decent work and economic growth) and 12 (responsible consumption and production) - have regressed. The analysis highlights the lack of progress in attaining SDG 17 (partnerships for the goals), which may undermine progress towards the attainment of all other SDGs.

This regional study concentrates on the prospects of four key SDGs - 4, 7, 8, and 17, which are of particular developmental interest to the countries of the two selected sub-regions of Asia: South Asia and Southeast Asia. South Asian countries showed impressive progress in the area of universal primary education in MDG years. Currently, several initiatives have been taken by governments to increase their investment in skills-formation and human resource development. At the regional level, SAARC formulated a framework called 'SAARC Action Plan' in 2016 that distributed responsibilities among participating countries to strengthen different aspects of the education system.

The complex task of providing access to affordable and clean energy is still at a preliminary stage in Asia. There is a significant information gap in this sector with available data on only two indicators-the percentage of the population with access to electricity and the proportion of the population with primary reliance on clean fuels and technology. South Asia and Southeast Asia, both are on track in terms of the electricity indicator but in the case of primary reliance on clean energy sources such as solar, wind, or thermal, significant gaps remain between the current trends and the SDG 7 targets.

South and Southeast Asia are often considered global pioneers in terms of economic growth (SDG 8). Even though the unemployment rate, as measured by the ILO, is generally low in these subregions, many countries in Asia have significantly high youth unemployment rates. For example, Sri Lanka had a youth unemployment rate as high as 21.6 per cent in 2016. A significant proportion of youth in many Asian countries are considered NEETs (not in education, employment or training). Moreover, a large number of people in Asia-pacific, who are involved in non-agricultural jobs, work in the informal sector. Asian countries need to ensure labour rights and the formalisation of employment to establish decent work conditions.

 SDG 17 only has two indicators with comparable data for undertaking trend analysis for the two sub-regions -the volume of remittances (in USD) as a proportion of total GDP and fixed internet broadband subscriptions per 100 inhabitants. As a means of financing the SDGs, the volume of remittances is considered to be one of the critical foreign private sources according to the Addis Ababa Action Agenda (AAAA). Being labour surplus economies, several South Asian (Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka) and Southeast Asian countries (Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand) are leading remittance earners globally. However, the global growth of remittance has slowed down since 2015. A significant number of subscribers have gained access to broadband internet over the past decade which indicates increasing technological capacities, still, the numbers remain much lower than required.

POLICY ALIGNMENT: Asian countries have taken a wide range of initiatives to integrate the 2030 Agenda to their national, sub-national and sectoral plans and policies. To begin the SDG implementation process at the country-level, the central governments in South Asian and Southeast Asian countries completed the task of setting up the initial governance and coordination mechanisms. These countries have engaged multi-stakeholder groups in the course of the consultation processes concerning implementation at the national level. However, limited importance has been assigned to regional cooperation related to systemic issues and inter-linkages. There is a considerable space for regional coordination regarding the SDGs in Asia. Regional cooperation organisations and institutions, such as the ASEAN and Asian Development Bank are actively working to coordinate the implementation process. SAARC has not made any significant effort towards implementing the SDGs at the regional level due to its internal issues but it has the potential to initiate regional strategies towards implementing the SDGs. Countries such as Malaysia, Singapore, and South Korea have planned to enhance the digital economy in line with sustainable cities and communities through their "Smart Nation Initiatives". However, there is a possibility that these strategies will mostly benefit higher income groups and increase inequality. Successful execution of the SDGs will not only require proper policy integration but also addressing the gaps.

INSTITUTIONAL STRUCTURE: Taking into account the multidimensionality of the SDGs, implementing appropriate institutional mechanisms effectively is very essential according to the analysis. While strategising the implementation process, only a few South Asian countries have started mainstreaming the SDGs into an existing or new framework (e.g. Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Bhutan). While many Asian countries recognise the need for SDG localisation, only a few have reported having a complete mechanism and legislative framework to bring the SDGs to the local level. In most cases, plans are yet to be put into action. Many countries including Bangladesh, Malaysia, and Indonesia have taken a 'whole of society' approach and have included non-state actors in the formal institutional framework of SDG implementation. However, in the majority of Asian countries, the participation of non-state actors is often inadequate.

RESOURCE MOBILISATION: A sophisticated resource mobilisation model pertaining to the specific needs of a country is necessary for the overall financing of SDGs. Available literature suggests that a considerable amount of financial and technical support will be required to implement the SDGs. Strengthening tax revenue performance to be a key priority for developing countries as the low tax-GDP ratio is hindering the domestic resource mobilisation. Innovative taxation for financing the SDGs should be encouraged such as the education cess and infrastructure cess in India. For better regional cooperation on tax matters, the ESCAP Secretariat had proposed to establish an Asia-Pacific Tax Forum but there has not been enough development on that issue. To attain the goals by 2030, it may require an additional annual investment of USD 1.5 trillion for developing countries in Asia-Pacific, which is equivalent to about 4.0 per cent of annual average GDP for the period 2016-2030. Besides tax revenue, Official Development Assistance (ODA) and Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) play a prominent role in financing but most of the time assistance does not match the commitments for the regions that need them the most. Developing countries often have to resort to rebates, incentives, concessions, and tax holidays to attract FDI, which reduces the scope for domestic tax mobilisation. Finance as part of South-South cooperation (SSC) has also emerged as a new opportunity to supplement ODA. Southern providers such as India and China have emerged as new funders of development projects, many of which will contribute to SDG implementation, with Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives, and Nepal being the key destinations. New institutions of the South, such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), may become more prominent in financing SDGs. Another drawback of financing is the loss of a large amount of potentially taxable revenue in the form of illicit financial flows. Addressing this requires not only measures in the developing countries, but also in developed countries including the exchange of automatic information on trade and taxes. Regrettably, Asia and the Pacific as a region has a very low level of inter-country cooperation.

PARTICIPATION AND PARTNERSHIPS: Partnerships are one of the essential strategic means of achieving the 2030 Agenda which calls for inclusive and dynamic participation of all stakeholders.  At the national level, many countries such as Nepal, Bangladesh, Malaysia, and Indonesia have taken the initiative to coordinate with the private sector, development partners, cooperatives, and other non-government participants for attaining the SDGs. At the regional level, inter-governmental platforms such as ASEAN, UNESCAP, and UNDP and regional institutions such as ADB have come up with concrete actions to promote the cause of implementation of the SDGs. The Asia-Pacific Forum on Sustainable Development (APFSD) has emerged as a leading platform for sharing of experiences and for helping the region to develop a regional roadmap for SDG achievement. However, lack of global cooperation undermines the capacity of regional and sub-regional bodies to draw synergies and leverage regional initiatives for more active support towards the implementation of the SDGs. Experiences vary across sub-regions and countries, and sharing good practices; generating knowledge; exchanging ideas, technology, and knowledge by developing partnerships could raise the efficacy of their SDG implementation efforts.

DATA AVAILABILITY AND ACCOUNTABILITY MECHANISMS: Data availability, accessibility and accountability are critical in implementing SDGs. Without adequate data, it will be difficult for countries to assess and monitor their progress of an agenda that is based on the concept of leaving no one behind. In most Asian countries, data transparency and quality of data remain an area of great concern. Data is only available for the assessment of approximately one-third of the targets (50 out of 169 targets). Timely publication, open access, digitalisation of data and close intra-governmental cooperation is the key to ensuring data availability. According to the present study, many Southeast and South Asian countries have undertaken programmes to identify data gaps and take the necessary steps to acquire quality and reliable data. For example, the government of Bangladesh has designed an 'SDG tracker' to track and monitor SDG implementation.

Asian countries still have a long way to go in terms of achieving the 2030 Agenda. They need to ensure an inclusive implementation of the SDGs, particularly with respect to those which are lagging behind. The present study has shown that Asian countries have much to learn from one another concerning SDG adoption and implementation, mobilisation of funds through innovative tools, effective monitoring of progress, and generation of data. In view of this emergent scenario, regional initiatives can contribute significantly by reinforcing the implementation efforts undertaken at the country levels.


Mustafizur Rahman is a distinguished fellow at the Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD). [email protected]; Towfiqul Islam Khan is a senior research fellow at CPD. [email protected]

Md. Zafar Sadique is a senior research associate at CPD. [email protected]

[The article is based on the Occasional Paper titled "SDG implementation progress: What does the Asian experience reveal?" was published in June 2020 by Southern Voice under its flagship initiative State of the Sustainable Development Goals (SVSS).]

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