On September 25, 2015, the United Nations General Assembly voted to enact the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which set the framework for global development policy and action from now until 2030. Unlike the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which aimed at progress on developmental issues such as poverty, education, and infant mortality, the SDGs recognize and make explicit the link between these issues and the economic and political governance which predicate social and environmental outcomes.
The 17 SDGs – and the 169 specific goals which provide the detail – cover poverty, education and health. They also aim at good jobs and economic growth; industry, innovation and infrastructure; sustainable cities; and clean, democratic institutions. Finally, Indicator #17 focuses on partnerships with some of the facilitators of sustainable development, such as trade, technology, science, capacity building, and finance.
The SDGs rightly recognize development as the product of an interconnected mix of economics, politics, science, and finance, and thus is the work of companies, economists, international institutions, technologists among others, and not just of charities and governments. With this framework, the SDGs also move from being primarily the concern of low-income countries suffering the effects of extreme poverty, to being the concern of any nation seeking progress, dignity and opportunity for its citizens.
This shift is particularly well timed for developing Asia, which has amassed an impressive record of hauling people out of poverty through industrialization, trade and a single-minded focus on economic growth. And while developing Asia has made good progress on the MDGs through this approach, it now faces a new mix of environmental and social problems that are the unintended consequences of growth.
These environmental ills are perhaps clearest in China, where a focus on rapid industrialization may successfully produced GDP growth in excess of 10 per cent for nearly a decade, but it has also created intense and widespread environmental degradation. Various domestic and international studies have estimated that pollution and environmental damage create a drag of as much as 5 per cent on China’s GDP; the government recently estimated that almost 20 per cent of the country’s farmland suffers from soil contamination.
Environmental problems have become social problems, as people react to the health hazards created by dirty industry, as well as economic problems, as the country pays the high price of clean up. Other Asian countries face their own environmental issues stemming from a single-minded focus on economic growth, and these will only get worse as the effects of global warming prey on the region.
Asia’s case aligns well with the focus of five of the 17 SDGs, which directly address the environment – climate action, clean energy, sustainable cities, and protecting natural resources in the oceans and on land. One hopes that national commitments to the SDGs will rebalance economic efforts to favor clean growth rather than just fast growth.
As for social issues fast and furious economic growth in Asia has created the impression of prosperity through rising GDP per capita, even as the actual wealth created has not been enjoyed as equally. Indeed, over half of developing Asia has experienced increased inequality (evidenced by a rising Gini coefficient) in the last two decades of high growth. Asia’s three largest countries – China, India and Indonesia, all recorded rising inequality from 1990 into the 2000 years, and this is also the case for the region’s developing countries as a whole. Thus, supply chains may have boosted exports and GDP growth, but if workers’ income lag incomes across the rest of society, clearly the gains of growth are not being spread evenly.
In short, the SDGs – and their message of integrated, balanced, high-quality growth – have much to offer Asia as it looks to its next phase of expansion. For a region that has long been fixated on GDP growth as the main indicator of progress, the SDGs offer a timely reminder that real progress is much more complex than that single number. The sooner that governments, and societies, realize that, the better positioned they will be to direct our efforts to produce better outcomes.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Asia Global Institute’s editorial policy.