• News
  • Columns
  • Interviews
  • BW Communities
  • Events
  • BW TV
  • Subscribe to Print
  • Editorial Calendar 19-20

Kiran Karnik

Kiran Karnik is an independent policy and strategy analyst, and chairperson of Oxfam India

More From The Author >>
BW Businessworld

Sustaining Development

Enlightened self-interest requires that the private sector must no longer shirk its responsibility with regard to the community or to the environment which sustains them

Stirring calls to "leave no one behind", to end poverty and hunger, ensure health for all and achieve gender equality: this radical manifesto should energise all right thinking people everywhere. A global compact on this should certainly be most exciting. Yet, there has been little media coverage - and, therefore, limited public interest - in India on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). There were no bold headlines or breathless anchors when, on September 25, 2015, the 193 Member States of the United Nations formally adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the associated SDGs. One would have thought that an event of this significance, of direct relevance to India, would generate a great deal of discussion. However, beyond a few individuals and some civil society organisations, the extent of debate and informed comment has been minimal.

The earlier globally-shared goals - articulated in the form of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) - have 2015 as their deadline. The SDGs are, in a sense, MDG 2.0. They seek to break fresh ground in the fight against poverty by moving beyond social development targets and emphasising aspects related to climate change, natural resources, human rights and sustainability. The adoption of the 2030 Agenda was the result of painstaking negotiations, with inputs from civil society, academics, scientists and the private sector. The resulting SDGs have 17 goals and as many as 169 targets, leading to questions about whether there is lack of focus. However, others argue that poverty is complicated and is a consequence of problems in a host of areas; therefore, action requires a multi-dimensional effort.

In the last 15 years, the world has seen the fastest reduction in poverty in human history. While China has been the biggest contributor, India too has achieved much in this area. Yet, we are home to the largest number of poor in the world. Now, in a substantial step forward from the past, the SDGs aim to eradicate - not just reduce - poverty and hunger, and to combat inequality.

Reducing inequality - both within and among countries - is one of the goals within the SDGs. This follows from the fact that one of the consequences of the globally pre-dominant economic model has been an increase in inequality. Oxfam estimates that almost half the world's wealth - $110 trillion - is owned by the top 1% and that the richest 80 people own as much as the poorest half of the planet. These horrifying inequalities are mirrored in India where the top 1% own 53% of the wealth. Such extreme inequality is not only morally repugnant, but is also not socially sustainable.

India, despite its robust economic growth over the last decade and more, preceded by slower but steady growth for decades, continues its dismal record with regard to social indicators. The figures for child nutrition, infant and maternal mortality and poverty resulting from cost of health-care are not only far worse than those of countries with similar per capita income, they also compare unfavourably with far poorer countries. One hopes that the SDGs will energise the country to correct its neglect of public health and collectively mount a sustained effort to meet the ambitious targets in this and other areas.

Governments around the world are hard pressed to find the billions that are required to further the developmental agenda. Meanwhile, global developmental aid from governments is pitifully small. The four decade old target of 0.7% of gross national income is yet to be met, and this year OECD announced that donors' average net aid was just 0.29% of GNI. While aid is no longer important for India, many developing countries do depend on it. Reaching the targeted 0.7% could raise an additional $250 billion a year; money that is badly needed, but not available.

While many actions are necessary to meet the financing needs, one source is to plug the tax leakages that deprive countries of billions of dollars that are rightfully theirs. According to OECD, tax revenue losses due to "base erosion and profit sharing" are conservatively estimated at $100 - 240 billion annually. India is amongst the big losers on this count. Hopefully, the new action plan adopted by OECD a few months ago should close the loopholes.

Over the years - and at an accelerating rate - the private sector has become a key player in sustainable development. Sometimes, it's greed (especially in extractive industries) derails and sets back development, as local communities lose their land and are forced to move, or suffer the effects of pollution that affect their crops, water and air. In India, this has contributed in no small measure to the rise of so-called "left extremism". On the other hand, industry could well partner with local communities and the government to further the development agenda, leveraging its capabilities in management, execution and in its specialised areas of expertise. Enlightened self-interest requires that the private sector must no longer shirk its responsibility with regard to the community or to the environment which sustains them.

Civil society organisations are vital in ensuring delivery, in monitoring progress and providing feedback for correctives, and in advocating policies that will empower the disadvantaged. Success in social development and in meeting the SDG targets requires that their crucial role is acknowledged and encouraged. They must continue to strive to ensure that governments and the private sector stay honest and committed to the public good. It helps greatly if civil society, government and the private sector work together. Only through such concerted effort can we fulfill the bedrock on which the global goals are built: the promise to "leave no one behind" and to "reach the furthest behind first".

(This article is a part of BW | Businessworld series on sustainable development)