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COMMENT | On the 5th anniversary of the UN Sustainable Development Goals

COMMENT | 2020 is a significant and defining year for the international community. Today marks five years that the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) framework, or Agenda 2030, was unanimously endorsed by the 193 member states of the United Nations on Sept 25, 2015.

Because the progress of the goals, to date, has been too slow, this is also the year that the Decade of Action was announced to accelerate the SDGs. And all of these coincide with the 75th anniversary of the United Nations.

Rewinding the clock back to five years ago, the powerful 15-year framework of the SDGs that emerged from the largest global consultation ever was formulated to ensure all member states work towards a common goal – a renewed and reinvigorated global commitment to a more inclusive, prosperous and environmentally sustainable future for all underpinned by good governance.

Guided by the principle of leaving no one behind, the SDGs are a call to action to all parts of society – government, businesses, civil society and citizens themselves – doing their part to achieve the most ambitious common vision that the world has ever had.

Additionally, the SDGs marked a step-change in ambition over the foregoing Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), not only in their coverage – 17 versus 8 goals, 169 versus 48 targets – but also in the level of aspiration – seeking the absolute elimination of deprivations.

Moreover, what marks the SDGs out as especially innovative is their practicality – offering policy and implementation “steer” to governments and combining this with a synchronised monitoring framework. The SDG approach allows countries to adapt the targets to national characteristics and adopt the framework into domestic planning and delivery arrangements. And I commend that the Malaysian government, in their efforts, to do just this.

However, as all countries began planning and executing their SDG vision, many have faced challenges. The UN secretary-general in early 2020 announced a dire situation – progress toward sustainable development is seriously off-track.

We have made inroads into extreme poverty and child mortality; access to energy and decent work. Governments are mainstreaming SDGs into national frameworks with UN support, private sector committing to various goals, civil society on the ground pushing the envelope, the youth raising their voices and challenging the business as usual. But much more needs to be done.

The Decade of Action – to accelerate SDG achievement was called due to the worrisome progress. The SDGs can only be moved if all parts are moving as one – from government, private sector, civil society and the peoples

Each has a role to play, from identifying SDG bottlenecks and designing policies to addressing them, effective implementation, channelling of financial resources to where these are needed most and effecting behavioural change to simply doing the right thing for people, planet, peace and prosperity. The goals under these four “Ps” being highly interdependent and achievable through integrated approaches, strategic investments and strong partnerships.

Today, we have a new common enemy – the Covid-19 pandemic, generated first as a health crisis and then as an economic crisis – halting progress and threatening to reverse hard won SDG gains. Globally, the scale of the challenge cannot be underplayed.

At the time of writing, there are close to 32 million cases and approaching one million Covid-19-related deaths. Thankfully, and through a highly effective response, Malaysia’s performance has been impressive so far, with just over 10,000 cases and 130 deaths.

The global economic fallout has been as problematic, with major economies, and now Malaysia, too, recording eye-watering double-digit hits to the quarterly GDP. These will have a very real impact on people’s lives. An additional dimension is the distribution of impacts, with the vulnerable suffering the most.

Opportunity to press the reset button...

We need also to think about the dimensions beyond income – health, directly via Covid-19 infections, but also via increased reticence to go to hospitals, and education, where schooling has been heavily interrupted.

But we must see the opportunity before us. We can build back better – to get things right. We have an opportunity to press the reset button, adjusting flawed or outdated policies, invest better in more green technology, close down inequalities, build partnerships, not just within but also across borders, and protect our environment from climate change and loss of biodiversity, both on land and in oceans. Covid-19 was itself a stark reminder of how interdependent we are with nature and that with the ongoing environmental destruction, we will only become more vulnerable.

Hence, my message is that Covid-19 has made the SDGs even more relevant in Malaysia and elsewhere. Indeed, the key thrusts of Agenda 2030 now matter more than ever – leaving no one behind, building solidarity between and within countries, pursuing a joined-up agenda that recognises the central importance of synergies and linkages, and for engaging all actors.

A successful response to Covid-19, at core, is about tackling vulnerabilities and boosting resilience – of families, of businesses, of geographical areas and at the national level. These themes lie at the heart of the SDG framework. Having a resilient health system has been at the heart of Malaysia’s Covid-19 response, having a diversified and flexible economy will also deliver socio-economic gains down the line.

However, the economy still needs attention, and problematically, the impacts – driven by the collapse in global demand and supply disruptions – are outside of national control. Yet there are still strategies that can be adopted to enable adaptation to the new normal. These involve alleviating the supply and demand constraints the economy has suffered, while also protecting the vulnerable.

The government’s stimulus is a major contribution, but if we are to reboot Malaysia’s SDG progress, we now need to focus on the medium-term economic recovery. And address questions like how we restart badly affected sectors, how we shift labour via re-training and re-deployment to new activities, how producers can find new markets via repurposing and/or finding new clients and how we re-orientate the wider economy?

The UN has recognised the centrality of the SDGs in crafting its partnership with Malaysia through its United Nations Sustainable Development Cooperation Framework 2021-2025 and through an SDG-grounded Covid-19 package – under the soon-to-be-published Social and Economic Response Plan (SERP). This will be rolled out in the coming months as the UN seeks to support Malaysia’s sustained and lasting recovery.

As we commemorate the fifth anniversary of the SDGs, we, the peoples, must double down our efforts to ensure a better world for everyone by reimaging and redesigning the world for the betterment of those in the present, and in the future.

The Sustainable Development Goals is the framework to make it a reality.

With 10 years to the SDG deadline of 2030, this is a once-in-a-generation chance to set things right. We cannot fail ourselves.

STEFAN PRIESNER is the United Nations Resident Coordinator for Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei Darussalam.

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.