The COVID-19 outbreak inflicted a devastating blow to the sustainable development aspirations of South Asia at a time when the subregion urgently needed an accelerated implementation pathway for achieving by 2030 the Sustainable Development Goals, a United Nations forum was told in Colombo.
Participants meeting at the fifth South Asia Forum on the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals refused to back down from this challenge, observing that there were significant overlaps between the immediate measures required for recovering from the pandemic and the longstanding policy frameworks needed to speed up achievement of the SDSs. Participants emphasised that, with carefully calibrated policy responses simultaneously addressing both these objectives, the 2030 Agenda was still within the reach of South Asia.
The annual subregional SDG Forums are organised by the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific to bring together stakeholders on a common platform to discuss achievements and challenges in the progress towards the SDGs for further review at the Asia-Pacific Forum for Sustainable Development and at the United Nations High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF). This year’s Forum was co-hosted by the Sustainable Development Council of the Government of Sri Lanka and focussed on Goal 4 (Quality Education), Goal 5 (Gender Equality), Goal 14 (Life below Water), Goal 15 (Life on Land) and Goal 17 (Partnership for the Goals).
Inaugurating the Forum, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa of Sri Lanka said that “the theme of this year’s Forum is timely and relevant, as we strive to build back better and stronger from the global pandemic that resulted in devastating consequences for our economies and societies.”
“Looking forward, we have to adopt a strategy for judiciously utilising the resources and opportunities available to us to address both the immediate concerns of recovery from the pandemic, and the long-term requirements of resilience and sustainability of our economies,” said Armida Salsiah Alisjahbana, United Nations Under-Secretary-General and ESCAP Executive Secretary.
Esala Ruwan Weerakoon, Secretary-General of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation; Asad Umar, Minister for Planning, Development & Special Initiatives of Pakistan, Fathimath Niuma, Deputy Minister of National Planning, Housing and Infrastructure of Maldives; Biswo Nath Poudel, Vice-Chairman of the National Planning Commission of Nepal; and Hanaa Singer-Hamdy, UN Resident Coordinator in Sri Lanka, also addressed the Forum.
Taking stock of SDG progress in South Asia, it was noted that the subregion had been making good progress on several targets related to Goal 1 (No Poverty), Goal 2 (Zero Hunger) and Goal 3 (Good Health and Wellbeing), including significant reduction in maternal and child mortality rates, prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, buoyed by consistently high economic growth rates. Post-pandemic, the subregion has slipped back on many of these achievements. While some progress has been made on Goal 7 (Affordable and Clean Energy), particularly in terms of increase in investments in clean energy sources, the proportion of renewables in total energy consumption is not improving as needed. Alarmingly, the subregion is found to be regressing on Goal 11 (Sustainable Cities and Communities) and on key environmental Goals 13 (Climate Action) and 14 (14 Life below Water). Progress is either slow or stagnant on most of the remaining Goals.
A special report produced by the ESCAP Subregional Office for South and South-West Asia titled Achieving the SDGs in South Asia was presented at the Forum. The report puts forward five critical areas of policy reforms covering structural diversification of the economy oriented on sustainable industrialisation, enhanced investments in the core social sectors of education and health, expansion of social protection and basic infrastructure networks, agriculture and rural development, and building capacities for clean energy and environmental sustainability. Reforms in these areas can have spill over benefits for many goals and targets, and thus contribute substantially to the implementation of the 2030 Agenda.
The report also presents key modalities and instruments for enhanced regional cooperation for the SDGs, and various capacity-building programmes, knowledge resources and initiatives of ESCAP in this regard.
The Forum was attended by government representatives, think-tanks, intergovernmental development organisations, civil society, academia and the private sector from across the South and South-West Asia subregion. It was organized with the active involvement of member organisations of the South Asia Network on the Sustainable Development Goals (SANS). Delegates from various South Asian countries also presented their Voluntary National Reviews.