The Asian Dream: What does it entail?

19 Dec 2018

Accelerating SDG progress calls for increased investment and a change in mindset

The Asia-Pacific region has exhibited relatively strong economic growth over the last decade, while the world was reeling from the global financial crisis. Yet, ESCAP’s 2017 Progress Report on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) revealed that the region met only 1 out of the 17 goals. Moreover, only 4 countries in the region indicate that they have undertaken a comprehensive assessment of how much it would cost to achieve all 17 goals. In our forthcoming Economic and Social Survey of Asia and the Pacific 2019, we estimate the total investment needs for the region to achieve the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.   

To enhance policy dialogue on this topic, ESCAP organized a two-day Expert Group Meeting on “How much do ambitions cost? Investment needs for achieving Sustainable Development Goals in Asia and the Pacific” on November 14 and 15. More than 40 experts from 26 organizations participated and shared their research models, preliminary results on investment needs for the region, and views on policy directions.

Much of the technical discussion focused on the pitfalls in such estimations. Experts’ warnings include applying the same unit cost to different countries under the intervention-based estimations; having to choose between unrealistic top-down approaches and data-intensive bottom up ones; the difficulty in pricing technological changes dynamically; and accounting for synergies between SDGs. After all, these goals are not mutually exclusive. Rather they can be mutually reinforcing. Hence, failure to account for such synergies could overestimate the actual investment needs.

Inside this technical dialogue emerged one big message: If we need to achieve the 2030 Agenda, we need to “change the mindset.” It’s time to think differently.

  1. Well-being first: For far too long, a narrative has been created that puts growth above well-being. The use of the word “expenditure” for spending on health and education undermines the role of public policy for improving the well-being of the population. There was consensus that the mindset should change towards thinking of such expenses as “social investment to achieve development goals.” In addition, a move away from emphasis on growth could help policymakers take a longer and more holistic view on priorities. For instance, investments in climate action could deliver various co-benefits such as better health as well as put the economy on a sustainable path.
  2. “Eureka!” moment on fiscal front: Economic policies need to reorient toward putting the well-being of people before growth. Instead of binding the hands of policymakers under the traditional debt sustainability analysis, the resource envelope required to achieve the SDGs should be considered first to match with the innovative financing sources. Similarly, emphasis should shift away from only mobilizing additional resources to using the current resources more judiciously and efficiently. For instance, reshuffling expenditures away from fuel subsidy to renewable energies could take us closer to our environment-related goals. Complementary measures, such as conditional cash transfers, can also help to reduce poverty. Above all, a strong political will to implement reforms would be crucial for realizing these dreams.
  3. We are all in this together: Achieving the SDGs, especially tackling environment-related goals, requires more coordination and cooperation between countries and across generations within a country. The impact of green-house gas emissions and loss of biodiversity and ecosystem destruction cuts across borders as the world experiences climatic changes. And within a country, individuals may be reluctant to bear the cost of adapting to and mitigating the effects of climate change as they may not live to reap the benefits. However, this attitude needs to change as we are hanging by the thread trying to respond to a clarion call that Nobel Laureate William Nordhaus made 40 years ago.     

Sustainable development is about the future that we want. Investing in the SDGs could bring an economically resilient, socially inclusive, and environmentally sustainable future to us and the coming generations. Many countries have sufficient domestic financial resources, but need to be creative to find additional fiscal space, including improving investment efficiency and reallocating capital. ESCAP will continue to serve as a regional platform to share knowledge to identify innovative and cost-effective solutions, as well as to support cross-sectoral and cross border initiatives. 

Stay tuned for the numbers to be released in April 2019 !