LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – New U.N. sustainable development goals must focus as much on reining in the over-consumption of the rich as on reducing the misery of the poor, say a group of experts on the world’s least-developed countries.
And aid from rich countries to poor, which can fuel corruption among political elites and rob countries of the ability to set their own priorities, should no longer be seen as the main way to bring change, they add.
Instead, the world’s poorest developing countries must focus on building local institutions that work and on adopting “leapfrog” technology – such as off-grid renewable energy – that takes advantage of them not being locked in to existing technologies.
“The time has gone to think about this whole thing in terms of aid,” said Dipak Gyawali, a hydroelectric power engineer who is also a political economist in Nepal and a member of a new non-governmental expert group that is seeking to influence how new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are set.
Aid “should not be the driving force anymore,” he said.
As the United Nations moves to adopt new goals in 2014 to replace the expiring Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), the new expert panel – with members from some of the world’s least-developed countries like Haiti, Bangladesh and Burkina Faso – aims to push both their own national leaders and international decision-makers to create new goals based on a fundamental rethink of the way development should happen.
“We’ve spent 30 years trying to sell desperation,” said Youba Sokona, an environment and development expert from Mali, who now works with the South Centre, a developing countries policy think tank, as a special adviser on sustainable development. Now “we want to sell hope,” he added.
Poor countries with limited rural energy grids, for example, are well-placed to take up cutting-edge new clean energy technology because they don’t need to pay off long-term investments in things like coal-fired power plants, Sokona and Gyawali said.
The uptake of innovations like small-scale hydroelectric plants and off-grid solar energy is flourishing in many local communities in poor countries, they added. In other countries, communities are being granted local management control of forests or other land, which has led to a surge in local income and better protection of natural resources.
But one problem is such local progress doesn’t always make its way into national policy and so may not be scaled up, the experts said. In some cases “we don’t have institutions that know how to implement (this),” Sokona said.
PROBLEMS OF AID
Another problem is that political elites in some countries, who benefit handsomely from foreign aid flows, may see no particular benefit in solving problems if the result is a reduction in aid.
In many countries, “shortage of money is not the problem. There’s a tonne of money being spent in the wrong places,” Gyawali said. And changing the way things are done is “sometimes resisted by national bodies because it goes against their interests.”
Equally important in the new sustainable development goals is ensuring the rich – as well as the poor – have goals to meet, the experts said.
The next set of goals is “not about the rich giving to the poor. The new agenda is the whole world reaching sustainability,” said Saleemul Huq, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) and a member of the expert panel from Bangladesh. That means “the rich doing something themselves, not just giving us money.”
The experts said their 12-member group, which was organised with support from the London-based IIED and met for the first time last week, would work to produce a paper laying out some of their ideas to present at the U.N. General Assembly in June – when the assembly will start working in earnest on negotiating new sustainable development goals with the aim of putting them into place in 2014.
The experts said they would also critique other policy papers submitted as part of the SDG effort.
“We don’t see eye to eye with Jeffrey Sachs,” one noted. Sachs is an advocate of large scale aid projects.
The experts also said they were counting on their “nuisance value” to put pressure on leaders and policy makers in their own countries.
Gyawali, for instance, said his persistent efforts to push for more effective and less damaging hydropower plants in Nepal had eventually led a politician’s wife to confide, jokingly, that her husband was now “scared” of him.
“If you don’t have that nuisance value, your very nice ideas won’t be listened to,” he said.
They also hope to harness associations of local and regional leaders – such as mayors’ groups or local representatives groups – to help give local and regional efforts a greater voice in national and international decision making.
The experts said they were under no illusions that creating more effective development goals would be easy, not least with national political leaders from the least-developed countries who are focused primarily on winning more of the aid money they depend on.
“It’s a mindset change that’s going to be difficult,” Huq said. Right now, “the unifying feature of the (least-developed countries) group is dependence on foreign aid.”
“It’s a tall order, we understand but it has to begin,” he added.