Four years on — progress on SDGs

Published: July 11, 2019
The writer heads Pattan Development Organisation and can be reached at

The writer heads Pattan Development Organisation and can be reached at

Except the story of the hare and the tortoise, very often a ‘bad beginning has a bad, or worse ending’. Pakistan’s development tale looks alike. Despite spending more than four trillion rupees and getting huge support from donors between 2012 and 2015, the failure of Pakistan in achieving the Millennium Development Goals tells a lot. Now, the country is implementing Sustainable Development Goals or the 2030 Agenda. It covers 15 years (2015-30) and consists of 17 goals, 169 targets and 241 indicators. Pakistan has, however, decided to work and report on 230 indicators of the national, sub-national and local levels. Will the implementers perform successfully this time? First, I thought yes. Today I have my doubts.

Pakistan was the first country whose Parliament adopted the SDGs as its national agenda. That made me proud and hopeful. It was also welcoming that the National Economic Council endorsed the SDGs and aligned them with Public Sector Development Programmes and provincial Annual Development Programmes (ADPs). Various ministries also nominated focal persons, and SDGs’ Support Units were established at federal and provincial levels. Moreover, prior to the SDGs, Pakistan’s parliament had already devolved most of the SDGs-related subjects to provinces through the 18th Constitutional Amendment. Overall, the Ministry of Planning and Development (MoPDR) has taken the lead role. Think-tanks have also been assigned tasks and the UNDP has taken a major role. Naturally, the UNDP will deserve admiration if Pakistan achieves the SDGs’ targets and should share the blame too if it fails. And this should apply to all those who have become partners of the implementation structures.

The 2030 Agenda aims to end poverty, hunger, inequalities (within and across countries), gender disparity, violation of rights, environmental risks/threats and poor-quality water and sanitation. It also resolves to provide decent work and to build capacities of communities, institutions, civil society and governments to achieve these goals. And, these objectives find many similarities with the articles (3, 25, 37 and 38) of our Constitution too. Though with varying degree, parallels could also be seen with manifestoes of most of the ruling parties. Any progress, therefore, on SDGs will in fact be a fulfilment of our state’s commitment to its citizens, promises of political parties to the electorate and above all the peoples longing for a better life. In short, a huge similarity in purpose exists. Despite all that, political will seems to be missing. Implementation strategy looks problematic as the whole process is being handed over to bureaucracy and so-called experts. Four years on, the 2030 Agenda remains a paper tiger. You need to wear magnifying glasses to find signs of the SDGs’ work at the grassroots level — not even in Bhakkar and Rajanpur, the two pilot districts.

The National Framework for the SDGs — which was produced in March 2018 reportedly ‘after extensive analysis of data and deliberations with provincial and local governments’ and later presented to the NEC — contains draft matrix consisting of prioritised goals, indicators and targets. Its implementation strategy is primarily based on the following pillars: Mainstreaming SDGs in plans, policies and resource allocation; strengthening of monitoring, reporting and evaluation capacities; aligning finances with SDGs; and innovation including localisation of SDGs in all its phases.

Strangely, prior to the above, the Federal and Sindh governments have already prioritised the SDGs’ goals. According to the Federal SDGs’ Support Units Annual Report 2017, Punjab had started the process but not completed it. However, the report provides little information about other regions of the country.

The 2030 Agenda is local, national as well as global. Localisation and inclusiveness are the two main pillars of the SDGs’ implementation strategy. In order to make it a success, everywhere involvement of all stakeholders in the whole process is a must. The UNDP has helped the Government of Punjab develop ‘the localisation plans for ten poorest districts by adopting a bottom-up approach for identification of SDGs-related priorities.’ For the purpose, Rajanpur and Bhakkar were ‘selected for their performance on Multi-dimensional Poverty Index (MPI) for developing SDGs localisation plan.’

Also, in March 2017, the MoPDR held the Local Government Summit on SDGs. The stated purpose of the LG Summit was ‘to localise the SDGs at the grassroots level.’ As many as 75 heads of district councils and municipal corporations participated in the event. They were made to participate in the Focus Group Discussion. Prior to the summit, a questionnaire was also sent to them. Its objective was to ascertain socio-economic situation and to identify development needs of each district and city. This was indeed a necessary step towards localisation.

The summit participants repeatedly and unanimously articulated this: ‘strengthen the local institutions/councils, the processes and make them more participatory and inclusive by involving all relevant stakeholders including local communities/citizens.’ Instead, the PML-N government (2013-2018) ignored the outcome of its own initiative and the PTI government dissolved the local councils in Punjab. Result? Civil servants become the sole implementers. This vanishes my hope.

Pakistan will be presenting Voluntary National Review at the 2019 UN High-Level Political Forum that is taking place during 9-15 July, this year. Reportedly, there will be some time for stakeholders to present a brief statement in response to the official presentations. At the global level, a group of stakeholders has also been collecting national inputs from different countries in order to evolve a document that will help compare differences if there are any between the official and civil society positions on progress. The MoPDR has also created a link on its website for the involvement of public in the VNR process.

The proof of the pudding is in the eating. Pakistan just released the VNR report. It claims that ‘stunting and malnutrition have decreased between 2013 and 2018 by six and nine percentage points, respectively.’ The 2018 Pakistan National Nutrition Survey, Key Findings Report published by Ministry of National Health Services contradicts that claim. The prevalence of stunting increased. In 1994, it was 36.3%. By 2018, it peaked to 40.2%. Similarly, since 1997, the prevalence of low weight for height among young children is on the rise, from 8.6% in 1997 to 17.7% in 2018.

I also talked to some of the officials (fear of reprisal) who are being made responsible for implementing the pilot and the localisation phases in the ten districts. Here is the summary of their answers. Though they received training, they didn’t get any funds, staff, equipment and support for the implementation of activities. Nothing peculiar. The National Commission on the Status of Women, the Federal Information Commission and many others were deprived of funding for years. But, the Agenda 2030 is radically different. It can’t afford such a deprivation as it is time-bound. Four years on, fear of failure looms on the horizon as our bureaucrats are neither the hare nor the tortoise.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 11th, 2019.

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Reader Comments (1)

  • M Ali Kemal
    Jul 12, 2019 - 8:54AM

    As far as stunting is concerned, the data Bari sb is presenting does not match the years which VNR report is depicting. Recommend

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