Are the sustainable development goals (SDGs) a minimum agenda for good governance today?

In this essay…

World Bank in its report “Governance and Development” (1992) set out its definition of Good Governance. It defined Good Governance as “the manner in which power is exercised in the management of a country’s economic and social resources for development”. Good governance has 8 major characteristics – (1) Participatory, (2) Consensus-oriented, (3) Accountable, (4) Transparent, (5) Responsive, (6) Effective and efficient, (7) Equitable and inclusive, and (8) Follow the rule of law.

Evolution of governance: From Government to Governance

The idea of governance is as old as human civilization. But till the 20th century, it was not a common word in our society. However, it was implicit in our civilizational discourses. At the beginning of the Vedic age, people didn’t have a settled life. But with the advent of agriculture, people started settling down. With the passage of time, kingdoms started to grow and by the 6th century BC, there were 16 Mahajanapadas. Subsequently, Mauryan and Gupta systems flourished, where elements of governance became important. For example, the concept in Indian statecraft, diplomacy, and polity of rulers, where rulers were bound by dharma or ‘Raj Dharma’, which meant ensuring good governance for the people.

The system of governance gets transformed in the medieval period. In northern India, the Tuglaq dynasty started focusing on agriculture and for this ‘Taccavi loan’ was extended to farmers. Similarly, down the south, during the Sangam period, the Chola dynasty was famous for its decentralized system of governance. The king was assisted by a wide body of officials similar to today’s council of ministers (COM). The system of governance even continued systematically in the Mysore kingdom under Haider Ali and Tipu Sultan. They heavily stressed for agriculture and industrial development, and tax assessment based on the fertility of the soil.

In spite of working in the interest of the people, the relationship between the King and the people was Raja-Praja where people were dependent on the King. During the colonial period, Britishers exploited resources and at the same time established rule of law. Things changed in post-independent India where the government led by pundit Nehru assumed all the responsibility to take care of the people. That’s why he preferred state-led governance. In but 21st century especially after the new economic policy, this relationship transformed and the governance system went close to the market mechanism. Subsequently, the Millennium development program (MDG) and sustainable development program (SDG) became the minimum agenda of good governance.

SDGs: A minimum agenda for good governance

Millennium development programs (MDG) were established at the Millennium Summit of the United Nations in 2000 for the period between 2000 to 2015. It contained 8 goals that were supposed to be completed by 2015. In 2015, MDGs were replaced by SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals) with 17 goals, and almost all the 8 goals of MDGs are subsumed explicitly or implicitly. There are three core elements of sustainable development goals – (1) Economic Growth, (2) Social inclusion, and (3) Environmental protection.

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Economic Growth and good governance

It focuses on equal economic growth that generates wealth for all, without harming the environment. SDG-8 talks about the decent work and economic growth that forms the minimum agenda for good governance. It protects people from hazardous work and manual scavenging in the age of the 21st century. Thus, it ensures the dignity of individuals while performing the economic activity and thus helps in realizing the values ‘dignity of individual’ of the preamble in the Indian constitution. Generating wealth for all ultimately leads to the ‘just society’ as imagined by Mahatma Gandhi in his conception of Ram Rajya.

Similarly, SDG-9 promises for building resilient infrastructure and promoting sustainable and inclusive economic growth and productive employment. It forms the minimum agenda for good governance. For e.g. inclusive economic growth creates a win-win situation for almost all stakeholders. It increases the purchasing power of the people and at the same time, it helps in redistributing resources. From the entrepreneur’s point of view, sustainable growth makes them to get consent from the government and people easily. Overall, it increases the productivity of the workforce without compromising the future.

Overall, sustainable and inclusive economic growth would reduce inequality (SDG-10). Reduced inequality and inclusive growth generate credibility for the entrepreneurs and reduce the chances of revolution against them. Thus, it would reconcile the class struggle between the workers and owners of the industry. Even in ancient Greek, Aristotle has explained that if inequality persists, it may lead to revolution. Subsequently, it was validated in the work of Marxism. So, adhering to the SDG goals have the potential to resolve the long-going class conflict in our society.

Social inclusion and good governance

The first five SDGs are related to social inclusion that forms the minimum agenda for good governance. SDG-1 asks the state to end the poverty of all its forms everywhere. The basic motto of good governance is to eradicate the suffering of the people through their actions. Poverty can be categorized as the intangible form of violence that existed in our society. As per the RBI report, nearly one-fourth population in India lives below the poverty line (BPL). Office BPL is decided on the basis of the Tendulkar Committee according to which if a person earns below Rs 23 in villages and Rs 32 in cities are poor. A person living under the BPL tag can’t buy a single thali (As per Thalinomics stated in Budget 2020-21) that cost Rs 38.7 per vegetarian thali.

In such a situation, it becomes the basic minimum agenda for the government of the day to free poor people from such forms of violence. Similarly, SDG-2 asks states to free the state from the state of hunger. The global hunger index says that worsening conflict and weather extremes associated with global climate change have pushed a large mass into poverty. Subsequently, COVID-19 and associated health challenges further worsened the situation. Africa and South Asia are the world regions where hunger levels are highest. Since, climate change, conflicts, and health are interconnected with hunger, the SDG becomes a benchmark for good governance.

Similarly, SDG-3 asks for good health and wellbeing. It ensures healthy lives and the happiness of the people. SDG-4 asks for ensuring quality education and providing opportunities for learning. Inclusive and equitable quality education would lead to building social capital in our society. SDG-5 asks to ensure gender equality and empowerment of women and girls. It becomes important in the light of the study by the former managing director of IMF, Christine Lagarde who concluded that India can increase by 27% of GDP if men and women work together in a workforce equitable. For this, good health, quality education, and equal opportunity are important prerequisites. Thus, all of these form the minimum agenda of good governance for our society.

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Environmental protection and good governance

Apart from inclusive and sustainable economic growth and social inclusion, environmental protection is one of the three pillars of India’s SDGs. United Nation in its report defines sustainable development as – ‘Development which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.’ Thus, development should progress in our society by keeping intra-generational as well as inter-generational equality. SDG-5 (Gender equality) and SDG-10 (Reducing equality) ensure intra-generational equality. Environmental production and sustainable development would ensure inter-generational inequality.

Since we know that we have limited resources on our mother earth, we should also generate renewable resources that would be eco-friendly too. For example, solar energy and wind energy. For this, SDG-7 promises affordable and clean energy. Even if we provide clean energy at a high cost, the basic purpose would fail. Thus, it should be affordable so that the common citizens can avail that energy. Subsequently, SDG-12 asks for sustainable consumption and production. It means our consumption should be in line with the production capacity of the ecosystem. For this, we should reduce wastage. For example, the UN report estimated that 17% of total global food production is wasted. Thus, the role of the state becomes important to meet SDG targets to achieve good governance.

Similarly, SDG-13 (Climate change), SDG-14 (Life below water), and SDG-15 (Life on land) become important in the direction of achieving good governance. SDGs guide the state to take action for containing climate change through good governance. It prevents excessive exploitation of lives below the sea for seafood because it would disturb the food chain in the aquatic ecosystem. On the same line, it guides not to use excessive pesticides that can harm life on the earth. For example, Mao misunderstood the value of the ecosystem in his “four pests campaign” where he focused to kill rats, flies, mosquitoes, and sparrows to increase productivity. But it backfires and reduced productivity much lesser than before due to disturbance in the food chain.

Full Throttle: Efforts of India and the world

A collective effort is being made by the government, private players, and world governance. In the first place, states have been taking action in meeting sustainable development goals. For example, to offset the impact of COVID-19 with respect to poverty (SDG-1) and hunger (SDG-2), the government has launched PM Gareeb Kalyan Yojna. It provides free food grains for the poor to assist when economic activities were paused during the lockdown. For the long term, India has launched MGNREGA for employment generation and poverty alleviation. Similarly, the National food security act 2013 and the public distribution system (PDS) are in the line with sustainable development goals.

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At the global level, the world bank is working with the least developing countries to reduce suffering. International Monetary Fund (IMF) restructures the economic system of a country and advice countries on economic matters through a Structural adjustment program (SAP). UN environment program, UNFCCC, UN development program, World Wide Fund for nature, etc. are working in the field of environmental protection. Similarly, Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) is a specialized UN agency that leads international efforts to defeat hunger and improve nutrition and food security.

However, their efforts are tracked by several reports released by different organizations led by groups of countries or NGOs. For example, the Global hunger index measures the condition of hunger across the world. Similarly, the IPCC report measures the efforts of the globe in containing climate change and tacking the promises made during the Paris deal i.e., limiting temperature to 1.5 degrees below the industrial level. On the same line, NGO Pratham in India tracks the development in the education sector through surveys. Forest reports released once in three years indicate progress in our efforts toward the environment.

Cog in the wheel of progress: Challenges

Sustainable Development Goals Report says that inequality has been increasing across the world. Especially after the COVID-19 pandemic, inequality has been increasing at a greater pace. It is also confirmed by the Oxfam report 2021 (“The inequality virus”). On-going conflicts in the world create challenges in meeting SDG. For example, the Russia-Ukraine war created a crisis in food supply and poses threats to poverty and hunger, especially in African countries.

Similarly, ongoing political development in a region like Afghanistan creates a cog in the wheel. For example, conditions for women and minorities are poor in the state of Taliban-led Afghanistan. Taliban-led Afghanistan doesn’t provide equal opportunity to women in the field of education and employment. Some countries want to work on sustainable development goals but they are running out of financial capability. They also don’t have the economic capability to succeed in this direction.

In conclusion

Thus, there is a need for collective efforts by the global community in the process of meeting sustainable development because it forms that minimum agenda of governance. Focusing on SDGs creates a win-win situation for almost all the stakeholders. We need to follow the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities (CBDR) on the basis of capacity to deal with it. For example, SDG-3 asks for good health and wellbeing. In the context of COVID-19, no one is safe until everyone is safe. Thus, instead of focussing on territory and stressing egoism, we all need to work together for the betterment of humankind.

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