In the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) lies the solution to Pakistan’s three central challenges: development, democracy and defence. That said, the SDGs will provide the glue that holds this fragile triangle. Implementing the UN’s 2030 Agenda for sustainable development, if realised as an integrated policy package, will also lead to long-term economic prosperity, human and environmental development. However, aside from external threats, a poor score card on meeting the 17 SDGs and the 169 targets specified by the UN will pose a serious, non-traditional threat to the country’s national security. That said, it is time to address what could turn out to be more like 17 socioeconomic risks to Pakistan’s security and progress, if targets remain unmet, especially those related to poverty alleviation, gender empowerment and climate change adaption.
The SDGs cut across all areas of government – from health and education to ending poverty and achieving gender equality, through to tackling climate change and utilising natural resources sustainably. The objectives underpin good governance and integrate three dimensions of sustainable development – economic development, social inclusion, and environmental sustainability. These are ambitious and complex goals requiring clearly mandated institutions and unflinching commitment to provide resources from the national exchequer for a decade and a half. And this implies commitment that is as strong as that for acquiring nuclear technology. Present and future civilian and military leaderships will need to follow through on this commitment.
If these goals and targets are too many for the country’s present resource capacity, then Pakistan can still decide to pick half, or even one-third, during this initial phase. While learning how to deliver sector-based integrated targets and indicators, the government can expand its ambition. There is no international obligation to sign off on all goals, targets or indicators. Government ambition has to be measured against its ability to carry out policy and institutional reforms.
Most national and provincial policies and action plans are developed in silos and are not backed by financial resources, timelines or strong political will. Provinces will, therefore, need to champion and drive the process of localizing and prioritization. If the history of vertical projects is an indicator, leaving it to federal level decision-makers will be risky and too top down for the present political culture. Therefore, the federal government should provide added support for certain specific SDGs via the National Finance Commission awards for these goals to be reliably anchored in provincial annual development plans.
Fortunately, the Planning Commission has begun to engage provincial and development departments (P&DDs) that would serve as nodes leading to the formation of special units or SDG centers. Other provinces can learn from Sindh, where Chief Minister Murad Ali Shah’s government has taken the lead in working on these development goals. But more important is working on the sustained capacity-building of those tasked with initiating and implementing actual work on approved development projects. The bottom line is clear: every rupee spent on SDGs in public expenditure needs to be tracked through a uniform and transparent budget coding system, and individual projects within provincial annual development programs must be measured against SDG indicators. This will provide a rare opportunity to improve interprovincial coordination in development plans where the policy landscape needs to be SDG compliant.
Additionally, political parties must work to mainstream sustainable development within national discourse. Their manifestos might highlight social and economic issues, but ensuring they are SDG complaint would shape the electoral debate to specificities rather than broad rhetorical pledges. National and provincial assemblies can also lead this process; particularly since the federal government has already created a nonpartisan parliamentary task force comprising national and provincial parliamentarians, and have allocated funds. This task force should work with think-tanks and the Pakistan Institute of Parliamentary Services. This, in turn, will prompt the media and their political pundits to follow almost immediately.
To add, Pakistan is needlessly struck with an archaic method of budgetary planning. Over the years, the state has developed a notoriously weak reputation when developing, implementing or monitoring social sector projects, resulting in globally dismal and embarrassingly poor indicators. That the SDGs will provide an opportunity to revisit the way the government approaches and undertakes development is something to be explored. Meanwhile, federal and provincial governments need to determine governance structures and accountability mechanisms required at national and local levels. This must not be sidestepped. Likewise, the P&DDs will need to formulate six prerequisites for successfully implementing the SDGs: governance and oversight, goal and indicator sets, implementation mechanisms, coordination, developing budgets and, finally, allocating resources.
Going forward, new models of the public-private partnership need to be tested. Policymakers should begin by proactively engaging the private sector, research universities, think-tanks and civil society, including professional associations. The SDGs are perhaps the best vehicle to lift more than 50 million people out of poverty when they earn less than two dollars a day by enriching their lives and livelihood options. Delivering on these goals will also help enhance Pakistan’s ability to emerge as one of the world’s leading economies and while doing so, strengthen national security.