It’s time for Asia and the Pacific to lead on sustainable development

It’s time for Asia and the Pacific to lead on sustainable development

Dr. Shamshad Akhtar*
The Asia-Pacific region is recognized for its leadership in global output, trade and development. The region has a new opportunity to lead on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development – a multidimensional, multisectoral and multiagency undertaking.  

In 2016, the first year of implementation for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), our region faces significant challenges: Prioritizing SDG implementation, pace and sequencing and meeting the massive data and statistics requirements, as well mobilizing the necessary means of implementation. The demands of this ambitious and complex agenda are extraordinary. It is the most comprehensive framework ever adopted by world leaders to eradicate poverty and ensure access to basic services for all. It offers an unprecedented opportunity for the Asia-Pacific region to transform its economies through an integrated development framework, balancing the social, economic and environmental dimensions of sustainability. 

Regional transformation is, therefore, urgently needed. Asia-Pacific economic growth has moderated in the wake of delays in the global economic recovery and given the lack of aggregate demand. This has been compounded by rising inequalities and the fact that more than 1.4 billion people still live in extreme poverty across our region, suffering from hunger, water insecurity, poor sanitation, insufficient access to energy and a range of other serious challenges to human dignity and well-being.        

Real transformation requires not only revitalized economic growth, but also progress on all three dimensions of sustainable development. Defining national priorities will be critical, but implementation also calls for a change of political mindset, a commitment to effective leadership and policy and institutional coordination to balance the interests of our people and our planet. 

Implementation also demands significant financial resources. The 2030 Agenda could cost Asia and the Pacific as much as $2.5 trillion per year to close infrastructure gaps and provide universal access to social protection, health and education, as well as action on climate change.  

Getting the baseline statistical indicators right demands an overhaul of national statistical systems and finding mechanisms to draw on the new and innovative data generated by private providers. 

Deployment of science, technology and innovation calls for strong cooperation that goes beyond north-south modalities, to include south-south cooperation as well. Success in Asia and the Pacific is contingent on sufficient resources being invested. In 2013 alone, Asian developing economies spent more than $650 billion on research and development. We also need to create more open flows of information and knowledge, through networks that focus on the future we want. 

For the SDGs to succeed, Asia-Pacific countries must take a more integrated approach, paying greater attention to governance and institutional capacity shortcomings. Development cooperation has to start at the national level, between states and local governments, with municipalities as the primary focus for delivery on the SDGs. Regional and global cooperation will also be critical, to deepen multilateralism and strengthen development finance institutions, directing greater resources to sustainable development. 

We also need to address systemic issues, such as the need for broader participation, multi-stakeholder partnerships and stronger accountability. To improve accountability, U.N. member states have agreed on the importance of a coherent, efficient and inclusive follow-up and review process at the global, regional and national levels. It will also be important to complement “top-down” strategic policy leadership with “ground-up” action through civil society and social movements. Effective engagement at all levels of government will strengthen implementation and ensure that inequality is properly addressed so that “no one is left behind.” 

Developing regional understanding of the SDGs and harnessing their means of implementation are core strategic priorities for the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP). In 2014, ESCAP convened the inaugural Asia-Pacific Forum on Sustainable Development, which is meeting again this week, engaging senior leaders from national and local governments, civil society, business and the international community, in a dialogue on implementing the 2030 Agenda. The 2016 forum will also discuss a way forward for a regional roadmap to support member states’ implementation of the 2030 Agenda over the next 15 years. 

Regional cooperation is critical to galvanize national action on the SDGs, and ESCAP stands ready to support the countries of our region in their efforts to achieve sustainable development outcomes.

*Dr. Shamshad Akhtar is an undersecretary-general of the U.N. and executive secretary of ESCAP.