2030 Agenda: Paper tiger or driver of change?

Frühmorgens auf dem Meskel-Platz in Addis Abeba.
Article AS news
In late September, the UN General Assembly adopted the comprehensive "2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development". Action is also needed in Switzerland.

With the new millennium, the UN launched the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) with the central goal of eliminating poverty by 2015. Yet despite the progress made in health and education, 12.9% of the population of developing countries is still malnourished. The MDGs are now to be followed by the 2030 Agenda, which through its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) addresses the linkages and causes of worldwide inequality.

Accordingly, the 2030 Agenda also takes the rich industrial countries to task. The debate on sustainability is thus conflating the Rio process on the environment and development and the Millennium Agenda.

Who funds the SDGs?

According to UN reports, implementing the SDGs requires US$3,500-5,000 billion annually in developing countries alone. The figure for worldwide investment needs is put at US$5,000–7,000 billion. Yet the Action Agenda approved in Addis Ababa in July fails to show where these funds are to come from. Because the rich industrialized countries are unwilling to provide more development assistance, developing countries are expected to raise most of the funds themselves through more efficient tax systems. The private sector is also expected to play a role.

This analysis neglects to mention that currently, about twice as much funds are flowing from the global South to the global North as the other way round. More particularly, these are illicit financial flows through which untaxed or illegally obtained assets are being transferred to tax havens abroad. Other contributors to this net capital outflow from the South to the North include the repatriation of profits by companies, debt repayment, as well as the formation of foreign exchange reserves. Effective measures are needed to counter these flows, more particularly to address international tax flight, other illicit financial flows and tax optimization practices by transnational corporations, so that funds can be available for sustainable development.

But Addis Ababa has failed to initiate clear changes in this regard: neither was an intergovernmental tax body established in the UN framework nor a rules-based procedure created for the restructuring of sovereign debt.

Action also needed in Switzerland

The implementation of the SDGs concerns all departments in Switzerland. There is homework to be done not just at the Department of Foreign Affairs and SDC, but also in other federal offices. Some examples: SDG 1 calls not only for an end to absolute poverty, i.e. the number of people with an income of less than US$1.25 per day, but also for the halving of poverty according to national poverty definitions. In Switzerland this concerns some 590,000 people. SDG 7 calls for the doubling of energy efficiency as well as a substantial increase in the share of renewable energy sources. Switzerland still has immense potential in this regard in terms of engine efficiency and the heating of buildings. Goal 10 aims for safe, regular and responsible migration, which is a challenge to Switzerland as a country of immigration. Goal 12 strives for sustainable consumption and production. With an annual per capita amount of 694 kg of household waste, Switzerland almost tops the list. Only Denmark and the USA have a worse record. Besides, one-third of our food ends up in the garbage bin as waste.

Alliance Sud considers SDG 17 to be of central importance, as it deals with means and processes, that is to say the requisite policy coherence. If the goals are to be attained, it will be crucially important for all policy decisions to be viewed through the prism of the SDGs. The ongoing review of the federal law on government procurement will show whether and to what extent Switzerland is serious about this.

As one of the richest countries, Switzerland bears some responsibility when it comes to funding the SDGs in developing countries. Activities relating to education and health in particular will continue to be the responsibility of the State. Private investments cannot replace government funds in this regard and official development funding will therefore remain one of the mainstays of financing. Under the 2030 Agenda, Switzerland has again pledged to devote 0.7% of its gross national income to development assistance. In 2014 the country for the first time achieved the goal of 0.5% set by Parliament for development aid. Yet precisely now, when the world has agreed on an ambitious agenda, Switzerland is attempting to make savings at the expense of the poorest and is again disregarding its own targets.

Dead letter or effective instrument?

The sustainable development agenda is a highly ambitious framework. It is yet to be seen whether it will in fact become the much touted force for change. Already in December, Heads of State and Government attending the climate conference in Paris must show just how serious they are about change. If the wealthy North continues to shun its responsibilities, the environmental goals of the 2030 Agenda will already be no more than waste paper.