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Why Agenda 2030's Sustainable Development Goals are not being met
Part 1

Hector McNeill1

In 2015 the United Nations launched Agenda 2030 consisting of 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) associated with over 230 indicators. Unlike the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) which addressed specific goals related to low income countries, Agenda 2030 addressed countries of all levels of development.

After only four years, the United Nations has asked an expert group to assess progress. For such an ambitious task for goals to be met by 2030 - 11 years to go - four years is a bit early. However, there are signs that goals are not being met.

Reviewing the SDGs it is evident that there are some gaps and, indeed, some confusions.

In the case of low income countries, there are logical reasons why there are difficulties in meeting objectives. One reason, of relevance to this online publication, is that project and initiative designs need to result in actions that can overcome the principal constraints of population dynamics and inflation. This is principally a supply side and real incomes issue.

What is going wrong?

In a recent interview posted on Sci Dev, the headline, "Most SDGs ‘going into reverse’ " is an alarm bell that climate change goals are not being met. This article reports on some early conclusions expressed by Dr. Jean-Paul Moatti, the director-general of the French National Research Institute for Development (IRD). He is also a member of the expert group charged by the UN with evaluating progress of Agenda 2030 and SDGs so far.

Dr. Moatti states that there is a need to decorrelate economic growth from its negative social and environmental impacts. He explained that as soon as economic growth goes back on track, the SDGs start to go backwards. Dr. Moatti highlighted three SDGs as problem areas requiring more effort. These are reduction of inequalities (SDG 10), the limitation and adaptation to climate change (SDG 13) and the reduction of the environmental and ecological footprint of our modes of production and consumption (SDG 12). He considers these to be key goals but also where the alarm needs to be sounded.

Moatti's observations refer to developments which, from a real incomes perspective, are predictable, whereas from a conventional macroeconomic point of view, they may not be.

Real incomes perspective
Addressing the constraints of population growth and inflation on real incomes

The real incomes approach is concerned with the design of activities that deploy resources to bring countries from a low income status to a higher income status. Central to this objective is to:
  • carry out all assessments in terms of real incomes
  • raise real incomes
  • reduce inequalities in real income distribution
Usually, low income countries have general price inflation and lower income segments tend to have high birth rates. Real incomes are impacted by:
  • high growth rates in population numbers because this creates a constant downward pressure on per capita indices values
  • inflation rates because purchasing power of the currency is constantly reduced
This is why in order to calculate the challenges to raising real incomes all preparatory phases involving the identification of gaps, needs and constraints need to include:
  • nominal income levels and growth rates
  • general price inflation
  • population size and population growth
These fundamental relationships establish a project or programmes overall operational environment. The relationship between real incomes growth, nominal incomes, population growth and inflation is provided below:

dR = dN – dP - dI …………….. (i)
dR = dN – (dP + dI) …………….. (ii)

dR is the growth in real income;
dN is the growth in nominal income;
dP is the population growth rate;
dI is the inflation rate or rise in average unit prices.

The impact of population growth and inflation can be dramatic. For example a typical inflation rate in an East African country of 6% and natural population growth rate of 2.8 will result in a reduction of purchasing power of 8.8% each year which is equivalent to a decline in purchasing power of the currency of 37% in 5 years. For real incomes to rise over this period would require a rise in nominal incomes, over the same period of at least 37%, or an annual increase in excess of 8.8%. The table below indicates this rate of purchasing power erosion which rapidly reduces income to below levels necessary to sustain the consumption of essential products such as food.

Real incomes erosion as % of 100
at the end of each year
Year 1
Year 2
Year 3
Year 4
Year 5

This rate of incapacitation represented by the constant decline in the value of currencies and inability to advance per capita indices under Agenda 2030 only erodes the carrying capacity of the environment as population numbers advance, impacting ecosystems. Sustainability as measured in terms of effective climate action continues to drift backwards, as observed by Dr. Moatti.

Lack of focus

It is paradoxical that so many glowing reports circulate on actions and levels of collaboration under Agenda 2030 while amongst the Sustainable Development Goals no mention is made of population control. There is nothing that relates directly to real incomes and avoiding debasement of currencies (inflation). For the lower income segments of the populations in low income countries, these are crucial issues and which with each passing year place them in an increasingly precarious position of facing the Malthusian predictions.
Indeed, it is already been evident for several years that whole communities in several countries run out of food during the dry seasons. When there is a general drought many thousands perish on a regular basis.

Under economic growth or Sustainable Development Goal Number 8 the indicator is:

"8.1 Sustain per capita economic growth in accordance with national circumstances and, in particular, at least 7 per cent gross domestic product growth per annum in the least developed countries"

Although this is an ambitious objective this is insufficient until the rate of growth in population and inflation rates are reduced and supported by relevant policies promoted as core issues in Agenda 2030.

While raising the profile of essential Sustainable Development Goals such as No Poverty (SDG 1), Zero Hunger (SDG 2) and Good Health and Wellbeing (SDG 3), these cannot be achieved without more strenuous efforts on population and inflation. Unfortunately, the conventional macroeconomic policy instrument toolkit does not appear to have much to offer.

An evolving issue

Currently relatively simple projects under international development funding support have had a failure rate of around 35%. These have been over-ambitious projects or under-ambitious projects, both of which have a low development impact. The losses associated with these failure have amounted to around $65 billions each year from the $215 billion dedicated annually to international development. In 2015, Agenda 2030 changed the focus onto important national level issues some of which were previously considered to be cross-cutting issues. The new challenges under Agenda 2030 require relatively complex multi-factor solutions. In reality, most project teams, especially in low income countries, face a human resources problem in not being able to muster the full range of expertise necessary for this type and scale of analysis. This human resources problem has led to a lack of project proposals which have a scale and content design capable of overcoming existing constraints and impacting national level indicators.

This is a topic that will be addressed in another Note in this series.