By Thalif Deen
The late Everett McKinley Dirksen, an American politician. once famously said: “A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you’re talking real money”.
Perhaps that remark may be applicable to the funding of the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), where developing nations continue their relentless search for billions of dollars—now rising to trillions—to help achieve these targets by the year 2030.
But this appeal for real money—and not just commitments—has been virtually undermined by a shortage of funds triggered by rising inflation worldwide, sharp cuts in development aid by Western donors, the after-effects of the war in Ukraine and the devastation caused by the pandemic lockdown.
“There are two main reasons why we are not on track to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals,” said David Boyd, UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment, presenting his report to the United Nations General Assembly on October 21.
“The first is that States have misunderstood the Goals as political aspirations when in fact they have a rock-solid foundation in international human rights law. Every single Goal and over 93% of the 169 targets are directly connected to an international human rights treaty,” he said.
“The second problem is grossly inadequate levels of investment in achieving the goals, with an annual gap of more than $4 trillion,” Boyd pointed out.
His report identifies seven sources of funding that could generate up to $7 trillion annually towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.
Anuradha Mittal, Executive Director at The Oakland Institute, a leading policy think tank based in California, told IDN the Rapporteur’s recommendations around financing should be urgently applied.
Taxing the wealthiest—who have grown wealthy at the expense of the poor and the environment—and ensuring redistribution of wealth is the only way forward, she pointed out.
“The billionaires can jet into space for the “best day ever,” not pay taxes, capture the government and thereby the policies, while billions lack access to safe drinking water and food—basic human dignity”.
She said countries need public money so governments can govern and put in place institutions, policies and programs that serve the people.
“Instead, so-called ‘development institutions’ are working for the billionaires and corporations to ensure a ‘business friendly’ environment so they can continue to rule the world.”
Boyd, the UN Special Rapporteur, warned that with the world approaching the halfway mark towards 2030, current trends show that almost all States will miss nearly all Sustainable Development Goals and targets.
“Failing to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals will condemn billions of people to misery and jeopardize the future livability of the planet for everyone,” he noted.
“On the other hand, meeting them would dramatically improve the quality of life for billions of people and protect the extraordinary Earth that is needed to sustain all forms of life,” he noted.
Pooja Rangaprasad, Policy Director (Financing for Development) at Society for International Development, told IDN commitments on SDGs will not be met unless UN member states lead on addressing key global economic challenges such as addressing international tax dodging and unsustainable and illegitimate debts.
Hundreds of billions of dollars of public revenue are lost due to the failure to stop large-scale international tax dodging by multinational corporations and wealthy elites.
“We agree that private sector needs to contribute to the SDGs and it starts with governments ensuring more effective taxation of private and corporate wealth.”
She added: “We are not short of solutions to move on this quickly.”
At the UN General Assembly in September, the Group of 77 and China, along with the Africa Group, tabled resolutions calling for negotiations at the UN to address this broken international tax system.
“We need leadership from the richest countries in the world to implement these resolutions and ensure there is fiscal space to implement the SDGs.”
Boyd said today’s global economy was based on two pillars—the exploitation of people, and the exploitation of the planet—that were fundamentally unjust, unsustainable and incompatible with the full enjoyment of human rights.
The SDGs aim to address these problems by transforming the economy, alleviating inequality and protecting the environment.
Examples include new taxes on wealthy individuals and pollution, debt relief for low- and middle-income States, closing tax loopholes, redirecting subsidies from environmentally destructive activities to sustainable actions and fulfilling longstanding commitments to foreign aid and climate finance.
“The recent UN recognition of the human right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment should be a catalyst for accelerated action to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals,” Boyd said.
The Special Rapporteur urged States to take immediate and ambitious rights-based action to improve air quality, ensure everyone has access to safe and sufficient water, transform industrial agriculture to produce healthy and sustainable food, accelerate actions required to address the global climate and energy crises, replace fossil fuels with renewable energy, and conserve, protect and restore biodiversity.
He also called on States to ensure that a rights-based approach is at the heart of the post-2020 global biodiversity framework and detoxify people’s bodies and the planet.
“Employing a human rights-based approach to each of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals is the best way to ensure effective and equitable action, prioritising vulnerable and marginalised populations and making sure that no one is left behind,” Boyd said.
The 17 SDGs include the eradication of extreme poverty and hunger, the elimination of economic and gender inequalities, improved health care, sustainable energy, protection of the environment and global partnership for sustainable development.
Frederic Mousseau, Policy Director at the Oakland Institute, told IDN that it would be chimeric to hope that the world can be on track with the SDGs when governments are forced by creditors and financial markets to focus on a single goal—economic growth.
He said belief that growth will trigger human development ignores the fact that the trickledown effect doesn’t work. Instead, it perpetuates inequity where the rich get richer and the poor and the environment get poorer.
“The economic model that is upheld as the engine to drive the SDGs, is driven by vested interests whose priority is self-interest and profits. The Rapporteur makes the right diagnosis and very sensible recommendations,” he noted.
Mousseau also said phasing out industrial agriculture is one of the sensible recommendations that exemplifies the problem. Communities are displaced, livelihoods are destroyed, water sources are polluted, forests devastated, so that plantations for oil palm, agrofuels, and animal feed can be established and goods exported by corporations.
He argued that the “extractive agriculture model is dressed in promises of economic development, when the reality is tattered communities, farmers turned into plantation workers, rich biodiversity of the South converted into cash crop basket for the rich, and pillaged and colonized economies of the South”.