Saturday, 21 May 2016

Starting Strong: Asia Dialogue on the first 1000 days of the SDGs

Reflections from the moderator!

Spent two days in Club Palm Bay Marawila, Sri Lanka facilitating a workshop with the above title organized by Southern Voice, ODI and CEPA.  Do not be fooled by the pictures on the hotel site – the weather was wet and gloomy, and while we were safe from the disasters of floods and landslides affecting the rest of Sri Lanka, there were tensions of flying into the storms, and travelling across flooded by-roads.  Dr Saman Kelegama, Executive Director of IPS and a speaker in the session on Mobilising Partnerships and Resources to achieve the SDGs, completed the last part of his journey to the venue in a boat!

So the weather was a constant reminder to all of us of the importance of the SDGs –  and how vital it is to address the social and environmental aspects of development alongside the economic if we are to sustain people on this planet. 

I have many take-aways from the two days, and I would like to share a few of my more coherent reflections.  The first thing that struck me was the amount of activity that was already happening, at the level of government and civil society.  The dialogue unfortunately was devoid of any private sector participation, which was a huge disappointment, but also quite telling.  

In his final remarks at the end of the first day, Dr Debapriya  Bhattacharya. Chair of the Southern Voice,  commented on how far the discourse had progressed.  I would agree.  Just three years ago, at the CEPA Annual Symposium on Making Sustainability the Next Metric the idea of ‘integration’ in terms of integrating social and environmental concerns into economic growth led development, was very much an outlier concept.  Today we are able to accept the idea even though I suspect we do not still know how to make it happen.   Dr Debs (as he is affectionately called by his colleagues)  felt encouraged by the fact that  the SDGs give us a lot of flexibility because it is non-mandatory,  which kind of contradicts my own fear that the voluntariness of the  SDG framework could end up even less effective than the MDGs.  The flexibility raises questions for integration as well – will country governments zero down on single targets, cherry pick easy wins, rather than take that more integrated systemic approach that is so necessary? 

Having worked on technology issues for most of my life at ITDG (now Practical Action) and at the IFRTD,  I was really interested in Elenita (Neth) Dano’s presentation on the how technology features in achieving the SDGs.  Technology plays an important part in the SDGs – 14 out of the 17 goals directly refer to science, technology and innovation. But Neth warns that while science, technology and innovation advance rapidly and are seen as a means for implementing the SDGs, it is important to recognise that the ‘technology divide’ is increasing, and that there is a lack of technology justice for many communities and groups of women and men. She also highlighted the need to clearly define what we mean by ‘environmentally sound technologies’, recognizing negative impacts such as that of the green revolution technologies or bio-fuel development on people and the  planet.  She likened  the global silence on the propriety nature of much technology transfer to Voldemort in the Harry Potter fictional series ‘ the one that has no name’ , contrasting the IPRs on wind turbines to the more democratized solar panel systems.   Her presentation made me realise how much the development philosophies of the appropriate technology and indigenous knowledge movements of the 1960s, 70s and 80s have been suppressed by the ideologies of globalization and the  market, and how important it is to resurrect that earlier thinking in the context of the SDGs.

And finally I share some of my thoughts from the vexed question of leaving no one behind. Vagisha Gunasekera of CEPA made some interesting points about not essentialising  left behind categories, and to consider issues of excluded labour categories (peasants, street sweepers, etc) that would point also to address power structures and ‘who is doing the leaving behind’ .  Vagisha argued for universal rather than targeted policies and pointed out that targeted policies,  precisely because of their nature of targeting the marginalized with little political power,  present no incentive for governments to raise revenue.  Michel  Anglade from Save the Children, Asia, lamented the fact that none of the government representatives in the opening session discussed leaving no one behind, and pointed out the need to overcome ‘exclusion blindness’ and social norms as well as have a system of accountability.  I thought it  unfortunate that there is  such a gap between those working in development and those working on human rights, because only a few saw the Human Rights framework as a means of holding governments accountable.  A blog on the High Level Political Forum website by the International Disability Alliance and International Disability and Development Consortium (IDDC) says that

to create inclusive SDGs, a human rights approach is required for implementation and review. Many stakeholders are already engaged in the UN’s human rights review processes: treaty bodies, special processes and the Human Rights Council. If the SDGs are to be achieved for everyone, SDG reviews need to be linked to human rights review processes. 

Audrey Lee from  International Women’s Rights Action Watch Asia Pacific reiterated this point, and the importance of engaging with mechanisms that already exist.   CEDAW for instance encourages the establishment of domestic legal framework to ensure substantive equality for women (the de jure) and the reporting process to the CEDAW Committee also provides accountability for the de facto implementation of a government’s commitments.  I felt that the underlying scepticism  of UN processes is an externality that the Human Rights community needs to tackle, and this means greater engagement with the development community at every level, if the space for Human Rights (which is all about leaving no one out) is not to be sidelined  by a voluntary reporting process with little teeth.


 Karin Fernando from CEPA who coordinated the whole Asia Dialogue pointed out right at the very beginning, this dialogue is just a start.  There is still a long way to go for us to understand and to  practice integration, resourcing, inclusion and accountability – and while ‘talkshops’ generally have bad press, this re-imagining of the world as we know it today, is a mammoth task, and something that we cannot, should not,  stop talking about.   Dr Debs closing the event made the point that there never has been such a positive global undertaking; but one that it is happening in a global context wracked by economic, social and environmental problems.  The challenge for the next 1000 days is huge!

Friday, 2 October 2015

Sustainability vs investment?


Last week the world’s governments adopted a new sustainable development agenda, and moved towards new ways of ‘doing development’ that if implemented,  will result in new partnerships between the global north and the global south, between private corporations, national governments and  international institutions, and between citizens and the state.   In Sri Lanka, the year 2015 saw us embark on a new phase of governance that aims to combat political patronage and corruption, emphasise accountability, and safeguard the rights of the people and respect their right to information and to equal treatment by the state.   The new regime that Sri Lankan citizens have elected into the legislature (supported also by a newly elected President) inherits a post-war society that has an average GDP growth of around 6-7%, a lower middle income status, dramatic reductions in poverty head count ratios, and a record of most MDGs achieved.  But it is also a society of considerable vulnerability, with many people hovering above the poverty line ready to be pushed back into poverty if faced with risk to life and livelihood; increasing income inequality with a high gini-co-efficient and about 50% of the total household income generated by the top 20% of households; continuing regional differences with GDP concentrated in the capital city and its environs, and workers in plantations and families in the  Batticoloa district as the poorest and most vulnerable; entrenched patriarchy and unequal gender relations;  a politicised bureaucracy and disregard for policies, laws and procedures. 

As we celebrate (or not) the global consensus on the Sustainable Development Goals, and obsess with the consequences of the UNHRC resolution for Sri Lanka, it would do well to think about the already many factors that can prick the bubble of sustainable and equitable development in Sri Lanka.   It is likely that the current paradigm of development adopted by successive governments since 1977, and likely to be strengthened rather than modified by Wickremesinghe-Samarawickreme led economic development plans with, among other things, its ambitions of megalopolises and bridges across the Palk Strait could make things worse not better.  One major factor of concern is that the government will not take into account what the UNISDR’s Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction 2015 (GAR 2015) calls “socially constructed disaster risk” within development, or more specifically, within a development that is driven by the market imperative and has scant regard for people, especially poor people.

Some  examples. Contrast the devastating landslide in Koslanda last year (and landslides are still happening in the Uva hills) that destroyed the homes of many workers in the tea plantations and claimed many lives with the evictions of families from high density housing in Colombo.  The plantation company in Meeriyabedde, Koslanda  and the local authorities knew it was a vulnerable site from the landslide data that was available at the local level, but did not prioritise the evacuation of these families.  The reason given was  that the families didn’t want to move.  In Colombo the families in Slave Island did not want to move either.  But here the  local  authorities brought in the military to forcibly evict  them because their  land had high economic value and had to be ‘cleared’ for  foreign investors. 

Another example is from Batticoloa, on Sri Lanka’s East Coast, one of the poorest areas of the country.  It has been targeted as a zone for high end tourism and the government has encouraged the private sector to develop tourist resorts.   CEPA colleagues, exploring employment in the tourism sector (itself a can full of worms) found that in an area where groundwater is scarce, the resorts are extracting water for their use, which are complete with desalination and purification plants, while just on the other side of the brand new main road, the villages are facing acute shortages of drinking water. 

And finally, the much publicised example of a lack of a publicly available EIA and no known disaster risk assessment of the Colombo Port City project’s impact on Sri Lanka’s coast.  That omission is serious enough, but there is also no environmental impact assessment of how the material being mined from the hinterland (the granite and the sand) for building the Port City will affect those areas. 

These are not three examples of bureaucratic oversights, but illustrations of the sad fact that attracting foreign investment takes priority over understanding and  acknowledging the risks inherent in development.  We hope that the proposed megalopolis development  (or Megapolis as we call it in the paradise isle) will not be implemented with the same level of impunity.

These examples illustrate that the Ministry of Disaster Management, and Disaster Management Centre set up in the heady post-tsunami days under the Hyogo Framework for Action, has little clout.  Despite considerable progress in developing early warning systems, disaster management plans (especially for the coast post-tsunami) and an established institutional framework for Disaster Management,  Sri Lanka has not been very effective in stemming the exacerbation of extensive risks which we know are less dramatic, less in the public eye and are disproportionately borne by poor people.  They illustrate many of the issues that the GAR brings out in its last chapters : the  political support for policies, plans  and investments that contribute to disaster risk accumulation, especially when they are seen to be essential for economic growth;  the limited support for managing the risks that are generated and accumulated on an ongoing basis; weak regulation; lack of capacity/apathy at local levels to deal with disaster risk; the issues of risk inequality; and the political and economic pressures of a globalised world.

Many of us working with poverty and inequality outside of the disaster risk reduction sector, are constantly arguing that development driven by the pursuit of unlimited economic growth is not the way to go to eradicate poverty, or reduce inequality, and that it cannot be sustainable. To use a famous quote attributed to Albert Einstein: We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.  IMHO the sustainable development goals, now also called the Global Goals, are not sufficient to provide an alternative,or to stimulate a paradigm shift.  


Given this lacuna, the Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction 2015 can become a really powerful weapon to force governments and other stakeholders to think differently.  It provides a challenge to the dominant paradigm and shows, quite dramatically, with well presented data,  the consequences of carrying on business as usual.  Operationalising the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction which calls for all sectors and all levels of government, as well as the private sector and civil society to mainstream disaster risk reduction into all their plans and activities, is one way to move in the direction of achieving equity and sustainability.  

It remains to be seen whether  our newly elected government and the private sector with its new alliances,  will have the courage and the political will to transform the way they think and do things, so that there will be no repeat of disasters like Koslanda or developments like tourism in Batticaloa or the Port City.  Good governance needs to go beyond reducing corruption and nepotism to ensuring that the responsibility vested in government to protect people and their investments extends to issues of natural disaster.  It is doubtful that the new Minister for Disaster Management the Hon Anura Priyadharshana Yapa, will have greater political acumen and strength than his predecessors and be able to mainstream disaster risk reduction into investment decisions.  Obscure high cost projects like the proposed ‘megapolis’  raises doubts as to whether responsible elements in the legislature and bureaucracy are even beginning to think that way.  Ultimately, it may boil down, like everything else  to us citizens holding our government accountable.