Bangladesh is one of the bright stars from the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) era. The final MDG progress report published by the General Economics Division (GED) of the Bangladesh Planning Commission indicated Bangladesh’s remarkable progress: poverty was cut in half and school enrollment in primary and secondary achieved 97%. However, other social challenges persist such as youth unemployment, climate change and quality of education.
Jointly with Heather Grady from Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisers, and Lauren Bradford from the Foundation Centre, our implementing partners in the SDG Philanthropy Platform, we were invited to share our experience from collaboration in a workshop “Towards Sustainable Development in Bangladesh: Lessons from MDGs & Pathway for SDGs” organized by the Institute of Policy Advocacy and Governance (IPAG) this month in New York.
The MDGs successor, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), are comprehensive and aim to put all countries on the path towards sustainable development. The ambitious targets to be achieved by 2030 demand not only transition, but also transformation, driven by social innovations and close collaboration to maximize the utilization of all possible resources. The goal is ambitious for Bangladesh, a country that is among the least developed countries in the world, however there was a consensus across all the sessions in the workshop, that achieving the goals are within reach and Bangladesh's successful story with the MDGs makes things more optimistic. Indeed, the country has enjoyed a strong and bold leadership from the government in pushing for smart policy options. For example, social safety net programs benefited about 18 million people and specifically contributed to increasing girls’ education and employment.
There was also an agreement that attaining the SDGs is a different ball game than the MDGs. Participants reflected on the lessons learnt from the MDGs, and compared how these experiences are valid (or not) for the SDGs.
Here are some of my key takeaways from the conversations:
SDGs Will Require "Whole of Society Approach"
Decoupling economic growth from the environmental degradation was one of the most discussed dimension. It also illustrates the complexity of the Agenda2030, where many interrelated goals call for minimizing trade off and maximizing benefits. Developing adequate strategies can be challenging and require new models around planning, implementation and monitoring of the SDGs framework.
Mr. Abdul Maal A. Muhith, the Minister of finance of Bangladesh, who opened the event reconfirmed the government's commitment to the SDGs and their goal to eradicate poverty to 14% by 2024. Mr. Muhith emphasized that the ambitious undertaking requires a strong partnership between the government and the private sector who are the main drivers of jobs and growth. The government will focus on creating the right incentives for businesses to invest in job intensive growth and use public financing to leverage private investments.
Evidence based decisions should allow for the right policy choices and will require massive investments in building a rigorous data culture. The challenges are many, noted Nick Sekhran, UNDP’s Director of Sustainable Development from Bureau of Policy and Programme Support. Involving solutions led by big data providers are a necessity; however, progress won't be achieved without boosting capacities of the national statistical office. Moreover, disaggregation of data will drive implementation of the SDGs at the local level.
SDGs will require large scale changes and managing of initiatives that reach millions of people in order to reach the promised pledge of “leaving no one behind”. “Government coordination and policy coherence has been among priorities for the government,” remarked Mr. Shamsul Alam, from the Ministry of Planning. The session on the MDGs & Bangladesh: Key Achievements & Lessons Learned discussed large scale change initiatives that have worked elsewhere in Asia. There was an interesting exchange concerning “SDG Ideas labs" which are hubs led by governments and other actors in prototyping and experimenting with solutions that might work at scale.
SDGs: The "Systems Thinking" Mindset
Ruth de Fries, a professor of Ecology and Sustainable Development at Colombia University in New York, illustrated how to reconcile the dilemma of investing in infrastructure and simultaneously conserving wildlife. She shared inspiring examples from Asia and the US of technological innovations which protect and invest in huge infrastructure projects. “Technology is not a problem”, she said, and emphasized the need for systems thinking and a shared understanding of how investing in one goal affects (negative or positive) other goals.
Jenny Robison from the Brookings Institute presented research from her recent book, Millions Learning: Scaling up quality education in developing countries, where she and others examined 14 education programs and policies from low and middle-income countries where there has been large-scale improvement in learning among children and young people. She discussed some of the concrete common points and actions that help implementing at a larger scale such as the importance of broad based collaboration across sectors, reliability on data, experimenting locally produced solutions.
Heather Grady from Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisers and lead partner in the SDG Philanthropy Platform shared that the growing philanthropy in the emerging countries can be an enormous force for the SDGs. Free from market and political considerations, philanthropists, who are often savvy social entrepreneurs linking social impact with building markets, are increasingly finding innovative approaches to tackle the SDGs.
The Big Question: How Do We Pay for the SDGs?
Mr. Mohammad Muslim Chodhury, from the Ministry of Finance in Bangladesh, outlined the elements of the government strategy in paying for the goals. “One single source will not be enough”, he said. Instead, the government is designing hybrid approaches which allow for public and private investing as well as improving the basis - broadening the tax base (among the smallest in the world) and fighting illicit capital flows. Impact investing, which is currently at 118 billion USD globally, was mentioned by participants as one of the potential solutions that can drive social finance towards the mainstream capital markets, with $236 trillion USD! However, participants warned, finding pathways for engaging business in financing goals will require a lot of collaboration and experimentation. At the end of the day, business is seeking returns, hence policy and other incentives should encourage more private sector investments in SDG aligned projects. An issue raised by many was the need to de-risk investments. One of the exciting examples launched by the government with support from UNDP has been “BUILD BANGLADESH”, an impact fund which aims to raise US$100 million from private investors interested in building affordable housing for urban migrants in Bangladesh.
The SDGs can provide exciting breakthroughs because of broad consultations with the communities worldwide, their universal nature which opens opportunities for real learning and by breaking away from the siloes that have for long characterized development. In his closing remarks, Prof. Syed Munir Khasru, Chairman of IPAG, made a commitment to take this conversation forward by creating a public private partnership platform with an aim for multi-stakeholders to collaborate on solutions for the SDGs.