Sustainable Livelihoods and SDGs

The excitement and attention given to Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is not a surprise. It is almost like what happens when a new toy is given to a child. In his initial excitement, he is trying to grasp all its features. After a certain time, the excitement of the toy goes low and it joins one amongst the many stacked. Many times, it happens that the child in exploring the features of the toy, breaks a part of the toy like the leg of a camel toy or the battery holder of a new car or the whole toy making it non-functional.

This is close to what is happening to the development discourse with respect to the SDGs at the global, national and sub-national levels. Institutions, world organisations, policy makers have time and again committed to better futures for people - Millennium Development Goals, Aichi Biodiversity Targets, Paris Agreement are some such commitments along with Sustainable Development Goals. Some of the challenges with implementing such ambitious commitments include two that are analogical to the child-toy example:

• There is a chance that governments may start with some excitement and make ambitious plans but soon get bored of the new definitions, branding and publicity.

• The other challenging possibility is that governments while trying to understand what SDGs are; may break its leg. Breaking its leg, in this case means the way that the governments understand, design and plan for SDGs thus making it look more of a liability than an asset. The governments could also get swayed away from the new agenda distracted with other narratives and fore-tales that may follow.

The purpose is not to picture a dim view of the development reality but to learn strategic factors to make SDG planning an instrument and not a road block for achieving sustainable livelihoods.

What is surely not helping us to achieve Sustainable Development Goals?

No separate fund, SDGs – doomed to fail!

Many state and central government officials, in general are of the view that there is very little incentive for the governments to act upon SDGs, given that there isn’t any financial incentive – in shape of a project or an extra fund that they can expect because of it. Following up on that, officials are of the opinion that for SDGs to really become an incentive for state governments to follow, there should be an extra pool of funds, dedicated solely for the achievement of SDGs.

If we look back into historical cases (Millennium Development Goals), such identified funds are usually used to conduct small pilot projects to present a model for larger transition towards desired development. Here is why we at the Development Alternatives Group think such an approach will not work in favour of achieving SDGs: 

• Pilot projects can provide insights on how to design flagship programmes that helps in realising the expected outcomes. But the view of the state governments is usually that pilot projects enable them to taste innovations on the ground but the main business of the government must go as usual. Thinking of a new SDGs fund with this mind set can only gather some good case studies but can massively impede systemic goals towards achieving SDGs.

• The problem is as big as the public finance and budgets of India; or may be bigger. This is important to understand that we surely do not have enough money to continue business as usual. Will an extra pool of fund carved from current budgets and aid resolve this? Possibly no. A study estimates the gap to be of the order of USD 570 billion. To put this in perspective, the gap is almost equal to the annual combined budget expenditure of central and state budgets in India. Is India going to get aid support from developed nations? Possibility is again not in the favour of India, given India’s growing economy and the fact that it is moving towards being a donor country as opposed to a recipient country when it comes to aid.

So pilot projects may not be able to influence systemic shifts required to achieve SDGs and India will perhaps never be able to generate finance of the order required to achieve SDGs in a business as usual approach. In such a case, the view of state officials – that SDGs are nothing but a mere new communication development jargon is not surprising. Even at the global level, similar concerns have been raised.

What can possibly work in realising Sustainable Development Goals?

While there are radical imaginations of the future of the world and there are many valid critiques to our current approach to realise sustainable development; there are some possibilities that may help us take steps that get us closer to sustainability. These are detailed as follows:

• Aim for investing in areas which provide multiple benefits, such as those that result in cleaner production, improved skills, greener jobs and have positive spill-over impacts on other avenues of development.

• Aim to do more with less i.e look at technology options that are resource efficient, economically efficient and market drivers that build an understanding of sufficiency in consumption.

To scope it in the case of livelihoods, some specific points to ponder on are as follows:

• Government Flagship Programmes - National Flagship Programmes like National Rural Livelihood Mission (NRLM) and National Urban Livelihood Mission (NULM) – will have to not just track for number of jobs generated but assess the jobs created on how they are servicing the local needs of the population, how are they ensuring environmentally safe operations etc. Further to that, in the high risk age of climate change, it is also critical to see whether these jobs ensure safe and minimal risk income to the households.

• Incentives and Regulations - Being one of the fastest growing economies today, India is an economic hotspot in the world. By virtue of that, India attracts foreign financial capital and investment. These investments tend to incentivise economic efficiencies. Various trends from India and the world validate that such efficiencies tend to replace labour with capital. For India to safeguard its livelihoods, it therefore is of critical importance that we balance economic gains against social value of livelihood generation.

• Education and Sustainable Living - Efforts to design meaningful interventions to enable creativity, culture and happiness quotient in the citizens of the country plays a significant role. This will also enable changes in patterns of inequities with excess labour exploitation on one hand and unemployment on the other.

While these are some of the quick snippets on possibilities, the idea is to look at all dimensions of development – environmental, social, economic, spiritual – to determine policy choices for generating sustainable livelihoods in the country.

Anshul S Bhamra


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