At Paniad Village in Lop Buri province, a wind energy generation project is being planned, but the residents there are firmly opposing it as they fear noise pollution. They also claim that the location is improper as it will be sited in the forest reserve from where they collect forest products, thus depriving the community’s right to access resources if the project goes ahead. (File photo/ Jan 2023) Photo: Sayan Chuenudomsavad

SDGs in the New Politics

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) at their halfway are”off track”, but as Thailand has entered a new political landscape with the election held in May, it’s an opportunity for policymakers to review and rejuvenate the shared goals, which aim to boost a better and more sustainable future for all, the recent forum was heard

Some dub it a shared blueprint for a better and more sustainable future. Others call it a future development framework. But whatever it is called, UNDP Resident Representative to Thailand Renaud Meyer simply sums it up; it’s an aspiration that was created for the people, the (development) agenda for the people, and the agenda by the people.

“It’s adopted for the people to improve their lives… that by 2030, every individual would have a better life,” said Mr. Meyer of the meaning of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) at the special forum, SDGs in the New Politics, recently organised by Bangkok Tribune and its partners with the support of Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, Thailand Office.

The forum was aimed to invite the public to explore the idea about the SDGs as well as the best way forward after the election. This was to further raise public awareness regarding their significance and criticality following the photo essay series project, SDGs l The Depth of Field, which was introduced by the news agency last year to help flesh out the concept and the challenges behind the SDGs so that people can understand them easily and therefore take action. 

Watch the recording: SPECIAL FORUM: SDGs in the New Politics

Read: SDGs l The Depth of Field

Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

Since being conceived in 1992 during the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, “sustainable development” has become a buzzword that has helped guide development around the world. The goals have followed a steady trajectory of increased emphasis from the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in 2000 to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in 2015, strengthening the world’s new development paradigm.

As explained by the UN, the SDGs are a collection of 17 interlinked development goals agreed upon at the UN General Assembly in 2015 by the UN member States to serve as a shared blueprint for a better and more sustainable future by calling for their action to address global challenges together in their national policies and agendas. The goals were formulated as part of the Post-2015 Development Agenda or known as Agenda 2030, which sought to create a future global development framework to succeed the MDGs, which ended that year.

At the heart of the SDGs are these 17 key goals that call for countries’ action to address fundamental challenges ranging from poverty, unsustainable economic growth, and other deprivations. They go along with strategies that improve health and education, reduce inequality, and spur economic growth while tackling climate change and working to preserve our oceans and forests.

For instance, SDG 1 represents No Poverty, and it is meant to end poverty in all its forms everywhere, SDG 15, meanwhile, is Life on Land, and it is meant to protect, restore, and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation, and halt biodiversity loss. (Read: THE 17 GOALS | Sustainable Development).

Under each SDG, there are over a hundred targets to further guide the action_the element that development experts said is the true essence of the SDGs.

Assistant Professor Chol Bunnag, Director of SDG Move (Centre for SDG Research and Support) of Thammasart University, who gave an overview at the forum, explained that the SDGs were introduced based on the concept or principle that we the world’s citizens wish to maintain the sustainable world for the next generations. 

This can be done by progressing economic development without depriving the next generations of their natural resources or having impacts on the environment. Sustainable development should also distribute benefits fairly among people as well as promoting resilience against any shocks. Thus, the SDGs have revolved around three key principles of sustainability, inclusiveness, and resilience, the professor pointed out.

In the eyes of Asst. Prof. Chol, these are universal and fundamental to people’s rights. Therefore, the SDGs are not only the UN’s goals but the people’s. Or in other words, it’s the shared future that people wish to see, he concluded.

Aside from being the goals for people’s future, the professor noted that the SDGs with over a hundred targets lying beneath are also people’s tools. They have laid the basis for discourses regarding development policies or agendas and provided indicators to help assess development progress from local to global levels.

It was not until recent years that the SDGs have been grouped for more effective implementation and assessment as people have become to realise more and more that they are interlinked. The groups categorised include People, Planet, Prosperity, Peace, and Participation, the professor pointed out.

“While transformation and inclusiveness are needed to help accomplish the SDGs, integration is also needed as one issue can link to several others and we cannot accomplish one particular goal without implementing the others,” remarked Asst. Prof. Chol.

Thailand’s SDG Roadmap. Courtesy of NESDC

Since the SDGs were agreed upon by the global community in 2015, they have since been widely adopted and applied at national levels in several countries.

In Thailand, the SDGs have been finetuned to go in line with the 20-year national strategy first introduced in 2018, under which they help guide its six sub-strategies and 23 master plans, according to the Office of National Economic and Social Development Council (NESDC).

The government has also appointed a national sustainable development committee to drive the SDGs road map, under which six prime tasks are set out including mainstreaming the SDGs into the national strategy and other related national plans.

Dr. Thuttai Keeratipongpaiboon, Director of the NESDC’s International Strategy and Coordination Division, said the government wishes to see all national strategies and plans aligned with one another with the ultimate goal to achieve “sustainability”. The country is now in the process of finetuning them and mainstreaming the SDGs into these plans, he said.

He conceded, however, that not all people have so far known about the SDGs. In other words, the goals have not yet reached everyone in this country, especially those at a community level, he said.

“Many locals we have met doubt at them; whether they are just another set of acronyms introduced by the government. We have explained to them that they don’t have to remember them all. They just bear in mind that they are indeed about sustainability,” said Dr. Thuttai.

NESDC’s SDG progress assessment. Courtesy of NESDC
SDG Move’s SDG progress analysis. Courtesy of SDG Move

The progress

Since their birth, the SDGs this year have reached their halfway of implementation. 

According to one of the key SDGs assessment bodies, the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN), none of the goals will be achieved by 2030 given the current pace of progress since 2015, and on average, less than 20% of the SDG targets are on track to be achieved.

While from the first halfway, 2015 to 2019, the world was making some “modest” progress on the SDGs, since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic and simultaneous global crises and setbacks, progress has stalled and is one full point below the projected level based on pre-pandemic trends, according to the group’s Sustainable Development Report 2023 and Index launched last week.

For the third year in a row, global progress on the SDGs has been static, and there is a risk that the gap in SDG outcomes between high-income countries (HICs) and low-income countries (LICs) will be larger in 2030 than when the goals were universally agreed upon in 2015. This, the report pointed out, underscores “the danger of losing a decade of progress” towards convergence globally.

“Halfway to 2030, the SDGs are seriously off track – with the poor and highly vulnerable countries suffering the most,” remarked Professor Jeffrey D. Sachs, President of the SDSN and a lead author of the report. (Read: Halfway to 2030, Sustainable Development Goals are seriously “off track”: Jeffrey Sachs)

At their core, the SDGs are investment agenda, and the current global financial architecture (GFA) is failing to channel global savings to SDG investments at the needed pace and scale, the report has revealed. 

Another critical factor cited by the report is that government effort and commitment to the SDGs is too low, with no country being close to obtaining a perfect score. There is significant variation across countries, with some developing and emerging economies including Benin, Ghana, Indonesia, Nigeria, and Senegal showing quite remarkable commitment to the SDGs, the report said. Notably, LICs and LMICs obtained a higher average score than HICs on political and institutional leadership for the SDGs, it noted.

“This year’s report also shows that despite most governments having signalled “soft” SDG integration into their public management practices and procedures, “hard” SDG integration is missing in most countries, including the use of the SDGs to support long-term budget and investment frameworks.

“In a survey of 74 countries and the European Union, only one-third of governments mention the SDGs or use related terms in their latest official budget document, with even fewer including the SDGs in a dedicated section, budget lines, or allocation,” the report underlined.

According to the SD report, some of the indicators that experienced the most significant reversals in progress include subjective well-being, access to vaccination, poverty, and unemployment rate.

The SDG goals related to hunger, sustainable diets, and health outcomes (SDG 2 and SDG 3) are particularly off-track, as well as terrestrial and marine biodiversity (SDGs 14 and 15), air and plastic pollution (SDG 11 and SDG 12), and strong institutions and peaceful societies (SDG 16).

On average, the world made some progress in strengthening access to key infrastructure covered notably under SDG 6 (Clean Water and Sanitation), SDG 7 (Affordable and Clean Energy), and SDG 9 (Industry, Innovation, and Infrastructure), the report noted.

At the same time, this year’s SDG index showed that Finland holds the top spot, followed by Sweden, Denmark, Germany, and Austria.

European countries, it said, continue to lead in the SDG Index – holding the top 10 spots – and are on track to achieve more targets than any other region, with Denmark, Czechia, Estonia, Latvia, and the Slovak Republic as the top five countries that have achieved or are on track to achieving the largest number of SDG targets this year.

By contrast, Lebanon, Yemen, Papua New Guinea, Venezuela, and Myanmar have the largest number of SDG targets moving in the wrong direction, the Index showed.

Photos: ©Sirachai “Shin” Arunrugstichai

For Thailand, it has been ranked 43rd on the Index, having slightly improved from last year’s performance by 0.6 points. The country is placed as the first in ASEAN and the third in Asia with a total score achieved at 74.7. Among the 17 SDG goals, the country has successfully addressed two of them; SDG 4 (Quality Education) and 1 (No Poverty).

But based on the NESDC’s first halfway assessment, the country has achieved none of the goals yet, given indicators that fit or are applicable to the country’s context. All 17 are placed as either Yellow (10) or Orange (7), suggesting the progress level below the aimed target and the level critically below the target, respectively. The aimed target means the accomplishment of the goal by the deadline given. The most critical goals are SDG 2, 3, 14, and 15, according to Dr. Thuttai.

“The assessment reminds us of the long way we have to go. Considering all those hundred targets under the SDGs, we have achieved around 30%. The rest of 70%?, we may not be able to just “walk”, but “run” towards them,” said Dr. Thuttai.

Asst. Prof. Chol said his organisation’s analysis based on the SDG assessments by the SDSN, the NESDC, and UNESCAP shows that there are six critical issues that Thailand needs to address if it wishes to achieve the SDGs. 

The first and foremost issue is about unsustainable agriculture and food insecurity, which involves SDG 2, 3, 6, 11, and 14. This is not yet to mention malnutrition that persists in the country, he said. The second issue concerns the preservation of natural resources and biodiversity both on land and in the sea, which are affected by development.

The third issue is sustainable and just economic development which is still in question as the development and economic growth are still far less just and inclusive, while they have caused extensive environmental degradation and damage through unsustainable utilisation of resources and materials.

The fourth issue, meanwhile, concerns disaster mitigation and prevention, especially in times of challenging climate change. The fifth then involves the country’s governance systems ranging from corruption issues which are still prevalent, to inclusiveness, participation, and fair and just distribution of natural resources_ all are still in question, according to the professor.

Last but not least, he said, is the public health issue as several illnesses and diseases are still prevalent in the country such as cancer, accidents, and others.

The residents in the Central Plains have to move their belongings to higher grounds or move out of the flooded houses and live in makeshift structures, such as tents_an immediate and short-term solution amid the changing and increasingly unpredictable climate. (File photo/ January 2023)
Photo: Sayan Chuenudomsavad

The double crisis

Climate change is one of the two crises of modern times that has become increasingly critical following its impacts on humans and the planet. The other is biodiversity loss which has been highlighted following the great pandemic of Covid-19.

For Wanun Permpibul, Executive Director of Climate Watch Thailand, climate change has posed a critical challenge to the SDGs themselves.

Climate change is principally addressed by SDG 13, which is about climate action, but as the problem becomes intensifying, climate change has demonstrated how consecutive its impacts could be and how these impacts will affect several SDGs simultaneously, not just one. 

For instance, increasing drought and flooding could prompt farmers to be deprived of good produces, incomes and food security, thus plunging them deeper into debt. The example, she said, demonstrates how the problem can affect several SDGs at once.

In recent years, development experts have realised such a fact and begun to work on the SDGs with a more horizontal approach, meaning linking them together rather than treating each SDG as an independent silo. However, she cast doubt on whether policymakers can keep up with such a rapidly evolving challenge and come up with appropriate and proportionate policies or plans. 

Ms. Wanun gave an example, saying drought and flooding have been widely recognised and addressed in national policies and plans, but a new phenomenon like heat barely gets serious attention yet, not to mention that it’s already addressed in the policies, she remarked. 

“Heat can affect people’s skins, which can develop into a more severe disease such as skin cancer. Do we realise that sunscreen lotion will become an important item to deal with this problem, and if that’s the case, should it be treated as a cosmetic or a medicine? That’s a simple example of how new challenges can pose a challenge to our policy-making and the achievement of the SDGs,” said Ms. Wanun.

Photos: Sayan Chuenudomsavad

Ms. Wanun also pointed out that the SDGs have somehow blurred the responsibility to accomplish the goals that concern climate change. This issue needs to go back to climate history, under which industrialised countries caused the climate change problem, and that’s the reason why the principle of the differentiation of responsibility was thus put in place.

While the UN noted that there are only seven years left to achieve the SDGs, the fact is industrialised or developed countries have not adequately shown their “differentiated” responsibility by providing support and funds to the developing countries, Ms. Wanun pointed out.

“It’s not fair to ask developing countries to accomplish the goals to the same degree as developed countries. To accomplish the SDGs, we need to talk about this aspect and manage it along with the others too,” remarked Ms. Wanun. She also underlined “thorough” inclusiveness and SDGs on the ground, which she said are widely practised traditionally by local communities and should be brought all the way up to the policy level as well.

“We also need the policies that address the root causes and systemic issues, the ones that favour green growth, not the ones that favour the opposite,” said M. Wanun.

Meanwhile, the Secretary-General of the Green World Foundation Dr. Petch Manopawitr reminded the forum of how significant biodiversity is. 

Dr. Petch said the SDGs were introduced partly because people realised that conventional economic development could not progress any further. After all, it was not sustainable, and that’s why new discourses and conventions about development were introduced, including the Agenda 2030 and Paris Agreement.

Despite its significance, biodiversity is often overlooked. The fact is nature and biodiversity are fundamental to development and “Biosphere SDGs” or the SDGs that relate to nature serve as a foundation or a pre-condition of other SDGs.

“If we cannot achieve these goals, the other goals would struggle endlessly as they are not sustainable,” said Dr. Petch.

Dr. Petch said some new ideas such as area-based conservation or nature-positive development are emerging and becoming more and more crucial to the achievement of the SDGs. He cited the new global biodiversity framework agreed upon at the CBD’s COP15 that has set a new goal on the preservation and restoration of protected areas both on land and in the sea by 30% in 2030.

The challenge is how to get policymakers to realise this fact and give importance to policies that address Biosphere SDGs or scrap policies that are negative to the environment, Dr. Petch remarked, citing an example of EU’s Fit for 55 policy, under which several related laws and regulations are subject to amendments to pave the way for the green transition of the bloc by 2030.

“The key is do not get bored yet. We need public participation to push for change, or otherwise, everything will fall into the same old place. We need the new politics that supports public participation and is accountable to people so that change can take place,” remarked Dr. Petch.

The construction of Vientiane logistics park Phase 2 is being expedited to accommodate warehouses, oil depots and other utilities as part of the BRI’s Laos-China Railway while Laos is still in question whether it can leap fair benefits from this grand scheme. (File photo/ February 2023)
Photo: Sayan Chuenudomsavad

The challenges

For the UNDP which is the UN’s lead development agency supporting the SDGs implementation, its representative to Thailand remarked that it’s essential to monitor commitments made by countries, and the key to achieving the SDGs is to accelerate the progress, given there are only seven years left.

The election of Thailand, he said, is a milestone for moving forward as people will have an opportunity to observe to what extent the commitment they can see from the new government, or how central the issues underpinning the SDGs are at the core of political agendas of the respective parties. 

But the achievement of the SDGs is not just the government’s responsibility. It requires the contribution of the people, and the challenge is to bring the goals all the way down to communities, Mr. Meyer remarked.

So, including communities shows that it is the most successful approach, and this should not be just in the implementation phase, but the decision-making phase. Based on the lessons collected by the UNDP, people-centred development remains the best guarantee that the impacts will not favour only positive outcomes for the people, but the project itself will be sustainable, Mr. Meyer pointed out.

“That’s why the SDGs should not be served as a reference or framework imposed from a top-down approach. We’ve done with this and the principle of the subsidiary should prevail. Let people who are directly concerned take a decision that is going to impact them. Move Forward has presented decentralisation or even other governments we see some movements towards empowering communities. 

“These are not new ideas, but the practices of the development show that they are very central to success and sustainability. Too often, we go straight to technology and innovation. They are important as enablers or facilitators, but they will never replace the people’s agendas and participation in decisions that directly affect them. So, public participation and inclusiveness are the keys behind the SDGs” said Mr. Meyer.

A wind turbine farm in Tambon Huai Bong in Dan Khun Tod District, Nakhon Ratchasima province in Northeast Thailand, is up and running to produce electricity with a generation capacity of 797 megawatts. It has also become a new tourist attraction, bringing additional income to nearby residents. (File photo/ January 2023)
Photo: Sayan Chuenudomsavad

SDGs in the new politics and the way forward

Dr. Decharut Sukkumnoed, Director of Move Forward Party’s Think Forward Center, the party’s policy think tank, said it’s challenging to push the SDGs forward here. The party’s policymakers have been working on them and learned some flaws in the implementation. The SDGs, he said, have been implemented in a scattered way due to some obstacles and limitations in the bureaucratic system.

However, the SDGs align with the party’s key paradigm that “we humans are equal” as they too aim to achieve this ultimate goal that is not just about politics, but also opportunities in the economy and development. The center has tried addressing issues that the party wishes to work on if it enters the office. These, he said, are groups of issues that will transform the country.

First and foremost is education. Dr. Decharut said the country’s education faces a challenge of unequal opportunity and sluggishness to keep up with the rapid change in the world. Second, the country still faces a challenge in public health especially a high degree of accidents and mental health. The third issue is about energy reforms as the party wishes to see the energy transition to low-carbon and renewable energy. 

The fourth issue concerns agricultural reforms for more sustainable food production and food security. The fifth issue is about urban development, which can link to other issues such as energy, pollution, and others. The sixth issue is digitalisation which it wishes to promote, and the seventh is area-based conservation. 

Last but not least is the cross-cutting issue of political reforms through decentralisation and increased public participation in decision-making processes. Aside from these, there will also be economic reforms to lessen monopolies while allowing SMEs to have more roles in the economy as well as policy-making.

Dr. Decharut conceded that the political and economic reforms are big issues that need a big push. The old paradigm about economic development, he said, needs to be changed as people tend to think about gaining benefits rather than sacrificing their shares for the costs or the losses they created.

He gave an example of the principle of carbon crediting, which tends to seek surplus benefits to compensate for the costs or the losses in climate change. This is in contrast to the principle of carbon taxing, which requires people to help pay for those. 

This, he cited, demonstrates another form of power exercising in the economy as people exercise power by refusing to shoulder the burden and pushing it onto others, especially the next generations.

“The SDGs align with our prime paradigm, and we wish to ensure genuine public participation. New mechanisms such as the Youth Council or joint committees of civil members and MPs to work on transformative issues are under consideration as well as the reforming of our budget allocations. 

“Last but not least, it’s the public agenda-setting, which will kickstart all these. We talk to each other too little. We need more conversations on the issues to get the ideas circulated and formulated into the concrete public agenda setting and policymaking,” remarked Dr. Decharut.

For Asst. Prof. Chol, who has been monitoring the progress of the SDGs and the implementation here, to achieve the SDGs and transform the society, there should not be a change only to their content. Their work approaches should be changed too, he said.

Photos: ©Thiti Wannamontha

The critical challenge is how to increase public participation in SDG implementation and planning. Given the current committees working on sustainable development here, hardly any representatives from the civil sector represent, the professor pointed out. In addition, local or traditional knowledge that aligns with the SDGs should be promoted alongside to increase the recognition and acceptance of communities by people in the society, he suggested.

At the same time, the work on the SDGs should also be accountable not only to the government but also to the Parliament so that they can be tracked and accountable to the public members and their representatives, he further suggested.

Second, the SDGs come with trade-offs when implemented and there is a need to have mechanisms to help address them properly. Technology and innovation need to be developed to help address these trade-offs, Asst. Prof. Chol pointed out, citing the lack of a clear policy for research and technology development to serve this purpose.

Meanwhile, public awareness about sustainable development goals needs to be boosted among the public and the media can play a role in this, the professor said. Also, there is a need to introduce the so-called education for sustainable development to children so that the young generation is well prepared and equipped for the country’s transformation in the long term, he said.

Last but not least, Asst. Prof. Chol stressed that the SDGs should be a joint issue of all_regardless of differences in political paradigms or camps.

Here in Thailand, either conservative or progressive parties, the SDGs must be their shared issue to work on as they touch upon fundamental problems and challenges the country faces_from human rights to the health of the environment. There should not be any arguments about the responsibilities over them and the implementation. The goals should be the same although there could be a difference in the means of implementation, the professor remarked.

“There should not be arguments about the goals any more. Unfortunately, we tend to step into “a dark zone” when we favour particular camps and become reluctant to deal with the shared goals of the SDGs. That often makes us forget the promise we have made to the world,” remarked Asst. Prof. Chol.