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The newly published Sustainable Development Report (SDR) 2022 provides a detailed analysis of how the Asia-Pacific, and the world more generally, is progressing towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). All United Nations member states adopted these transformational goals for economic, social, and environmental sustainability to be met by 2030.
The SDR 2022 highlights that progress on the SDGs, which was already too slow, has come to a stop in the last two years. This is largely due to the COVID-19 pandemic and its impacts on employment, poverty, and life expectancy. Interestingly, East and South Asia is the region that has progressed the most on the SDGs since 2015, with Cambodia and Bangladesh showing the most progress over the period. However, improvements in SDG outcomes have also stagnated in 2020 and 2021 in the region, again largely due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
SDG Index Score over time, East and South Asia vs. the World
Source: Sachs, J., Lafortune, G., Kroll, C., Fuller, G., Woelm, F., (2022). From Crisis to Sustainable Development: the SDGs as Roadmap to 2030 and Beyond. Sustainable Development Report 2022. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
SDG priorities for Asia in the years to come
The report provides detailed analyses of the key SDG priorities for all 193 UN member states and world regions, including Asia. The SDGs that prove to be the greatest challenge for this region are SDG 2 (Zero Hunger), SDG 11 (Sustainable Cities & Communities), SDG 14 (Life Below Water), SDG 15 (Life on Land), and SDG 16 (Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions).
In terms of SDG 2, the rates of child stunting, or the impaired growth and development of a child due to malnutrition, remain very high, with large countries such as Bangladesh, Indonesia, Pakistan, and India facing rates of approximately a third of children suffering from stunting. Nitrogen use efficiency in agricultural practices is another important area for improvement under this goal, especially given the importance of the agricultural sector in meeting the needs of the region’s large population.
Preserving biodiversity (SDGs 14 & 15) is another major challenge. The percentage of key biodiversity areas that are protected remains very low. The proportion of fish that are caught via environmentally damaging methods, such as trawling or dredging, has increased since the adoption of the SDGs. Lastly, the Red List Index has evinced a clear decline in terrestrial biodiversity since 2015.
The main drivers of poor performance on SDG 11 are the high levels of pollution, as measured by particulate matter (>2.5 microns) and large proportions of the population living in informal settlements. The evaluation of SDG 16 shows several indicators where urgent progress is needed. The Press Freedom Index reveals that news organisations continue to face mounting pressure across the Asia-Pacific region while perceptions of corruption remain high. Rates of child labour and unsentenced detainees are also high in the region overall, while the indicator of access to justice shows poor performance in most countries.
SDG Dashboard for East and South Asia
Source: Sachs et al (2021)
Key areas of progress and SDG achievement
Worldwide, East and South Asia has the best performance on obesity rates (SDG 2), being the only region where virtually all countries score green on this indicator. In general, countries in the Asia-Pacific score well on indicators of SDG 9 (Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure), showing strong performance on quality of tertiary education as measured by international rankings and the World Bank’s measure of quality of infrastructure for trade and transport. The region also stands out for its low homicide rates and high perceptions of safety and security among habitants (SDG 16).
Evolution of extreme poverty ($1.90/day) in East and South Asia, 2010 – 2021
Source: Cuaresma, J. C., Fengler, W., Kharas, H., Bekhtiar, K., Brottrager, M., & Hofer, M. (2019). Will the Sustainable Development Goals be fulfilled? Assessing present and future global poverty. Palgrave Communications, 4(1), 29. World Poverty Clock available from http://worldpoverty.io/
Moving to trends over time, countries in the Asia-Pacific have made great progress in eliminating extreme poverty, although the COVID-19 pandemic has proved to be a setback in recent years. In the region, there has also been great improvements in reducing undernourishment and mortality rates in infants and children.
Low-to-moderate policy efforts to meet the SDGs
Due to time lags in data collection and publication, a country’s most recent datapoint may not reflect the actions of the current government. To evaluate how governments are working toward SDG outcomes, we complement the SDG index with a survey of government efforts. In the Asia-Pacific, governments tend to show low to moderate commitment in terms of SDGs according to this assessment. All countries surveyed (China, India, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Pakistan, Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam) have submitted at least one voluntary national review, or VNR. However, only a third have integrated the SDGs into their national budgets, and only one has integrated the SDGs into its national COVID-19 recovery plan.
The special case of Oceania
The islands of Oceania have a different set of challenges than East and South Asia and are treated separately in the SDR. The report shows that the most important challenge facing these countries is statistical capacity. Many of the countries don’t have enough data to be featured in the SDG Index, which means it’s more difficult to identify and measure SDG gaps and priorities. However, it is clear that these states struggle more with poverty elimination than their homologues in East and South Asia. Furthermore, they have a special set of vulnerabilities due to their geography and climate change – these countries’ small size renders them dependent on trade, while their remoteness makes such trade more difficult. They are more vulnerable to economic shocks and extremely vulnerable to the effects of climate change such as rising sea levels and increasing natural disasters, which means action on the SDGs is even more urgent and pertinent for these countries.
2022 SDG dashboards for Oceania
Source: Sachs et al (2021)
Indeed, for Asia and the world more broadly, the years 2020 and 2021 constituted a setback for sustainable development. However, now is not the time to scale back ambitions, but rather to double down and accelerate progress on the 2030 Agenda. The SDGs provide a holistic and universal framework for sustainability and are the best way for the region and the world to recover from the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic and strive towards a sustainable future.
For more information, data and statistics on the SDGs, please visit https://www.sdgindex.org/