ASEAN at the Crossroads: 'Progress Towards SDG Targets by 2030'

27 May 2023
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By Ms Ayu Pratiwi Muyasyaroh, Research Associate: The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) represent a universal appeal to end poverty, safeguard the environment, and ensure peace and prosperity for all by 2030 (UNDP, n.d.). Also known as the Global Goals, the SDGs were adopted in 2015 by 193 United Nations (UN) Member States at the UN Sustainable Development Summit, New York.

The year 2023 marks the midway point of the SDG agenda, with countries urged to achieve at least half of the progress required to accomplish the goals (ESCAP, 2023). Whilst some considerable progress has been made towards the Global Goals, a preliminary assessment conducted by the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA) (2023) on 140 SDG targets showed that only about 12% of SDG targets are on track, whilst the rest are either moderately or severely off track compared with the 2015 baseline (UN DESA, 2023). As a result, current trends indicate that 575 million people will still be living in extreme poverty by 2030 (UN DESA, 2023). It is also predicted that 84 million children will be out of school by 2030 (UN DESA, 2023).

The ASEAN region will become increasingly vulnerable to threats if its SDG targets are not met (Woetzel et al., 2020).  Many of the region’s low-lying coastal cities are at risk of flooding and typhoons and several least developed countries are within the region. Based on current trends, Asian countries such as the ASEAN Member States (AMSs) are predicted to fall short of reaching 90% of their SDG targets (ESCAP, 2023).

A lack of standardised monitoring and reporting tools is one of the primary reasons for the deviation from most SDG targets. It is not only important to have the necessary data available to monitor countries’ progress towards SDGs but also essential to assess this progress in a comparable manner through a standardised methodology. In 2017, UN member states endorsed a global indicator framework consisting of 169 targets to measure countries’ progress in implementing the 17 global goals (Giles-Corti et al., 2020). As of 2023, 231 indicators were assessing countries’ progress towards their SDG targets (Kim, 2023). Reviewed and refined annually by the Inter-agency and Expert Group on SDG Indicator, the 231 SDG indicators have been deployed at all levels (Kim, 2023). At national and subnational levels, these are used to measure countries’ progress towards their SDG targets, which are then reported in voluntary national reviews during the High-level Political Forums on Sustainable Development to assess the global progress towards the SDGs and potentially rank countries accordingly (HLPF, n.d.).

However, despite such outstanding efforts to assess progress towards the Global Goals’ targets, there is short-sightedness in employing the 231 SDG indicators, which, in turn, might lead countries to go off track in marching towards their SDG targets. This short-sightedness can be attributed to three main factors:

First, unavailable data. On average, countries reporting one or more data points on less than 60% of the SDG indicators from 2015 to 2019 (Kitzmüller et al., 2021).  Unavailability of data arises due to the inability of countries to collect data regularly (FAO, 2019). For example, ASEAN’s recent report can examine only 29 SDGs out of 231 indicators due to a paucity of data, resulting in insufficient documentation of progress of many targets, causing them to veer off track (ASEANstats, 2022; ESCAP, 2023).

Second, unreported data, where countries choose not to report certain data due to fear of negative publicity, thereby missing opportunities to establish initiatives aimed at reaching SDG targets. As a result, there is a disproportionate imbalance amongst SDGs, leading countries to prioritise certain goals above others in their national action plans. For instance, Goal 5 (gender equality) receives less attention in ASEAN than Goal 7 (affordable and clean energy), resulting in underreporting of its progress and veering off course in the region (ASEANstats, 2022; Ganesh and Harness, 2022).

Third, methodological disparities, which are not uncommon in the criticism of SDGs across various disciplines, highlighting the vagueness of Global Goals and lack of concrete targets (Hametner, 2022). As a result, despite the significant efforts of many organisations to narrow the methodological gaps in monitoring nations’ progress towards SDG targets, such gaps persist. Consequently, the monitoring function of SDG indicators becomes insufficient to examine countries' SDG targets, leading to the figures of one country’s progress becoming hardly comparable to others. As a result, peer criticism represented by SDG indices, rankings, or best practices that aim to ensure countries stay on track with their SDG targets have become increasingly less relevant in recent years. In countries with high diversity such as those in ASEAN, it becomes more helpful to adapt the global 231 SDG indicators to local contexts rather than blindly adopting them as a regional guide for examining progress.

Like many other countries, AMSs have less than 10 years to realise their SDGs’ aspiration of a peaceful, prosperous, and healthy Earth. Although significant progress has been made, it lacks the necessary pace and rigour. It would be regrettable if countries failed to achieve their SDG targets because of some blind spots, such as their inability to comprehensively monitor the progress of these targets.

This opinion piece was written by ERIA's Research Associate, Ms Ayu Pratiwi Muyasyaroh, and has been published in The Jakarta PostThe Manila Times, and The Voice of VietnamClick here to subscribe to the monthly newsletter.Click here to subscribe to the monthly newsletter.

Disclaimer: The views expressed are purely those of the authors and may not in any circumstances be regarded as stating an official position of the Economic Research Institute for ASEAN and East Asia.

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