sustainable development goals

[OPINION] Is the Philippines on track for sustainable development?

John Leo C. Algo
[OPINION] Is the Philippines on track for sustainable development?
'The ultimate goal of development is not necessarily for growth or prosperity, but happiness'

This September marks the fifth anniversary of the adoption of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the blueprint towards sustainable living for all. A total of 17 goals were unanimously adopted by all nations in 2015, covering hundreds of targets and indicators of social justice and equality, environmental conservation, and economic prosperity that need to be achieved by 2030.     

With less than a decade to accomplish the SDGs and the world in the midst of recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, it is necessary to ask if the Philippines is on the right path to a sustainable future. 

Where we are

The 2020 UN report reveals that the world is not on track to achieve the aforementioned goals. While pathways and performances ultimately vary among countries and regions, several common trends emerge that point to critical issues that need to be addressed.

Among the worst-performing goals are those corresponding to climate action (SDG 13) and biodiversity conservation (SDG 14 and 15). Arguably the two gravest crises of today, climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic, are indicators of the failure to scale up actions to avoid further environmental degradation that results in poorer planetary and human health.

In contrast, the goals with the most observed progress are those on poverty alleviation (SDG 1), industry, innovation, and infrastructure (SDG 9), and sustainable cities and communities (SDG 11). Yet this does not mean that adequate progress is attained in any of them. More than 700 million people still live in extreme poverty, with that number potentially increasing due to COVID-19. Inequalities among and within nations still exist on access to benefits associated with infrastructural and urban developments.

These global trends are reflected well in the Philippines, which ranked 99th out of 166 countries in terms of SDG progress. Major challenges face the nation in terms of attaining zero hunger (SDG 2), good health and well-being (SDG 3), industry, innovation, and infrastructure (SDG 9), reducing inequalities (SDG 10), and peace and justice (SDG 16). Meanwhile, the country has made significant progress in reducing poverty incidence and strengthening climate and disaster resilience.

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These findings reflect the Manila-centric development and the poor state of agricultural sector, two long-running national issues that must be dealt with. Without an equitable distribution of the benefits of the country’s economic gains, vulnerabilities to natural hazards, pandemics, and other threats will remain high among the marginalized sectors, especially women, indigenous peoples, and the youth. 

It is important to note that while the report claims that the country has achieved responsible consumption and production (SDG 12), the Philippines’s own review indicates that it needs to improve its policy implementation to improve waste management and reduce pollution. This indicates a disconnect between the numbers and our reality, indicating a need to improve the assessment of national SDG performance and policy implementation.

Road to 2030

While it is clear that the Philippines is currently not on track to achieve the SDGs, it has the policy tools and mechanisms to lay the foundation towards correcting the course.   

To gain a more accurate assessment of the country’s progress to 2030, the production and collection of disaggregated data for SDG targets and indicators must be improved. Strengthening evidence-based policymaking is much needed in a country that has gained notoriety for ignoring science-based approaches and making questionable decisions in some aspects and levels of governance.  

Sustainable development must also be spurred in regions aside from Metro Manila, and Central and Southern Luzon. While the current administration has invested in infrastructure development to enhance connectivity between regions, it must be accompanied by policy reforms to strengthen local governance and improve synergy between local and national government units. A change not in the form of government, but in the culture of governance towards something more inclusive and consistent at the national and local levels is necessary.

The country needs to break free from a fossil fuel-dependent economy and begin the inevitable just transition to renewable energy. Shifting away from current plans for more coal-fired power plants into a cleaner, diversified energy mix yields more benefits for the country’s electricity sector, food security, climate resilience, and environmental agenda. The government must strictly enforce existing legislation, most notably the Renewable Energy Act of 2008 and the Climate Change Act of 2009, to steer the country towards low-carbon development.

A more integrative approach that accounts for the comprehensive interconnectedness of the SDGs must be implemented. In a country hampered by a lack of continuity in long-term policymaking and conflicting agendas among different government units, collaboration is a must to ensure inclusive, coherent approaches and an efficient use of resources towards sustainability. Measures such as improving the quality of education and health services, creating more opportunities for employment, and enhancing social protection should be ultimately aimed towards alleviating poverty and reducing inequalities. 

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Global and national trends show that the notion of pursuing economic growth as a means for eradicating poverty and inequalities, which has been the driving force behind current development models, has resulted in many of those same issues to even worsen. It is clear that we need a redefinition of how to assess sustainable development. The ultimate goal of development is not necessarily for growth or prosperity, but happiness. 

If we want the Philippines to be on track to total sustainability by 2030, a societal transformation must occur, but not in the way politicians advertise. The road to the future we need is through the compassionate partnerships of peoples towards a peaceful prosperity and a resilient, thriving planet, where no one is left behind. –

John Leo is the Program Manager of Living Laudato Si Philippines and Climate Action for Sustainability Initiative (KASALI). He has been a citizen journalist and feature writer since 2016.