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Global Perspective: Challenges of leading int'l efforts toward UN Sustainable Development Goals

National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies President Akihiko Tanaka (Mainichi)

Recently, talking about the SDGs draws fewer questions about what the acronym stands for. The Sustainable Development Goals were set by the United Nations in September 2015. Since then, corporations, nongovernmental organizations, local governments and schools -- from elementary schools to colleges -- have engaged in activities to promote the SDGs. Japan's government-run SDGs Promotion Headquarters has extended "Japan SDGs awards" to numerous organizations for their contributions to the SDGs.

It is commendable that the 17 goals the international community intends to meet by 2030 have won such a high level of public attention in Japan where the society is said to have become inward looking. While this growing trend of promoting the SDGs can be considered idealistic, it demonstrates the soundness of Japan -- the third largest economy in the world -- as the trade war between the United States and China continues unabated and multilateral frameworks of cooperation face serious questions about their sustainability.

Therefore, it is only natural that the government of Japan tries to show its leadership among international stakeholders by announcing the country's own initiatives to overcome major SDGs challenges in the upcoming G20 summit in Osaka in late June. Building upon the achievements of the G20 summit and relevant ministerial meetings, Tokyo should also play a leading role toward the worldwide achievement of SDGs goals at other global events, such as the 7th Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD7) to be held in Yokohama in late August, where many African leaders will be in attendance, and at the SDGs summit at the United Nations headquarters in New York later in September.

However, it is no easy endeavor for Japan to establish its leadership for the achievement of those sustainable goals. Firstly, U.S. President Donald Trump shows no interest in the SDGs at all. There are people inside the U.S. administration and the American society at large who are interested in those goals, but the level of awareness about the SDGs in the superpower is far lower than that in Japan or other countries. As witnessed by the administration's departure from the Paris international accord for fighting climate change, Washington risks undermining SDG 13, which urges measures to combat climate change and its impacts.

Secondly, many of the SDGs are very ambitious and remain difficult to meet in light of the current state of world affairs. The most important SDG target of poverty eradication aims at bringing the number of people in extreme poverty down to zero by 2030. This goal was set after the successful realization of a target to halve the population in extreme poverty between 1990 and 2015 -- an objective included in the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), a precursor to SDGs. The population went down from some 2 billion in 1990 to around 800 million in 2015.

This precedent, however, does not mean that lifting all of those 800 million or so people out of extreme poverty by 2030 is easy. Most of the rapid poverty reduction achieved by 2015 occurred in China. Today, many of the people in extreme poverty live in the Least Developed Countries, many of which are in sub-Sahara Africa. Will they be able to achieve the level of economic growth marked by China over the next 10 years? One hopes that it is possible, but a plethora of difficulties need to be addressed in meeting the goal in reality.

Thirdly, the SDGs is a list of concrete objectives and targets, and this arrangement incurs certain challenges. The 17 SDGs include 169 targets and 232 indicators to gauge the achievement of those targets. Some of these targets are clearly specified, such as the SDG 3.1, which calls for the reduction of the global maternal mortality ratio to less than 70 per 100,000 live births by 2030, while others contain rather vague expressions such as "substantially reduce" or "progressively achieve."

Compared to its international counterparts, Japan demonstrates a high level of progress as well as retains great potential in achieving many of the targets. Yet, Tokyo has to improve availability of accurate statistics. For example, the Bertelsmann Foundation, which monitors the international fulfillment of the SDGs, reports that Japan's ratio of people living below the international poverty line to total population is 0.5%. Extreme poverty is defined as people living on less than 1.9 dollars per day. This translates into some 650,000 Japanese, and one has to wonder if such a large number of people are really living on less than around 200 yen a day in Japan. Why such a figure is used is anyone's guess, but it may be explained by the fact that Japan does not have an official survey on the international poverty line on the assumption there are no Japanese living in such extreme poverty. The government will need to improve its collection of relevant data or its ambition of leading the world in achieving the SDGs will fizzle.

Another problem related to the SDGs and its targets is how to handle issues that are not clarified in its current set of goals. For example, the SDGs' spirit of "leaving no one behind" theoretically encompasses the aim of saving all refugees and internally displaced persons (IDP). But not a single refugee or IDP is mentioned in the 169 targets or the 232 indicators of the SDGs.

For Japan to lead global efforts to achieve the SDGs, the country needs to not only focus on those targets and indicators, but also seek to identify problems that are not specifically mentioned in those parameters and contribute with solutions, based on the philosophy of "leaving no one behind." (By Akihiko Tanaka, President, National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies)

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