Sustainable Development Goals in South-East Asian Countries

July 22, 2021

Photo: Scottgunn licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Remarkable economic progress during the 1990s and the early 2000s masked deep-seated economic, political, and social challenges in the SEA countries. The 1998 Asian Financial Crisis and the 2008 Global Financial Crisis, shocked the countries and forced governments to examine these challenges more openly. As in each of these crises before, a renewed spirit for introspection and of finding solutions emerges.

Globally, the 2015 adoption of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Paris Agreement on climate change provided a new and timely development paradigm, as well as, a framework for inclusive growth and environmental responsibility that countries can use to measure themselves and their achievements. These frameworks are neither perfect nor exhaustive. Their achievements greatly depended on not only how fast and how far existing systems in each country are willing to evolve towards the objectives, but also on how complex and sometimes conflicting objectives are navigated by the country policymakers. Nonetheless, the frameworks serve as guides for countries to ensure that they ‘cover all bases’ and provide avenues to measure their progress. Countries can develop their own SDG roadmaps, aimed at making sure the right enablers, resources and measures are in place.

Yet even before COVID-19 hit us in 2020, it was already obvious that the 2030 Agenda progress is not occuring at the rate that can be considered satisfactory. During an SDG Summit in September 2019, world leaders called for a Decade of Action (2020 -2030) to accelerate the progress of SDGs.  Although sustainable finance is increasing, it is not fast enough or at the necessary scale. We are still investing in polluting industries and poor examples of labour treatment, among others. These show that—more often than not—that policy intentions do not always turn into actions, and actions are do not always able to produce the level of results envisioned.

Although the pandemic affects us all, it does not affect us all equally. Digitization is capable of both creating massive new wealth in the economy for some people while at the same time, crushing others out of competition and thus the market.  

On the other hand, as economic activity slowed down tremendously due to lockdowns, so has the generation of greenhouse gases, and pollution. The status of biodiversity has improved, but this could be temporary. Furthermore, these gains can be easily reversed, if the long-term recovery agenda does not place nature and climate at the centre.

Source: ESCAP South-East Asia (SEA) country grouping of 11 countries: Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Lao PDR), Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Timor-Leste, Viet Nam.

The SEA region is progressing moderately in the SDGs except for Goal 9 (Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure) which is unsurprising given the steady GDP growth in past decades. Although the region also made significant progress towards Goals 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 8, 10 and 17 from the baseline year 2000, progress could have been faster.

Moving forward, countries will have to consider the effects of various global megatrends in their SDGs plans. For instance, changes in the demographic profile of societies where an ageing population without sufficient savings and private retirement scheme may rely more on the country’s social protection systems to survive, putting pressure on SDG 1 (no poverty). Population growth and greater nutritional needs coupled with climate change effects are interlinked to affect SDG 2 (zero hunger).  The pressures COVID imposed on our public health systems are putting a strain on our SDG 3 (good health and well-being), achievements. Inability to obtain an all-rounded education experience and the obvious digital divide our students are facing is disastrous for SDG 4 (quality education).

Alarmingly, the situation is now worse than in year 2000 on most of the environmental goals. Environmental degradation in its various forms caused by climate change—including biodiversity loss—is reflected in SDG 6 (clean water and sanitation), SDG 14 (life below water), and SDG 15 (life on land). Since the consequences of climate change fall hardest on the most vulnerable groups (think paddy farmers and rainfall limitations), these will in turn impact SDG 10 (reduced inequalities) and SDG 8 (decent work and economic growth).

Managing SDG 11 (sustainable cities and communities) is extremely challenging in SEA as it is one of the fastest urbanizing regions in the world. Urbanization affects all the SDGs, directly or indirectly since cities are where waste and pollution, energy use, and income and wealth divisions are most obvious and threatening.

Digitization, which positively work in enhancing performance of almost all 17 SDGs. In terms of the economy, it has shown to provide vast opportunities to build back “better” through the emergence of new business models and product services (SDG 8). However, the world has not yet fully understood and tapped into the immense power of digital technology in shaping norms/behaviours to be more social and environmentally-friendly. Similarly, countries have not fully leveraged the digitization wave to expand its capacity to collect disaggregated data; which are critical for better evidence-based policymaking and tracking of the SDG targets.

As SEA countries seek to rebuild from the latest crisis, it is now an opportune time to consider how an SDG framework can help them prioritize the wellbeing of people and the planet. SDGs are not achieved for their own sake; it is a benchmark upon which we measure ourselves and our leaders to ensure that we leave no stone unturned in our quest for a true and meaningful sustainable development.

Note: The Asia and the Pacific SDG Progress Report 2021 report analyses progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in Asia and the Pacific and its five subregions as well as the availability of data. The Report of the UN Economist Network for the UN 75th Anniversary Shaping the Trends of Our Time report describe in more detail five megatrends discussed in the blog: climate change; demographic shifts, particularly population ageing; urbanization; the emergence of digital technologies and inequalities.

Link to the reports: