Indonesia and SDGs: A Tortuous Road Ahead

A new chapter in the global development agenda was opened on September 25 last year with the ratification at the UN General Assembly of the 2015-2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) by all 193 member countries, including Indonesia. The SDGs are the successors of the 2000-2015 Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that pioneered the concept of an international development framework.

The MDGs helped prioritize eight basic development goals such as extreme poverty eradication and universal access to education. They contained a series of measurable health indicators and economic indicators for each of 21 targets. Some nations are seen as having failed to accomplish any of the goals while others, including Indonesia, accomplished most targets.

The SDGs take this type of development work framework to a whole new level. The eight goals and 21 targets of the MDGs now become 17 goals and 169 targets. The SDGs’ goals no longer apply to developing countries only, but to all countries, including the most developed economies.

Sustainable and responsible
The SDGs envision a more prosperous and egalitarian planet through the application of sustainable methods and responsibilities shared by all countries.  Katinka Weinberger, the director for environment at the UN’s Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP), explained via a videoconference attended by Concord Strategic on September 16 that the concept of sustainable development in fact predates the MDGs, but only recently has been given enough relevance.

The 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Source: UNDP

Weinberger said the UN Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 produced the first report card defining sustainable development: an approach that takes into account planetary limits and calls for a system that connects space and time. “When we think about the world as a system or a space, we begin to understand that air pollution from North America will affect air quality in Asia,” she explained.


But to understand the role of sustainability in the SDGs, one needs to also associate sustainability to economic and human development, not just the environment – as the concept has so far been mostly understood. Weinberger pointed out that development based simply on infrastructure improvement and social empowerment has limits, particularly as “unsustainable consumption patterns continue to be on the rise.”

“Between 1992 and today, the world’s population has grown by over 1.5 billion people and the world economy has grown by more than 75% while extreme poverty, hunger and malnutrition still exist. We have more than 850 million hungry people on this planet and many people in developing countries are extremely poor. Unsustainable consumption patterns are also on the rise. 1.2 million tons of food are wasted every year and malnutrition affects a large scale of the world’s population,” she said.

For these reasons, the SDGs are ambitious in covering many new areas, including the environment. “Some fear that the proliferation of goals and targets will distract attention from the core goal: elimination of poverty. However, the reality is that poverty eradication cannot be sustained without achievements in economic and social justice as well as economical sustainable achievements,” she explained.

Many observers have also pointed out that the SDGs could serve as a ‘back-up’ international framework for environmental sustainability if the 2015 UN Climate Change Conference in Paris, to take place on November 30 to December 1, fails to create a realistic international commitment to slow global warming.

Excessive ambition?
Yet, despite the UN’s firm belief that international development must encompass several areas to succeed and have sustainability as its core principle, many experienced development workers disagree. Where Weinberger sees comprehensive aspirations, others see excessively lofty goals and a reluctance to learn from the failures of the MDGs.

Former World Bank official and lecturer at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy Phyllis Pomerantz made the eloquent point in an op-ed in The Globe & Mail newspaper in September that if 169 targets are the priority, then nothing is a priority. Pomerantz argued that despite the laudable goals, the end product of the SDGs is anything but focused and strategic.

The reason for this, Overseas Development Institute (ODI) official Philipp Krausse explains in, is that the requests of “every conceivable NGO lobbying for their cause without concern for the whole edifice” was welcomed during the SDGs’ drafting process so as not to leave anything or anyone behind.

Another common point of criticism of the SDGs is their questionable capacity to ensure progress is accurately reported. Most development experts agree that the MDGs helped make the case for better data collection and the SDGs are expected to do the same. But the MDGs fell short of ensuring each country was able, or willing to, report standardized statistics. Indonesia is a case in point, with the Central Bureau of Statistics (BPS) offering a deficient range of data – although it has begun to improve in the past two years.

How to report economic progress is also a hotly contested issue. Weinberger said that the new SDGs avoid gross domestic product (GDP) as a measure of progress. Higher GDP has remained the primary goal of economic policy across the world but the UN now wants to use Genuine Progress Indicators (GPI), a metric designed to take fuller account of the health of a nation’s economy by incorporating environmental and social factors which are not measured by GDP.

There are doubts about the value of the GPI. Compared to the straightforwardness of GDP, which is solely based on standard numerical values, the GPI includes measures more vulnerable to political manipulation and whose relevance can vary between states. It also includes GDP as part of its measures, which makes economic growth essential to a lesser or greater extent. No major country has signaled its intention to move away from GDP as a measure of progress.

Thus the propensity of the world’s economies to gravitate towards sustainability will continue to be limited unless the way economic progress is measured changes. Incidentally, however, achieving the SDGs also requires economic growth that will provide the resources for achieving the range of goals that are considered.

Correlation and causation
Finally, some doubt whether real progress in meeting the SDGs will stand up to scrutiny. While the MDGs appeared to succeed at least partly in countries like Indonesia, many doubt whether the confusion between correlation and causation helped create this favorable perception.

Duncan Green, a strategic adviser for Oxfam UK, believes the ‘we’ attitude behind UN programs is in fact addressing development progress as a collective accomplishment rather than the by-product of national policies enacted in the best interest of each country. “First, who is ‘we’? You will hear hundreds of statements along the lines of ‘we can end poverty’. Great aim, but who, exactly is we?” he asks in a recent blog post on Oxfam’s website.

Green argues that countries like China which on paper have helped accomplish many of the MDGs over the past 15 years did so in fact out of their own preference. Likewise, neglected MDGs in other countries were abandoned on the same principle. He is concerned that basing the world’s development hopes on the SDGs and not taking a hard look at each individual country and their internal factors may lead to new disappointments.

“The SDG process has generated a massive global conversation on our shared future and maybe that will continue. But I worry that ignoring power, politics and (dare I say it?) How Change Happens in New York (during the UN General Assembly meeting) will mean a global moment will not produce the long-term impact we need,” he explains.

MDGs in Indonesia
Knowing the sore spots of the SDGs can be helpful in understanding the performance of the MDGs in Indonesia and to build expectations for the SDGs.

During her September videoconference, Weinberger recapped the success of the MDGs in the Asia-Pacific in a positive light. “The MDGs have made a major contribution to development in the Asia-Pacific region. Their greatest achievement was the mobilization for broad power for a global development agenda and we know that the MDGs have drawn considerable progress over the past 15 years,” she said.

Whether by causation or correlation, during the MDG period the percentage of people living on less than $1.25 a day (the international extreme poverty line) has decreased from 52% in 1990 to 12% in 2012 in Asia-Pacific, or by 1.9 billion to 569 million people. Weinberger said the number was expected to be lower by the end of 2015, when countries submit new data.

In addition, access to clean water has increased from 72% in 1990 to 92% now and the girl-to-boy ratio in schools from 85/100 to 108/100. “We know that for most development indicators, their negative rates decreased after the introduction of the MDGs and the rate of progress also accelerated for a number of targets,” she said.

The eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Source: UNDP

Indonesia was one of the 38 countries in the world able to reduce the number of hungry and undernourished people by more than half, from 20% in 1990 to merely 8.6% in 2012, and which achieved the main target of MDG1 (halving the percentage of population living on less than $1 a day) years ahead of schedule – from 21% in 1990 to 6% in 2008.

According to an article published in Strategic Review by John Lundinz, a director of programs at Save the Children in Indonesia, Indonesia’s progress in other areas of the 2015 Millennium Development Goals offered mixed results.

Indonesia still failed to achieve certain targets within MDG1, such as reducing the percentage of its population below the minimum level of dietary consumption, with more than 60% of the population still consuming less than the internationally recognized standard of 2,000 calories per day.

For MDG2, the net enrollment rates for primary education are increasing and are on track to achieve the target of 100% by 2015, although around 3% to 5% of Indonesian children aged 7 to 14 are still not enrolled in school, Lundinz said.

Gender scores patchy
Indonesia is also on track or has already achieved its MDG3 targets for gender equality and empowerment of women, according to Lundinz, although some women’s empowerment activists, such as Nani Zulminarni, disagree.

She told Inside Indonesia in an interview in 2015 that while Indonesia has made progress on paper (through laws and regulations) and women have more opportunities professionally and in education, the experiences of development workers working in rural areas paint a different picture. In addition, the maternal mortality rate of mothers (MDG5) has increased, not fallen, in the last three years, she said.

Indonesia is off track on reducing the maternal mortality rate from 390 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births in 1991 to its goal of 102 by 2015. The rate is still above 200, which puts Indonesia significantly behind neighboring countries such as Malaysia and the Philippines. In addition, contraceptive use among married women aged 15 to 49 and the unmet need for family planning are not on track to meet MDG goals, Lundinz explained.

For MDG4, Indonesia has also made significant strides, according to Lundinz. Child mortality below age 5 has fallen nationally from 97 deaths per 1,000 live births on average in 1991 to 44 deaths per 1,000 live births in 2007.

Infant and neonatal mortality have also fallen, although natal mortality has not fallen as quickly, particularly over the past decade. Immunization coverage has also improved significantly to approximately 75% of 1-year-old children immunized against measles in 2010, an increase from 45% in 1991.

Finally, Lundinz said Indonesia has had mixed results in meeting MDG6 and MDG7, and is on track to meet MDG8. No significant progress has been made towards reducing the spread of HIV/AIDS, but the country has significantly reduced the incidence of malaria, and reduced the death rate from tuberculosis by more than half since 1990. Under MDG7, Indonesia has not halted deforestation and emitted more carbon dioxide in 2008 compared to 2000, but has improved protection of fisheries and biologically diverse land areas.

The role of politics
The ‘politics’ highlighted by Duncan Green may have been a major factor hampering the adequate implementation of all MDGs in Indonesia. Sugeng Bahagijo, the executive director of the International NGO Forum on Indonesian Development (INFID), told Concord Strategic that political infighting and other factors slowed the MDGs’ implementation.

“The MDGs started in 2000, former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) in 2004. SBY cannot (implement the MDGs) immediately because we had the (Aceh) tsunami and we had political disputes between opposition and government so SBY only really started MDGs around 2006, 2007 and 2008,” Bahagijo explained.

It wasn’t until Yudhoyono’s second administration (2009-2014) that the MDGs were incorporated into all phases of the national development plan, from budgeting to implementation. Indonesia also became in recent years one of only two countries with a special envoy managing the MDGs within the government – Nila Moeloek, now Health Minister in President Joko Widodo’s administration.

Anindita Sitepu and Natasha Ardiani, two development researchers familiar with MDG implementation in Indonesia, describe in a recent article in Inside Indonesia how until the issuance of a presidential instruction in 2010, which listed government institutions responsible for achieving the MDGs, there was no clear hierarchy between government stakeholders.

This late response may explain why some critical infrastructure elements needed to accomplish certain MDGs are not ready. “There are some serious gaps in infrastructure. For example, there are solid primary healthcare center buildings, but no roads to them. Vaccines are readily available, but there is no electricity to power the fridges used to store them. There are good hospital beds, but not clean water to wash the tools.

“These gaps indicate that communication (between government agencies) is inadequate, which can hinder the overall efforts to improve the health-related goals. These challenges need to be the priority of not just the obvious stakeholders in the health sector, but also the Public Works Ministry, the Home Affairs Ministry, the (Basic) Education Ministry and the local planning agency,” Sitepu and Ardiani explain.

Challenges to implement national development plans at a regional level due to the multiple bureaucratic layers of decentralized Indonesia was another impediment, the two researches said, as was a lack of awareness in remote areas of the MDGs and their importance.

Expectations for the SDGs in Indonesia
Indonesia appears to have learned from its mistakes implementing the MDGs but those lessons may not be entirely relevant to the SDGs.

Coordinating Human Development and Culture Minister Puan Maharani told The Jakarta Post in an interview after the September UN summit that “coordination is a must.” “It should be our priority. If Indonesia wants to progress, no work should be done entirely by one or a few ministries,” Maharani said.

“Programs under the SDGs should first be included in the National Mid-Term Development Plan (RPJMN) arranged by the National Development Planning (Bappenas) Ministry. All of the 17 goals will be discussed there to clearly map which ones should be prioritized and tailored to the conditions in Indonesia,” she said, adding that she hoped the programs could begin to be funded by the 2016 state budget.

Vice President Jusuf Kalla also said on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly meeting that no new institution will be created to oversee the implementation of the SDGs in Indonesia, choosing instead to incorporate them into the RPJMN.

However, unlike the MDGs, NGOs are expected to have a bigger role in implementing the SDGs, which Kalla also acknowledged. INFID’s Bahagijo described the new approach to the SDGs as “from people by the people to the people,” meaning that the government still has a big responsibility but “it should involve as much as possible stakeholders and ensure that they (the government) does not ‘cherry-pick’ in the end” goals or targets.

The risk that governments will ‘cherry-pick’ the SDGs that suit them most is apparent, as the increased number of goals and areas covered by the SDGs may touch areas at odds with reform. For instance, SDG16 (peace and justice and strong institutions) requires increased efforts against corruption and SDG5 (gender equality) the elimination of female genital mutilation (FGM), a taboo issue in Indonesia.

Attention to forests, palm oil
SDG13 (climate action) and SDG15 (life on land) require an end to uncontrolled deforestation and wildlife destruction, which in Indonesia are associated with one of its most powerful industries: palm oil.

INFID executive director Sugeng Bahagijo (L) during a press conference on the Post-2015 UN development agenda on September 25. Source: INFID

At the same time, Bahagijo told Concord Strategic that global attention for palm oil under a sustainable development framework that advocates the idea of a planet as a single system could put Indonesia in the spotlight. “Sloppy management on the part of Indonesia could have international implications. Borneo is one of the ‘world’s lungs’. I don’t think that (the fact that developed countries are now also part of the SDGs) reduces the impact on Indonesia,” he said.

Bahagijo’s INFID, which has a special consultation status at the UN’s Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), is the main NGO in Indonesia spearheading the preparation for the SDGs’ implementation. It is currently briefing similar NGOs in 11 provinces throughout the country to help them introduce the SDGs regionally and it is developing an SDG guideline for local governments.

INFID is also preparing an analysis to highlight the similarities and differences between the SDGs and the RPJMN as well as drafting a government regulation to give input to the central government on how to implement the SDGs. Bahagijo, who has previously worked at Bappenas and several other ministries, believes it is still too early to know whether the Indonesian government will fully embrace the SDGs.

A first step is to get the Central Bureau of Statistics to improve its data collection and range of statistics. “In March there will be (new) indicators. We have to improve the data, that’s why they (the UN) call for a data revolution. Even our ordinary data now is not comparable to other countries,” he said.

INFID also aims to complete an action plan for the national implementation of the SDGs with the help of other NGOs by mid-2016. Bahagijo said he is also considering proposing to the government work on an estimate on how much the full implementation of the SDGs could cost Indonesia by 2030, as the figure is currently unknown. Internationally, too, there are no clear figures although a need to mobilize “trillions, not billions,” in resources is often mentioned.

“The challenge I think is that Jokowi (President Joko Widodo) will be much more focused on physical infrastructure when only NGOs and (development aid) donors are focused on the human development side and the environment… that is the discrepancy. It is important now to do political work. To ask Jokowi for commitment, for his support.”

Early clues to progress
“We will see whether the budget allocated (in coming years) is sufficient or not. It is good that Jokowi is starting to reduce subsidies to reinvest the money in national projects, but if you use this money only in physical infrastructure like trains, railways in Sulawesi or Sumatra…that is good! But what happens to our life insurance? What happens to the mothers?”

Bahagijo said INFID will use the next two years as an indicator to see how many resources the government is willing to allocate to the SDGs. “Before that we will see within several months whether the first milestone (is achieved): whether the government sets up a participatory committee to plan and implement the SDGs.”

“Other governments would say ‘maybe our government needs five years’… well that is again repeating MDGs. With the MDGs we were delayed by almost 10 years. There is no excuse anymore,” he remarked.

Bahagijo believes one challenge the SDGs face in Indonesia is that some politicians could dismiss them as an unwanted ‘foreign agenda’, which happened with the MDGs. The “inward-looking politicians,” as he calls them, are joined by bureaucrats in possible unwillingness to implement the SDGs.

“I will not underestimate the capabilities of people in the ministry: they know about the green economy, they know about the limitations, etc… the only thing is whether they will implement it or not. That is why the challenges of SDGs in Indonesia is not technical, the challenges of SDGs in Indonesia are political,” he said.

“We will not see a major shift in 15 years (in terms of sustainability) but we may start to see a change in course. (The success of the SDGs will depend) not just on the willingness of the president, but how far the oligarchy, the super rich near the president (are willing to go),” he said.

In the meantime, Bahagijo said the government should continue to work to close the human development gaps between developed and less developed regions in Indonesia. Until then, he did not believe the SDGs can be applied equally across the country.

In his view, this does not require entirely new programs. He suggested that accelerating the implementation of certain welfare programs such as the Indonesia Health Card (KIS) or the Indonesia Smart Card (KIP), respectively health insurance and student financial aid programs, could help narrow development gaps. “We also don’t have a good pension system for instance; the government is planning to introduce one but only in 2019 so if you can speed that up you could close certain gaps.”

Immediate importance?
Despite the current international momentum of the SDGs, the experience of the MDGs tells us that governments may take months to initiate internal discussions and years to implement related programs.

According to Bahagijo, many NGOs in Indonesia have been reluctant to accept international frameworks as they also see them as an unwanted foreign agenda. However, it is likely that most NGOs will begin to embrace them, not just out of their own conviction but also due to funding restraints.

Many NGOs and development programs in Indonesia are funded by international development banks such as the World Bank or the Asian Development Bank (ADB) as well as foreign government aid agencies, all of which are expected to incorporate the SDGs into their agendas.

Businesses, likewise, are expected to foster the SDGs through their own practices and corporate social responsibility (CSR) programs. A PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) report published in September said 71% of businesses surveyed in 11 countries, including Malaysia and Thailand, were already planning on how to engage with the SDGs.

The survey found that 41% of businesses aim to embed SDGs into their strategy and the way they do business within five years. “However, at the moment, companies look set to ‘cherry pick’ the SDGs they want to focus on and ignore others that don’t meet their corporate priorities or comfort zones. Just 1% of companies we surveyed plan to assess their impact on all 17 SDGs,” the report said.

Depending on the level of international scrutiny of corporations and their compliance with the SDGs, foreign companies doing business or sourcing goods from Indonesia could soon begin to embed SDGs into their local operations or require sustainable methods from their local partners.

Regionally, ASEAN could play a pivotal role in promoting the SDGs although nothing has signaled such an intention yet. Nevertheless, Malaysia and Thailand, two Southeast Asian countries surveyed in the PwC report, both showed high levels of public support for the SDGs: 70% in Malaysia and 40% in Thailand.

In Indonesia, although environmental degradation is often ranked as a prime public concern, the SDGs have received limited attention and businesses may not feel immediately compelled to incorporate them into their objectives. Over time that may change, making an understanding of the SDGs and their relevance to business a useful tool, not least in the development of CSR programs.