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Sri Lanka’s national policy well aligned with UN SDGs: Chamindry Saparamadu

Calls for integrated planning as working in silos ineffective
Sri Lanka moves up 7 positions in global ranking
Council calls for directives from top-level to fast-track SDG implementation

By Sarah Hannan

Although the United Nations Member States adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development which had 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in 2015, Sri Lanka was only able to establish its Sustainable Development Council in 2018 following the enactment of the Sustainable Development Act 19 of 2017 that came into effect in October 2017.

According to the Sustainable Development Council, Sri Lanka is looking at achieving the 17 SDGs under three key dimensions – environment, social, and economic. The recent Global Sustainable Development Report states that Sri Lanka is moderately improving in its statistical performance index and is on track to maintaining SDG achievement for SDG 01. No Poverty, SDG 04. Quality Education, and SDG 13 Climate Action.

The Sunday Morning spoke to Sustainable Development Council Director General Chamindry Saparamadu to understand the role that the council plays in ensuring that Sri Lanka achieves its SDGs by 2030, the challenges they faced due to the pandemic, and their recommendations to fast-track the implementation of the policy frameworks that have been designed to sustainably develop the country.

Following are excerpts of the interview:

Q: What is the key role of the Sustainable Development Council in ensuring that Sri Lanka achieves its Sustainable Development Goals by 2030?

A: Our institution was set up by Act 19 of 2017 as the nodal government agency to facilitate and coordinate Sri Lanka’s achievement of SDGs. Therefore, our work is structured around a few key areas; that is to provide support to SDG-driven policy and planning, SDG monitoring and review process, reporting on SDG process, SDG financing, SDG education, capacity building, awareness, and outreach. Around the aforementioned broad areas, we have structured our work to promote integrated planning that is required to achieve SDGs.

To briefly elaborate on that taking one of the SDG goals and targets, we need to have coordination and collaboration between several institutions. If we are to take the Government, which is one of the key stakeholders within the SDG process, we need to have coordination and collaboration between different levels of Government – that is the National Government, the Provincial Council, and Local Government levels, which spreads horizontally. On a vertical level, we need to have coordination between different ministries and different agencies.

If we take the SDG goal of transitioning to renewable energy, at a National Government level it requires the collaboration of the Ministry of Power, State Ministry of Solar, Wind and Hydro Power Generation Projects Development, Ministry of Energy, and Ministry of Environment for its broader mandate in terms of policymaking relating to environment; the Ministry of Economic Policies and Plan Implementation because it has a broader mandate relating to planning; and the Ministry of Finance. Then at an institutional level, we have institutions that come under different ministries; for instance, the Sustainable Energy Authority, Ceylon Electricity Board, and Public Utilities Commission, for which the Sustainable Development Council contributes by facilitating coordination among these Government institutions. Although I took energy as an example, this is the case with all other sectors as well.

Another example is nutrition. The Ministry of Health has a broader mandate in nutrition; then the Ministry of Agriculture has the mandate to ensure food security; while the State Ministry of Women and Child Development, Pre-Schools and Primary Education, School Infrastructure, and Education Services has a mandate for the nutrition of women and children. Therefore, all these ministries need to work together at the level of Government, who is one of the stakeholders.

When we take the SDG Agenda, what we must understand is that we cannot work in silos because you need to work with other stakeholders as well. The whole SDG agenda has recognised the contribution that the non-government stakeholders have provided in this transition. The private sector, the civil society, international organisations, academia, think tanks, and various groups like the youth, women’s groups, etc.

If you look at how these institutions work or various stakeholders work, the Government institutions will work with a Government approach. However, fostering those partnerships across various sectors is also one of our core functions; because we think when it comes to the renewable energy transition, we need to have the private sector on board because they are the ones that would bring in the investors, the technical expertise, and the energy sector experts together. This is why we focus on promoting integrated planning and multi-stakeholder partnerships in achieving the SDGs with a special focus on policy and planning.

If we look at the vertical integration aspect of it when it comes to the thematic sectors, sustainable development transition cannot follow a silo approach. The economic sector cannot work in isolation, as they need to protect the economic dividends that come from addressing climate issues. While the economic dividends in addressing energy efficiency as already established, the economic progress and environmental progress should not conflict with each other. Yet, we need to look at the economic value when considering some of the criteria mentioned above.

There needs to be an inter-sectoral convergence, whilst we achieve progress in one area we cannot undermine the social aspect, nor can we undermine the environmental aspect. We try to promote this during policy and planning.

Q: Sustainable Development Goals are set under three dimensions – environment, social, and economic. Could you give us a brief explanation about them?

A: To expand on what I said earlier, sustainable development is about doing a development so that you do not undermine the progression of any one of the dimensions. We need to have a balance in the three dimensions.

If we are to look at a practical example, say economic development, there are certain indicators broadly looked at by the Government and the people. You can’t talk about sustainable development if you have a good GDP growth rate, but income distribution is unequal. Economic growth is achieved at a significant cost to the environment. Hence, sustainable development is about doing development whilst maintaining a balance and addressing those trade-offs. Whilst we achieve the progress of one goal, we should not undermine the progress of the other.

We can talk about environmental protection, but at the same time we need to talk about food security. You need to grow more to put more food on your table, but at the same time we need to protect our forests. However, we cannot just protect our forests if the people are starving. Therefore, it is while planning that we attempt to balance those interests. This is when we would need new knowledge and technology to improve agricultural productivity by using the fertility of the land, using our water resources more efficiently so we could maximise in progressing all sectors.

Our development process should address all concerns equally and not only prioritise economic development to the detriment of others or vice versa. That is the idea of sustainable development. Therefore, as I said before, this requires a lot of coordination among the different stakeholders representing different sectors and we need to infuse a lot of innovation and technology to look at how we could make our resources more efficiently. Adapt inclusivity so that the development outcome benefits all segments of the population equally so that we do not leave behind a specific community or a specific geographical location in the development process.

Q: We are at the halfway mark from the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. How has Sri Lanka as a country been faring at meeting these goals?

A: As a developing country, we are faring relatively well compared to our South Asian counterparts. How we assess our progress is through the Global Sustainable Development Report that is compiled by an independent group of experts led by Sustainable Development Solutions Network President Prof. Jeffrey Sachs, who is also an SDG Advocate under the UN Secretary-General, a Professor at Columbia University in New York, and a global leader in sustainable development. Each country is rated in this report every year. During the last evaluation period – that was for 2020 for which the results were published in July 2021 – Sri Lanka moved up seven positions, securing 87th place out of 165 countries.

In terms of the regional positioning, Sri Lanka’s overall country score, which is at 68, has placed us well above the regional average. The assessment is based on an analysis of data and looking at how Sri Lanka performed in various sectors in achieving the various SDGs. Say if Sri Lanka performed better in achieving certain SDGs such as areas relating to education and poverty eradication, the team of experts does an assessment and gives a score.

I would say that being at 87th place out of 165 countries is almost at the midpoint, which we can consider being all right, but we could do better since Sri Lanka has a tremendous potential to do better in SDGs. In certain areas, because of our policies – particularly in the education and health sector – as a country we have shown very high human development. Some of our achievements are on par with some of the developed countries. Therefore, we can score very much on those lines.

In terms of poverty eradication, as a country we have done really well. If we look at the previous Millennium Development Goals, we achieved some of those targets much before the deadline. So even in that, we have been able to maintain our national poverty rate below 4%. I think in those areas Sri Lanka is doing fairly well. Still we need to focus on certain other areas so that our ratings could be better.

Q: To achieve these SDGs, the council has to work closely with various Government and non-government agencies. How do you coordinate this given that the council has a small team?

A: That is a huge challenge. As I said, our work straddles all sectors and in terms of our functions, we work on many different aspects from planning, coordination, financing, monitoring, education, training, etc. Therefore, that has been the greatest challenge that I have encountered. My staff and I work quite a bit and we have been working more as a private sector entity rather than a Government entity and are driven by results.

At the same time, we try to capitalise on the partnerships that we have established. We try to tap into existing platforms that are already there and leverage our partnerships. For example, in providing technical support, we have established partnerships with some technical agencies and international agencies, through which we try to bring in technical expertise. We also try to play the role of an interface where we link these agencies to areas where the needs are.

Even in terms of communication, rolling out SDGs, and raising awareness, we have established partnerships with various media units such as the Media Centre for National Development, the Presidential Media Division, and Prime Minister’s Media Unit and we try to leverage on those platforms.

We also work closely with other Government institutions that have a direct mandate. For example, if it is relating to SDG financing, various departments in the Treasury do a lot of work relating to financing; whether it is the Department of External Resources or Central Bank of Sri Lanka, we try to work in coordination with them to bring everyone on board. We actually get a lot of support from these departments and make use of their capacities as well.

In terms of getting direct support, I have been quite fortunate to get the support of the UN agencies in Sri Lanka and sometimes they have provided direct support to us through giving the necessary technical consultancies to work with our team.

Q: Sri Lanka will face a Voluntary National Review (VRN) during the upcoming High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development. What are your concerns when Sri Lanka faces the VRN?

A: We are in the process of conducting the VRN, which we do through a consultative process. Therefore, consultations are currently taking place. My biggest challenge is how we would manage the time given the number of stakeholders we need to engage with at different levels. Sometimes it is a bit overwhelming because if you want to do a good review, you need to get the feedback of all interested parties. Given the resources, the time constraints, and the limitations in financial resources because we are a Government entity that needs to manage our allocations efficiently, we try to be as inclusive as possible.

When it comes to consultation with different stakeholders we try to select a representative sample; for example, if we are conducting consultations at a provincial level we have to consider whether we are going to do all nine provinces or if we are going to do a few that would reflect the outcome of all nine provinces. Taking this into consideration, we decided to select a representative sample of Provincial Councils that represent the diversity in terms of geography, ethnicity, and religion in five provinces.

Our consultations are across the private sector where we conduct the consultations in a multi-stakeholder consultation where we invite all of the different stakeholders from civil society, private sector, Government, think tanks, and experts to a single platform.

The challenge is not to leave out anybody’s feedback; we try to be as inclusive as possible and I think we are handling that. Moreover, in terms of when we report back, obviously having to deal with the diversity of perspective becomes a challenge.

Q: How has the Covid-19 pandemic affected the council’s work towards achieving the SDGs?

A: During the travel restrictions, we had a few setbacks, given that most of the staff are actually from outside Colombo. Therefore, travelling to work during the travel restrictions was a bit of a challenge. We have a young tech-savvy staff that helped us shift to online platforms very easily. Yet there were challenges in terms of equipment; especially when we had to do Zoom meetings, everyone had to have a laptop, and sometimes the systems do not really give you the concession to buy laptops for all the staff. I had to ask them to use their personal laptops, which I believe is not fair because they have to bear the expenses relating to that and of course getting additional data packages that cost them a bit more. We had to be flexible to be working around Government regulations to provide those facilities.

Fortunately, there was a circular which gave the head of the institution the discretion to make those facilities available. So I sometimes gave them an allowance to cover their data costs. They had to use their mobile phones more than usual, so that flexibility was needed. Some of the work got a bit delayed, but I am not saying that because of the pandemic a lot of our work got disrupted. The only issue was getting the staff to come to work because of the ongoing pandemic even after the country opened up – this was challenging as they were hesitant to use public transport, fearing that they would get infected. In terms of finances, we had challenges in accommodating certain requests, as our budgetary allocations were limited.

Q: What are the challenges that Sri Lanka faced in achieving the SDGs amid the pandemic?

A: In terms of achieving SGDs as a country, yes the pandemic did have an impact. The pandemic had an impact on several of our sectors on the economy, education, health, etc. The biggest challenge Sri Lanka is facing in terms of achieving the SGDs is the financing aspect. The Covid-19 pandemic made it more cumbersome for certain sectors in reaching their SGDs, as the health sector had to be prioritised especially in prioritising the vaccination programme for Covid-19. The Government could not keep up with its development plan or set in motion the development plan that we had in place in the beginning when the Government was appointed in 2019. That is related to financing.

Then some of the achievements in the education sector got hampered with school closures and the disruption in school activities which may have an impact on children’s development. I am not sure whether there is an evidence-based assessment done to measure the impact in these sectors.

Especially when the economic sector comes under severe constraints, it is difficult to invest in certain sectors that need to improve to achieve SGDs in certain sectors. As a country, there are various areas where the country faces challenges.

Q: What recommendations can you share to overcome these challenges?

A: One of the biggest things we need to have is awareness about sustainable development. I think it is important to look at Sustainable Development Goals as part of our national policy and planning and it is well incorporated in the ‘Vistas of Prosperity and Splendour’ manifesto as well. However, we need to build a lot of capacity and raise awareness on the importance to track how the country is moving towards achieving the SDGs.

I think there is a lack of awareness among various policymakers as to how the national policy is aligned with SDGs. Although our policies are well aligned with the 2030 SDG agenda, we need to fast-track implementation. There is a gap that needs to be bridged in terms of implementation. For that, we need to steer the entire public sector towards the SDGs. Moreover, to fast-track implementation, the directive should come from the top level.

As a country, we need to look at accessing new types of financing (alternate financing) and new types of investments to accelerate our progress in SDGs, infuse new types of technology and innovation in various sectors, and also employ results-based public service delivery to achieve SDGs.

In terms of recommendations, maybe a bit more interest from the higher levels would also be very helpful, to get the political momentum towards the work that we are doing. We do actually a lot in terms of our reporting and international engagement. There is a lot that is happening given the scope of our work. But I am not sure as to how many people are aware of the contribution that we make. That is probably something I felt. Since we are a new organisation that was established in 2018, we are not known that well. Therefore, it takes a bit of time, but now people are getting to know more about our institution. If that awareness had been there from the beginning, we would have gotten a lot more support.

In conclusion, I think Sri Lanka really needs to tap into the financial potential that is available that links to sustainable development – the actual financial potential that is available for the country once it moves towards using sustainable products by addressing climate change issues, looking at greening some of the things, and looking at renewable energy transition. I think that is the key to our future.

We need to move out of traditional thinking, we need to move out of the silo approach as a Government as well, then look at working closely with the private sector, which becomes one of the aspects. If you look at other financing mechanisms out there, there are tremendous opportunities – called impact investments – that can attract the private sector or direct private capital flows towards the SDG sectors.

Therefore, we really need to focus on moving away from the traditional type of funding like public funding or public financing. Look at private equity financing and look at the kind of impact it has on social and environmental sectors particularly. Also, look at the private sector as an equal partner because their contribution to the economy is far greater because they create opportunities and generate employment. When the social and environmental criteria are enabled, it creates business models in the private sector that will accelerate our journey towards sustainability.

(The Morning)