Latin America Advisor

A Daily Publication of The Dialogue

Which Sustainable Development Goals Are Most Crucial for Latin America?

Wu Hongbo, the U.N. undersecretary general for economic and social affairs is pictured.

Government representatives as well as U.N. agencies, international financial institutions, businesses and other groups met April 26-28 in Mexico City at the first Forum of the Countries of Latin America and the Caribbean on Sustainable Development. At the meeting, organized by Mexico’s government and the U.N. Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, participants discussed the United Nations’ sustainable development goals, or SDGs, which include fighting poverty and hunger, as well as improving health, education and gender equality, among others. What are the most important SDGs to prioritize for Latin America and the Caribbean, and what will it take to achieve such goals on a regional scale? Is the SDG framework and schedule well designed for success, or will the effort fall short of expectations? Where in the region have multilateral efforts to foster sustainable development succeeded, where have they failed, and what can be learned from past experiences?

Jonah Busch, senior fellow, and Nancy Birdsall, senior fellow and president emeritus, at the Center for Global development: "Latin America has already shown notable leadership on Sustainable Development Goals related to climate and forests. For example, from 2004-2014 Brazil cut climate emissions more than any other country by reducing deforestation in the Amazon by 80 percent. It did so even while increasing beef and soy production during a period of robust economic growth, and it cost the Brazilian government just one-third as much as the Rio Olympics. By protecting its forests, Brazil contributed to SDGs related to energy and ending hunger, too. Amazon forests are the source of clean water that powers Brazil’s hydroelectric dams and atmospheric moisture that brings rain to farms in the southern breadbasket. Brazil curtailed Amazon deforestation using a raft of policies: protected areas, recognition of indigenous territories, forest law enforcement backed by satellite monitors, suspension of rural credit to high-deforesting municipalities, and soy and beef industry-imposed moratoriums on purchasing from high-deforesting farms. In recognition of the global climate services Brazil provided by reducing deforestation, Norway paid $1 billion into Brazil’s results-based Amazon Fund. Many of those policies are now threatened. Deforestation, while still far below its 2004 peak, has risen by 60 percent over the last two years. Whether Brazil continues to lead on climate and forests hinges on domestic political will, backed by civil society and science. Outsiders can help tip the balance toward the provision of global climate services and domestic sustainable development goals by offering results-based finance."

Gabriela Wurcel, vice president of corporate affairs for Latin America and Canada at Philip Morris International: "The U.N. Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) represent the future we all want, and they are a call for joint action by the public sector, civil society and businesses. Large multinational corporations have a critical role to play in addressing some of the most pressing challenges outlined by the Forum of the Countries in Latin America and the Caribbean on Sustainable Development. In the case of Philip Morris International (PMI), with thousands of employees in the region and a vast supply chain, this role includes increasing the productivity and income of small-scale farmers, investing in technical support, agronomy research and technology, as well as upholding and promoting decent work conditions and respect for labor rights across the entire value chain (Goals 2 and 8). However, as a tobacco company, Goal 3 (Good health and well-being) is the one in which we can have the greatest impact. Smoking cigarettes causes serious diseases and the best way to avoid the harm of smoking is to never start, or to quit. But much more can be done for the world’s 1.1 billion smokers and to achieve the ambitious targets of Goal 3. Technological innovation is transforming our industry, and for many years PMI has been working on the research and development of products that have the potential to reduce the harm associated with smoking. Most recently, we started the commercialization of such products and have stated our goal to lead a full-scale effort to ensure that reduced-risk products ultimately replace cigarettes. We welcome the adoption of the SDGs and consider them an additional motivation for our journey to transform our company and, with the help of others, the entire tobacco industry. Leading the effort to replace cigarettes with less harmful alternatives is our single biggest positive contribution to the SDGs and we are committed to transparent collaboration and open dialogue with civil society and the public sector to make it happen."

Ariel Fiszbein, director of the education program at the Inter-American Dialogue: "The experience with the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) tells us that setting international development goals does not, by itself, guarantee they will be achieved and that progress depends on the extent to which countries themselves are committed to their achievement. In the case of Latin America, unlike a region like Africa, there isn’t even a presumption of large foreign assistance associated with the goals, which further emphasizes the importance of domestic commitment. At the same time, the SDGs (as was the case with the MDGs) can serve as an incentive for governments and societies to focus attention on specific goals. In particular, the MDG experience suggests that international goals can have a powerful effect on what gets measured, and that regular monitoring of indicators can create pressures on governments to focus attention on these goals. This was certainly the case with the poverty and child/maternal health targets under the MDGs. We are already observing some of these same effects in other areas. In the case of SDG 4 (which focuses on education) there is a growing movement to measure and report not just on schooling, but on learning and child development outcomes. This does not guarantee that the targets will be met, but measuring and reporting on them is a precondition for the necessary actions countries in Latin America must take to improve those outcomes."

Juan Gonzalez, associate vice president at The Cohen Group and former deputy assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs: "Achieving gender equality is a global challenge, but it is paramount to regional development. According to the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, the labor participation rate for women has stagnated at around 53 percent, the majority of which is employed in low-productivity sectors where the pay is also low. One in three women over age 15 in the region had no income of their own in 2014. To meet the Sustainable Development Goals, the region’s governments must do more to achieve full and productive employment for women with equal pay. Despite having elected several women presidents, Latin America and the Caribbean also lags behind the United States, Europe and Canada on gender diversity in corporate boardrooms. Today, less than half (46 percent) of the corporate boards in the region have at least one female director, according to Egon Zehnder’s 2016 Latin American Board Diversity Analysis, compared to Europe’s 88 percent and 80 percent in the United States and Canada combined. The link between the gender diversity and increased financial performance should lend the necessary impetus to regional companies wanting to compete at the next level. Whether in the boardroom or the mailroom, increasing the number of women in the workforce contributes to a country’s overall economic prosperity, and can help fill the region’s glaring productivity gap. But getting there requires long-term political leadership and policies that promote gender equality and nondiscrimination, and that guarantee women access to education and a social safety net to balance professional and family life. Achieving gender diversity also requires a paradigm shift toward viewing women in the workplace as an integral part of the value proposition for families, companies and countries. Regional trends may be positive, but urgency is necessary if the region hopes to meet the SDGs and compete globally."

Nicolás Mariscal, member of the Advisor board and chairman of Grupo Marhnos in Mexico City: "Each country is different and needs to work in its own way, but there are successful stories that can be replicated. Among them is Mexico’s Prospera cash-transfer program (previously known as Oportunidades), which has led to improvements in levels of schooling, nutrition, rural development, health and financial inclusion and has been replicated in 52 countries. This was one of the first government programs to provide conditional aid. The key with the United Nations’ sustainable development goals is that there must be ownership. Constant monitoring and evaluation are also critical. The United Nations’ 17 sustainable development goals and 169 targets are all important, and the idea is that every country works on them through their federal and local agencies. It has to be done within the country, not for the country. Nevertheless, the objectives related to education and also peace, justice and strong institutions are crucial for Latin America. The first pillar that the World Economic Forum evaluates to obtain the competitiveness index is institutions, areas in which Latin America and the Caribbean do not perform well. That means the region desperately needs more transparency, less crime, better rules and stronger rule of law. That is the foundation of trust and a prerequisite to achieve progress in any other goal."

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