Escaping the gravitational pull of GDP

Meet the gravity defiers - the group of countries which have managed to decouple their SDG trajectories from the gravitational pull of national incomes.
17 Jul 2019

The annual Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) stock taking season is here. World leaders meet this week at the High-level Political Forum on sustainable development (HLPF). The SDSN and Bertelsmann Stiftung has come out with its annual SDG index, one of the very few indices that provide a single score and ranking to track the overall progress of SDGs at country level. Though some critiques around the data and methodology used in the index remain, it provides a snapshot of how countries fare in terms of the 17 ambitious SDGs and related 169 targets.

At first glance, the SDG index ranking may dampen excitement. The top 20 spots are occupied by so called high-income countries (though even in these countries only about approximately 80 per cent of the SDG targets are on course to achievement). This ranking raises several questions - doesn’t it all boil down to national incomes? Was all that money and time invested in developing a holistic framework that integrates the economic, social and environmental dimensions of development a big mistake? The opponents of the idea of SDGs would happily encore – “it’s the economy, stupid!”. Luckily, the answer is not so simple. While it is true that SDG ranking of countries has a high correlation with the GDP per capita ranking of countries, looking at the outliers reveals some interesting findings.

Our analysis shows that for quite a few countries there is a high degree of variation between their global rankings of GDP per capita and their SDG performance rankings (provided by the SDG index). For one group of countries - the ‘gravity defiers’ –the SDG rankings are relatively much higher than the GDP per capita rankings. While for another group of countries - the ‘failed take-offs’- perform very well in terms of GDP per capita but have failed to translate this to SDG progress.

So who are these ‘gravity defiers’ that managed to break away their SDG trajectory from the strong gravitational pull of GDP? Globally the 15 top gravity defiers are: Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Ukraine, Viet Nam, Ecuador, Belarus, Sao Tome and Principe, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Fiji, China, Serbia and Peru.

Six of these countries are from the Asia-Pacific region, namely, Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Vietnam, Fiji and China. These gravity defiers range from the most populous country in the world to some of the smallest in the world in terms of population, from low income to upper middle-income countries. Their diversity is encouraging and signifies the multi-dimensionality of SDGs.

So how did they manage to break-away from the strong pull of GDP?

Some policies and strategies related to SDGs that are relatively performing better in these countries are worth highlighting. Let us look at the Asia-Pacific gravity defiers. ESCAP analysis has shown that Kyrgyz Republic and Tajikistan are countries that have invested in people, spending more than regional average on social protection measures, education and health. China’s continued phenomenal poverty reduction story highlights the success of targeted poverty alleviation strategies that rely on disaggregated data systems that map out the exact location and whereabouts of the poor. Fiji’s improved performance in the education sector is driven partly by massive government investments made in expanding quality education and making it free for all. In 2017-18, 22 per cent of Government budget, the largest chunk- went to education. While, in Uzbekistan the progress towards quality education was boosted by support measures given to families for child-care and pre-school education. Viet Nam’s success story in rural electrification is driven by harnessing the country’s renewable energy potential and making rural electrification profitable through state support attracting external investors and donors.
The nature of highly inter-linked SDGs translate these progresses into related goals and targets. Of course, understanding the exact reasons for decoupling of GDP performance and SDG performance in these countries deserves further rigorous and contextual research.

At the end of the day, to your friends who still argue “it’s the economy, stupid”, these countries provide a good retort to keep our conversations on sustainable development critical and alive. It is the stories from these outlier countries that would especially make discussions at the HLPF exciting.

Related SDGs: Goal 4: Quality education, Goal 7: Affordable and clean energy, Goal 8: Decent work and economic growth, Goal 17: Partnerships for the goals