Sustainable Development: South Asia in the Asian perspective

In conclusion, it may be said that while South Asia, Central and  West Asia and Pacific Asia showed improvement in sustainability indicators for environment and energy in 2020, they did not do so well in social and governance indicators.

Partha Pratim Mitra Oct 27, 2023
Sustainable Development (Representational Photo)

The  beginnings of the concept of sustainable development  in the global discourse  were seen with The World Commission on Environment and Development, also  known as the  Brundtland Commission ,    formally using  the term “sustainable development”  in its report in 1987. The Commission  defined it as development that meets not only the needs of the present but also of future generations without undermining the   environment.   In 1992 at  Rio de Janeiro, Brazil  the  Earth Summit  was held where world  leaders agreed to implement Agenda 21 comprising 27 principles of sustainable development.

Another  important  milestone was reached in the development agenda  in 2000 with  the  Millennium Declaration which created the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The goals intended  to address several core contents of development including halving extreme poverty and hunger, promoting gender equality and reducing child mortality. A framework of 8 goals, 18 targets and 48 indicators was adopted to measure progress towards the MDGs by 2015 based on 1990 benchmark data. Subsequently, the targets and indicators under the 8 goals were increased to 21 and 60 respectively. In 2002, the  World Summit on Sustainable Development which was held in Johannesburg, South Africa  created  the Sustainable Development Action Plan that highlighted the implementation of MDGs.  In 2012 The United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development called for practical measures for implementing sustainable development. Subsequently, the 17 Sustainable development Goals (SDGs) were adopted by all UN Member States in 2015 as part of the 2030 agenda for sustainable development The 17 SDGs contains a set of 169 targets and 232 indicators, and UN had set 15 years’ time period from 2016 to 2030 for the countries to  implement the SDGs. The  United Nations had created the SDGs after the follow-up to the  MDGs that  ended in 2015 to fight poverty and secure human well-being globally [i]

Greater awareness on sustainable development 

At the COP27 Climate Change Conference held in November  2022 at  Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt and the COP15 Conference on Biological Diversity, held at Montreal Canada in December 2022,   the world addressed the triple planetary crisis which it currently faced, of climate change, pollution and biodiversity loss. Today, governments and many business leaders understand that they must embrace and embed practices and policies to  respond to Asia’s environmental priorities which are not much different from the global priorities but with varying  emphasis depending on the local circumstances.  Some enterprises are already taking active measures to lower carbon and methane emissions, reduce deforestation risks in their supply chains, and embrace circular economy principles,However, there remains considerable scope to reinvent, innovate and drive action on  improving  sustainable development  in the region,through corporate action, which includes ESG (Environment Social and Governance)investment.

Looking into the growing consensus among member nations , the UN General Assembly passed an important  resolution in July 2022, recognizing the human right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment. This resolution followed  quickly in the backdrop of  a  similar recognition through an UN Human Rights Council resolution  in October of 2021. These “twin resolutions” as they are often called, on the Right to a Healthy Environment (RHE) have given additional, much-needed impetus to the work promoting responsible business practices in Asia. [ii]

In the academic literature the debate on the  progress of SDGs continues using cross-country regressions and aggregate indicators of poverty, health, education and gender parity outcomes, There  seems to be   comparative evidence to show   that, while South Asia has converged with richer regions, there is still significant variation in gender equality, universal primary education, income growth  and  poverty eradication  achievements across countries. Besides, projections based on past trends on where SDGs are expected to reach  by 2030 reveal that there is a long way to go,and  targets on income, poverty eradication, may not be met in the populous South Asian countries. Also, considering the expanded set of development targets in the SDGs and the growth slowdown in South Asia, it has been  argued that further progress would simultaneously require increased public spending on health, education and reforms for  improving state capacity. A simulation exercise confirms that such a combination of interventions would deliver significant benefits in the region, particularly in areas that are critical to progress on the goals of ‘No Poverty’, ‘Quality Education’, ‘Gender Equality’, and ‘Inclusive Growth’[iii].

The recent  Asia and the Pacific Sustainable Development Goals Progress Report 2023* issued  by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) highlights many  important evidence-based national initiatives such as reducing child marriages in India, increasing the rate of births attended by skilled personnel in Timor-Leste, improving the processing of identity documents for Afghan refugees in Pakistan, and a Clean Air Plan to tackle air pollution in Cambodia.However, this year’s report also warns that at the mid-point mark, the region has only achieved 14.4 per cent of progress needed. At the current pace, it is expected that Asia and the Pacific will miss 90 per cent of the 118 measurable SDG targets by 2030 unless efforts are multiplied severalfold.In 2022, the areas significant progress for the Asia-Pacific region were affordable and clean energy (Goal 7) and industry, innovation and infrastructure (Goal 9). Progress towards achieving Goal 7 was largely driven by achievements in access to electricity and international support for clean and renewable energy, while there was little progress in the share of renewable energy consumption. Progress towards achieving Goal 9 was driven by successes in mobile network coverage and total official flows for infrastructure development in the least developed countries., progress towards climate action (Goal 13) is slipping away. The region is both a victim of the impact of climate change and a perpetrator of climate change, with a responsibility to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Countries are not on track to achieve greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets. The region is also regressing on Goal 13 owing to the increase in deaths and missing persons attributed to disasters.While  there is enough data for countries to act with greater ambition on the implementation of the SDGs, data availability for evidence-based follow-up and review remains a significant hurdle in implementation of the 2030 Agenda. The report notes significant data gaps in Goal 5 (gender equality), Goal 14 (life below water) and Goal 16 (peace, justice and strong institutions), each with less than 30 per cent sufficient data available.[iv]

We have   in our analysis attempted  to  arrive at  scores  on  different indicators of sustainability for South Asia and compared the region with other regions  of Asia.The data for the  analysis has been taken from the  ADB publication’ Key Indicators for Asia and the Pacific 2023’[v].

South Asia in this analysis consists of Bangladesh,Bhutan, India Maldives,Nepal and SriLanka.

Afganistan and Pakistan have been included in Central and West Asia along with Armenia,Azabaijan, Georgia,Kazakstan,Kyrgz Republic,Tajikstan,Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

The other regions of Asia  consists of  East Asia - China,Hongkong,South Korea, Taiwan and Mongolia.

South East Asia-  BruneiDarussalam,Cambodia,Indonesia,Laos,Malysia,Myanmar,Phillipines,Singapore,Thailand,Timor-Leste,Vietnam. Pacific Asia-Cook Islands,Fiji,Kiribati,Marshall Islands,Micronesia(Federated states),Nauru,Nipe,Palau,Papua NewGuinea,Samoa,Solomon islands,Tonga,Tuvalu,Vanuatu.

 Sustainabilty indicators  have been divided into four categories-(I),Environment&Energy(II)Social (Health,Education,Human resources) (III)Governance (IV)Financial.

Since  Asia has been analysed by including countries into  5 sub-regions-(i)SouthAsia, (ii)Central&West Asia,(iii)East Asia,(iv)South East Asia and (v)Pacific Asia, we have assigned each of the sustainabilityindicator  a maximum score of 5 and based on the performance of each subregion in each of the indicators ,scores have been assigned with the best performing sub-region getting  a score of 5 and the least performing  sub-region getting a score of 1.A total of 65 indicators divided into 4 categories stated above  has been considered for our analysis with a maximum score of 325(65 ×5)

The indicators considered for the analysis are (I)Environment&Energy-Nitrousoxide emissions,Methane emissions,- emissions,Carbon di oxide emissions,electricity production by combustible fuels,Forest area as a percentage of total land,Internal fresh water renewable sources per year,Internal fresh water renewable resources per inhabitant,Deforestation rate, arable land as a percentage of total land, agricultural land as a percentage of total land,permanent crop land as a percentage of total land, ratio of energy use to energy production,GDP per unit use of energy.Domestic material consumption. Percentage of people relying on clean fuels and technology,renewable energy share in total energy consumption,Sources of electricity(solar),Level of water stress,

(2)Social(Health.Education and Human resources- (a)Social (Health)-Life expectancy at birth,Prevalence of stunting among children(under 5 years),Prevalence of malnutrition(under 5 years)Under 5 mortality rates(per 1000 live births),Neo-natal mortality rate(per 1000 live births).Average prevalence of international health regulations,Materanal mortality ratio(per 100.000 live births)Physians per 1000 population,Hospital beds per 1000 population,Proportion of births attended by skilled health personnel,incidence of TB per 100,000 population,Prevalence of under nourishment in population,Mortality rate due to chronic diseases,Proportion of population using safely managed drinking water services,Proportion of population using safely manged sanitation services,Adolescent births per 1000 women in that age group,

(b)Social (Education)-Adult literacy rate (15 years and above),Pupil trained- teacher ratio,Participation rate in organised learning(1 year before official entry age)

(c)Social (Human resources)- Human development index, percentage of population between 0-14 years,percentage of population between 15-64 years,percentage of population 65 years and older,Age dependency ratio,Population growth rate,Proportion of population married before 18 years,Proportion of population married before 15 years ,Unemployment rate  for age group 15-24 years,Proportion of youth not in employment,education and training.

(3) Governance-Proportion of seats held by women in national parliament,Percemtage of urban population,Corruption perception index

(4) Financial-Aggregate net resource flow from all sources,Total external debt,Total official flows to agriculture sector,Dollar value of financial and technical assistance committed to developing economies,Remmittances as percentage of GDP,FDI(Net Inflow) as a percentage of GDP,Interest reserve ratio to imports (months),Net private flows from all sources,Debt service payment,Gross national income percapita,Debt GDP Ratio.

 South Asia made maximum improvement 

The aggregate scores assigned to the five sub-regions  of Asia with the consolidation of all four sets of indicators  shows that the South Asia region in  the years 2010 and 2020 made the maximum improvement in terms of increase in  ranking followed by East Asia, Central and West Asia,South-East Asia and the Pacific  which  showed a marked deterioration.If we consider each of the four indicators separately, South Asia made the maximum improvement in Environment & Energy while East Asia was ahead in social indicators(Health,Education and Human Resources) and Governance indicators  while Pacific Asia made the maximum improvement in rankings in the financial indicators.If we consider the aggregate ranking of all the 4 indicators  East Asia had the highest aggregate in 2010 (209)and 2020(224), followed by SouthEast Asia (190 in 2010 and 194 in 2020),Central &West Asia(176 in 2010 and  ,187 in 2020)South Asia (169 in 2010 and 185 in 2020)and Pacific Asia(193 in 2010 and 168 in 2020).The areas where not much progress was observed in terms of improved scores in the  sustainability indicators 2020 in comparison to 2010 were  South Asia (Social-Human resources) and Governance,South-East Asia (Social-Education) and  financial, Pacific Asia(Social-Education) and  Governance.Central and West Asia (Social – Health,education ) and Governance,East Asia –Financial indicators.

In conclusion it may be said that while South Asia,Central and  West Asia and Pacific Asia showed improvement in sustainability indicators for environment and energy in 2020, they did not do so well in social and governance indicators. East Asia  and South-East Asia did show improvement in social  indicators and obtained high scores in governance indicators.

(The writer, a retired Indian Economic Service officer, is an expert on labour and employment. Views are personal. He can be reached at

[i] Md. Sujahangir Kabir SarkarAchieving Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) among the South Asian Countries: Progress and ChallengesInternational Journal of Regional Development ISSN 2373-9851 2022, Vol. 9,No2

[ii] ground note of the conference on Corporate Sustainabilty and Environment Rights in Asia.Bangkok,Oct 4-5 2023

[iii] M.Niazullah,et al,will South Asia achjeveSuststainable development goals by 2030 Learning from MDGs Experience,Springer Link, july 4,2020,152,165-189,

[iv]Asia and the Pacific Sustainable Development Goals Progress Report 2023Championing sustainability despite adversities ESCAP,March  23,

[v]Key Indicators for Asia and the Pacific 2023,August 2023,



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