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Sustainable Development in Action: Examining Global North-South Divergences


Soumya Bhowmick and Nilanjan Ghosh, eds., Sustainable Development in Action: Examining Global North-South Divergences, (New Delhi: ORF and Global Policy Journal, 2022).

Introduction: Development at the Crossroads

The global development paradigm is at a critical crossroad. The COVID-19 pandemic has not only exposed the vulnerabilities of global economies no matter their positions in the global development curve, but also showed the divergence the capacities of the Global North and South to combat the crisis. Further, the post-pandemic economic revival is not exhibitive of the axiomatic north-south divide. Yet, there is no denying that social security and the welfare state—or the lack of it in certain economies—were important in providing a much-needed cushion under shocks. Indeed, the pandemic has been a ‘global common’.

At the same time, the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which have emerged as the cornerstone of global development governance in recent years, ended up the victim of this new ‘global common’. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, encompassing a shared vision of peace and prosperity for the planet across space and time, was adopted by all the UN member nations in 2015 at the end of the tenure of the Millennium Development Goals. This entailed the global call for the adoption of the 17 SDGs that seek to reconcile sustainable living, distributive justice, and economic progress through the co-existence of equity, efficiency and sustainability principles in development governance. In other words, the emerging challenge of development governance should be viewed through the prism of reconciling the “irreconcilable trinity” of equity, efficiency, and sustainability[1]—a monodimensional equivalent of the Penrose Tribar[2]. This trinity delineates what development economist Mohan Munasinghe calls the “discourse of sustainomics”[3].

In course of this reconciliation, the SDGs emphasise that humanity can survive and flourish on this planet with all other species, and are largely dependent on the ecosystem services provided by biodiversity. The destruction of the biodiversity entails losses in various provisioning and regulating services of the ecosystem and raise questions on the long-term sustainability of life and livelihoods. In the process, SDGs stress on various equity parameters (such as ending poverty and deprivations, reducing inequality, improving human capital) and efficiency parameters (such as spurring economic growth and industrialization), all while combating the forces of climate change and meeting conservation goals. And the much-needed global partnership to realise the SDGs is espoused under SDG 17.

The growth trajectories of the world economies have been visibly exhibiting convergence clubs between the developed and developing nations, essentially generating ‘twin-peak’[4] development scenarios. Against this backdrop, the SDGs, which provide a common framework for all countries pursuing holistic long-term development, tends to present trade-offs, not only among the contending goals, but also from a trans-boundary perspective. For example, advancement on SDG 9 (industry, innovation and infrastructure) will always have the historic tendency to have negative externalities on SDG 13 (climate action). Again, the adoption of ‘green growth’ strategies in some of the most advanced nations may have essentially left a negative footprint on the developing world, as these countries gradually shift their lower-value chain production units to the Global South. If the progress made by the developed world with respect to certain SDGs comes at a cost of developing nations, the global community is merely engaging in a zero-sum game. Moreover, having a common set of targets for all countries ignores the legacy of the unsustainable growth trajectory pursued in the past by some and also puts undue pressure on developing countries, substantially limiting their growth trajectories in pursuance of sustainable development.

The pandemic has only worsened the manifestations of these trends. Given the changes in societal, economic, and environmental orders due to COVID-19, the inherent trade-offs that affect sustainable development may be adding to the crisis; the complex network of inter-linkages among the SDGs and across countries will not allow the whole framework to function if one of them falls apart. Efforts at mitigating the severe fallouts of the pandemic can be synergised with achieving the SDG targets if countries give due consideration to sustainability[5]. To meet the targets of the SDGs, a renewed focus and ample financing avenues from both public and private channels is needed. An urgent emphasis on directed policy action is needed to bring about the desired reforms, keeping in mind the limitations imposed by these trade-offs. The pandemic has also caused the international political processes to change to advance the sustainable development agenda, as we see the digital space becoming the new norm.

Amid the lack of resources, aligning policies to the SDGs may be a more difficult challenge for the Global South as compared to the Global North. The developed world and international organisations should play a more proactive role by synergising their efforts with the interests of the Global South. However, to drive policy change, it is important that the essence of the SDGs be embraced along with tending to the social and economic issues arising in the aftermath of the pandemic. Embracing these development goals will help the world prepare better for global crises as they have the potential to ensure access to universal health coverage and better primary services, more inclusive and prosperous economies[6], and renewed environmental efforts and societal resilience.

This GP-ORF volume explores the potential to alter the trade-offs existing within the SDGs framework into synergies considering the post-pandemic development priorities. The volume is divided into the three main domains that define Agenda 2030—people, planet and prosperity. 

People: Robust Processes and Better Societies

The challenges faced by the developed and the developing world with regards to augmenting their human and social capital is likely to vary to a great extent, primarily owing to the latter’s limited economic opportunities. The nature of the constraints faced by the two sets of countries is also very different. For example, with respect to food security (SDG 2), the developed world may be more concerned with ensuring nutritional security at large[7], while the developing countries still reel under the pressure to ensure food sufficiency as well as nutritional security. This section is a compilation of essays based on SDGs 1-6 and SDGs 16 and 17.

There is no doubt that the pandemic has dampened various developmental opportunities in the last two years. These range from global poverty (SDG 1), increasing by around 120 million[8], to women suffering a higher proportion of job losses due to the economic crisis[9]. Here again, the effects have been disproportionately shared by the developing world[10]. However, this also creates opportunities to make progress along SDG 17, forging strong public-private partnerships, and through regional cooperation. In India, the World Bank has been financing the provision of food and support to the disadvantaged classes through community kitchens and providing financial services[11]. Against this backdrop, it is important to explore the potential challenges and opportunities arising within different countries’ development agenda while focusing on the multiple ramifications of the COVID-19 pandemic (and the subsequent lockdowns and curfews imposed by countries as a response) as being felt by people across communities.

Planet: Synergising Enterprise, Environment and Communities

With reference to environmental policies allowing for the preservation of natural capital at sustainable levels, even while pursuing global economic growth, the developing world has been placed somewhat unfavourably. The pandemic and the response it has necessitated from governments across the world led to a large diversion of resources towards protecting lives and livelihoods and, subsequently, away from environmental protection schemes. The resource-limited developing world has suffered the brunt of this diversion, and there must be sufficient cognisance of this in the global community. This section focuses on the SDG 7 and SDGs 12-15.

In February 2021, a new strategy on adaptation to climate change[12] was adopted by the European Commission, promoting focus on Africa and Small Island states through scaled up international finance and stronger global engagement. According to the State of India’s Environment 2021 report[13], no state is on track to meet all SDGs by 2030. Budgetary allocations to the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change have also decreased from the previous year[14]. However, certain key proposals such as the Green Hydrogen Energy Mission, Jal Jeevan Mission (Urban), Deep Ocean Mission, voluntary vehicle scrapping policy, and capital infusion to key agencies such as Solar Energy Corporation of India, Indian Renewable Energy Development Agency, Clean Air programme and Swachh Bharat Mission 2.0, need to be acknowledged in favour of achieving the planetary goals in the SDG framework.

Prosperity: Of Lives and Livelihoods

The International Labour Organization has projected a loss of 90 million full time jobs and a decline of global labour income by 8.3 percent in 2021[15]. While employment in financial and insurance activities and information and communication sectors are seeing an increase, accommodation and food services, and the retail, manufacturing and construction sectors have been hit the hardest. These indicate significant decline in the productivity of the existing physical and human capital, which generates disincentives for private sector participation in augmenting these forms of capital further. The OECD lowered its forecast for India’s real GDP value in the fourth quarter of 2021 by 7.8 percent from the pre-pandemic prediction[16]. The pandemic also saw an increase in the role of the gig economy[17], while the tech industry[18], which is growing at 2.3 percent year on year, could lead India’s economic recovery.

Even before the pandemic hit the developing countries, these economies were showing signs of distress and employment loss due to adverse shocks generated from the more advanced parts of the world. Moreover, while almost all countries were quick to respond to these economic fallouts by introducing fiscal and monetary stimulus, the average figures were significantly lower[19] for the developing world. This is expected to create a lasting and sustained impact on the growth trajectory of these nations unless the trade-offs and synergies existing among the countries within the SDGs framework are utilised effectively to further economic growth, job recovery and reduced inequalities, albeit with sustained international support. This section is a compilation of essays on SDGs 8-11.


The ‘decade of action’ must now be seen as the ‘decade in action’. The onset of the pandemic has impeded the progress on many goals and has led to a regression (rather than progression) of what was achieved. The challenges of meeting the goals were already quite steep, and the pandemic has only made it more difficult. There are two ways forward—spurring up action or readjusting the timeline. The post-pandemic economic recovery has been a challenge for many governments. They must now consider if the neo-Keynesian responses are going to prevail as they did during the pandemic, or if governments will need to act as enabling institutions to spur the market forces. The neo-Keynesian response has fallouts in the forms of presuuring the governmental exchquer. Therefore, the policy response from the perspective of better developmental governance at all levels (global, national, meso, and micro) needs to be one that creates enabling conditions for concerted efforts from all possible stakeholders (government, non-governmental institutions, the corporate sector, and civil society) to meet the goals within this ‘decade in action’. The essays in this volume also further this idea through the creation of a more integrated and transdisciplinary framework.

Soumya Bhowmick and Nilanjan Ghosh 

The authors acknowledge Rohith Vishwanath and Aritrika Chowdhury for their research assistance.


[1] Nilanjan Ghosh, “Ecological Economics: Sustainability, Markets, and Global Change,” in Global Change, Ecosystems, Sustainability, ed. Pranab Mukhopadhyay, Nandan Nawn and Kylan Das (New Delhi: Sage Publishing, 2017): 11-25.

[2] The Penrose tribar, or the impossible triangle, is a triangular impossible object that appears as an optical illusion. While two bars of the triangle can lie in one place, the third bar cannot intersect with these and lies in another place. In reality, no three-dimensional object in an ordinary Euclidean space can exist; L. S. Penrose and R. Penrose, “Impossible Objects: A Special Type of Visual Illusion,” The British Journal of Psychology 49, no. 1 (1958): 31–33.

[3] Mohan Munasinghe, Making Development More Sustainable: Sustainomics Framework and Practical Applications (Colombo: MIND Press, 2007)

[4] Danny T Quah, “Twin Peaks: Growth and Convergence in Models of Distribution Dynamics, The Economic Journal 106, no. 437 (1996): 1045–55.

[5] ODI, “ODI Bites: the impacts of Covid-19 on achieving the SDGs,” YouTube video, 15:47 min, June 2, 2020.

[6] United Nations Sustainable Development Group, Shared Responsibility, Global Solidarity: Responding to the Socio-economic impacts of COVID-19, United Nations, March 2020.

[7] Isabella Nyambayo, “Food Security In Developed Countries (Europe And USA) – Is It Insecurity And Insufficiency Or Hunger And Poverty In Developed Countries?, BAOJ Nutrition, 1, no. 1 (2015).

[8] COVID-19 pushed 119-124 million into poverty: World Bank updates estimates, Down To Earth, January 12, 2021.

[9] Amita Pitre, “What About Women? Budget 2021 Ignores Gender Gap Widened by COVID, The Quint, February 2, 2021.

[10] World Bank Group, “COVID-19 to Add as Many as 150 Million Extreme Poor by 2021,” October 7, 2020, Washington.

[11] The World Bank, “Food Security Update,” World Bank Group.

[12] European Commission, “Building a Climate-Resilient Future – A new EU Strategy on Adaptation to Climate Change,” February 24, 2021.

[13] State of India’s Environment 2021: People and planet in peril, Down To Earth, February 24, 2021.

[14] Simi Mehta and Ritika Gupta, “COP26 and India’s NDCs, Inter Press Service, March 16, 2021.

[15] International Labour Organization, ILO Monitor: COVID-19 and the world of work. Seventh Edition, ILO, 2021.

[16] Shoaib Daniyal, “Indian economy to be hardest hit by Covid-19 despite recovery, predicts new OECD report, Scroll, March 10, 2021.

[17] COVID-19 lockdown led to increasing role of gig economy, The Hindu, January 29, 2021.

[18] Srinath Srinivasan, “Tech industry leading India’s recovery post Covid, Financial Express, February 18, 2021.

[19] International Labour Organization, COVID-19: Tackling the Jobs Crisis in the Least Developed Countries, ILO, 2021.

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Soumya Bhowmick

Soumya Bhowmick

Soumya Bhowmick is an Associate Fellow at the Centre for New Economic Diplomacy at the Observer Research Foundation. His research focuses on sustainable development and ...

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Nilanjan Ghosh

Nilanjan Ghosh

Dr Nilanjan Ghosh is a Director at the Observer Research Foundation (ORF) in India, where he leads the Centre for New Economic Diplomacy (CNED) and ...

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