Developing Sustainability is the Goal


The UN’s SDGs are important signposts for the future of mankind.

On September 25, 2015, member states of the UN adopted 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for a more equitable and sustainable world, providing a roadmap for the transformation of global and local communities. They build on and extend the earlier Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which governments around the world had pursued with varying degrees of success from 2000 to 2015.

The goals are exciting, but the timeline is daunting. We have until 2030 to reach the targets. This is ambitious, but it should serve to remind us that the challenges we face for humanity and for the planet are getting increasingly urgent. The timeline also reminds us that these goals will not be met unless there is major commitment from everyone – from national and local governments, from civil society, from the private sector, from our universities and institutions, and most of all, from us.

In other words, the SDGs are a call to action, for all of us, whoever we are. Are we ready to respond?

People-oriented Governments

The preliminary discussion emphasised that tapping into local expertise, resources and creative thinking is vital if we are to meet the SDG targets. There is tremendous scope for ensuring local people of all ages, backgrounds and experiences are involved. At this early stage of the SDGs, it is important that we start exploring what our roles, responsibilities and potential might actually be in meeting the goals. Partnerships, collaborations, dialogues and sharing will be important components.

Far from dismissing the SDGs as some kind of an external, rather nebulous list of demands, we would do well to embrace them as part of the definition of our future – a definition of the challenges we face and the steps we can take to overcome them, for a future that is socially, environmentally and economically sustainable for all. Here, the SDGs simply give an articulation and focus to things we are already concerned about, are already addressing, and to which we are already trying to find solutions. This is true at the federal level, and is especially true of what we are doing here in Penang.

At the national level, the SDGs mirror the Eleventh Malaysia Plan (11MP). This Plan already commits us to a “people-anchored growth”, to seeking “inclusivity” in government, to a widening scope of policies to ensure that everyone is reached and our future is “sustainable”.

In meeting the 17 different SDGs, we will be able to use a range of ready-defined SDG indicators that will considerably help us monitor other local policies and programmes. The collection and analysis of appropriate data is a big part of the challenges the local government faces; the adoption of SDGs and the use of the SDG indicators will push us towards collecting and using data wisely.

We will be immediately aware that the SDGs fit squarely into the vision of Penang’s future as already articulated by the present state government. This articulation includes the vision that Penang will be an intelligent, international city based on the principles of “a people-oriented government” where everyone has an equitable share in the economy; “social cohesion and inclusion which results in a shared society that allows democratic participation, respect for diversity and individual dignity, equal opportunity and prohibition of discrimination”; “a capable, clean and efficient civil service”; an emphasis on excellence, creativity and innovation; and the building of “reciprocity, reputation and trust through civic education and communication for a strong civil society”.

Residents of PPR Ampangan in Seberang Perai celebrating the inclusive "Projek Kita", where the residents formed small companies and presented a project for funding.

Inclusion and Governance

One of the subtexts of the SDGs is the mantra “Leave No One Behind”. This is framed in the perception that “no goal should be met unless it is met for everyone”. This is a subtext Penang will have no trouble recognising; already much work has been done especially by the two local councils, the Penang Island City Council (MBPP) and Seberang Perai Municipal Council (MPSP), on opening up the processes of budgeting, looking to be more inclusive and responsive to the “different needs of different people”.

The on-going Gender Responsive Participatory Budgeting (GRPB) initiative has raised many issues and ways to reach and include those who may otherwise be left behind. These groups include children, youths, persons with disabilities, younger women, older women, younger men, older men, employed, unemployed, and people living with HIV – and could be extended to include migrants and refugees. These are the sort of groups specified in the SDGs’s discussion and agenda. The issue of gender is also already acknowledged in our local councils.

Clearly if we really are to “leave no one behind”, we need to be clear about how we understand our communities, how we are dealing with marginalisation and how we are addressing the issues of deprivation and vulnerability. Prompted by principles like competency, accountability and transparency (CAT) and by initiatives like GRPB, the local government in Penang has already confronted some of the major challenges and possible solutions relating to this. They include making sure that we have effective, accountable and transparent institutions and responsive, inclusive, participatory and representative decision-making at all levels.

Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng at the launch of the Community Contract and Painting Project at PPR Jalan Sungai, part of the Gender Responsive and Participatory Budgeting project.

Changing attitudes and processes within the institutions of local government is already underway. Other challenges include strengthening our management and planning capacities, and increasing participatory mechanisms so that there are plenty of open avenues whereby annual budgeting decisions can include suggestions from local communities. The latter will help to better define priorities and work together for implementation of solutions.

The sort of avenues to encourage inclusion could involve more town hall meetings, open council and state government meetings (including at committee level), a truly workable freedom of information policy, building and working with community leadership that represent a range of people and interests, regular focus groups, extensive use of the potential of social media, e-discussions and use of e-portals, and possible use of community media. The imaginative harnessing of ICT tools can significantly contribute to open, participatory information exchange among a wide range of stakeholders, helping provide a space for the voices of those who might otherwise be marginalised.

Local government in Penang is already well aware of all these possibilities, but of course there is still some way to go. In identifying how to meet the targets of the SDGs, there is every chance that the on-going transformation of local government will be extended. So not only do we get a further focus on the key issues facing our future; we could also get further encouragement to adopt a way of governance that is truly inclusive and open, and, by so being, more innovative and creative.

The City is Key

Public Budget Dialogue with the city council.

The SDGs will help us realise how important the role of cities is in the whole situation. As former UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon puts it: in a rapidly urbanising world, our struggle for global sustainability will be won or lost in cities. As more and more people come to live in cities, it is in cities where more and more challenges for equity and sustainability are to be found. Cites therefore will be an important location for solutions.

One of the SDGs, SDG 11, specifically draws attention to the need to make our cities “inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable”. SDG 16 highlights the need to build “effective, accountable and inclusive institutions”. All of the SDGs have targets that can be directly related to the ongoing work of local urban and municipal governments and communities, who can and should be on the frontline for the attainment of SDGs.

The PWDC Conference: A First Step?

It is in this context that the Penang Women’s Development Corporation (PWDC) is organising a conference in Penang, entitled “Localising the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs): Leaving No One Behind”, organised in partnership with the Penang state government, MBPP, MPSP, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and Penang Institute.

It promises to be an exciting and appropriate event – and open to all. In bringing people together from all over the Asia Pacific region, the conference will allow Penang to share its own approaches and innovations with others, while at the same time hearing from others in the region about possible best practices and successes at the local government and local community level. Through such sharing, we will be able to better understand the sort of programmes and projects we can and need to develop, the sort of partnerships we can forge, and the sort of collaborations and knowledge that are needed.

One important goal of the conference is to cultivate an environment where inter-relationships between the state, local government, citizens, academia, civil society, private sector and other stakeholders can result in smart and successful partnerships.

So let us take advantage of this unique opportunity. Let us get involved, let us take on the challenges together, and let us join in a shared endeavour across our communities, across the region and the globe, in a shared effort to secure a sustainable future – for not just for all of us humans, but also for our planet.

The “Localising the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs): Leaving No One Behind” conference will be held at Jen Hotel from October 25-26. Registration is open to all, and can be done online at

James Lochhead has been involved with a wide variety of initiatives in Penang since 1980. These include initiatives related to local democracy, gender equality, arts and creativity, child protection, human trafficking, and work with migrant and refugee communities. He was one of the original team for the Gender Responsive Budgeting project, started under Penang Women's Development Corporation in 2011.

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