'Politics, science and civil society will determine success of SDGs'

Paul V Gandingen, director at Ecosystem Services for Poverty Alleviation (ESPA) and a UNESCO chair, talks about how countries can achieve Sustainable Development Goals

By Vani Manocha
Published: Friday 25 September 2015

How do you think a complete understanding of sustainable development influences the science of development?

An understanding of sustainable development could mean a statement of where we want the world to go over the next 15 years. For Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), we can come and bring together social, environmental and economic objectives. In the past 15 years, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) gave us a lot of guidelines about the importance of knowing what we are trying to achieve. The successes related to health, poverty reduction, among other lessons learnt, will help in this really important objective for all people on the Earth, whether rich or poor in every country, of becoming more sustainable. So having an understanding of how we can work together to achieve new goals, we must also measure progresses as we must start to deliver the goals and objectives.

Does understanding about ecosystem services figures in all these goals? Is yes, how?

I believe that understanding the role of ecosystem services is absolutely crucial because ecosystem services describe how the environment provides services that are so important to people. The food that we eat, the water that we drink, the air that we breathe comes from these natural systems. So not only understanding how these benefits are provided and how we use them but also managing landscapes to maximise the benefits that society has and make them self-sustainable so that our children and their children can also benefit from the services coming from environment is truly sustainable. The first definition of sustainability, after all, was about using resources in such a way that it doesn’t unduly compromise the availability of future generations to benefit from the environment and all resources.

You have also done lot of work on education as a medium for development. How do you think the idea of knowledge exchange and capacity building can help in achieving these goals?

At the University of Edinburgh and UNESCO, we want to create more opportunities for knowledge and education in developing countries and emerging economies like India, thus focused on improving lives. Knowledge and education today is about innovating, doing things differently and providing opportunity to the next-generation decision and policy makers. For example, a few weeks ago I was talking at a university in Bangladesh, pitching the idea of small innovation prize for students to work on innovations like finding new ways of getting clean water to poor people living in slums. I really believe that educating creatively to give people the skills, the opportunities is an important way of doing that and then the students move on into professional life where they bring with them enthusiasm to do that. In a world with population set to exceed nine billion soon, we really do need to find new innovative ways towards sustainability.

How can we bridge the gap between science and policymaking to move towards sustainability?

I think a major challenge about linking science and policymaking is to connect two communities that speak a different language and work on different time goals. I would prefer to translate policy questions into a question into something that can be answered by research and then to take research and translate into something that can be executed and used by decision and policy makers.

In the context of thinking about sustainable development, I personally am very interested to see how the world understands what is the science that we require to deliver the goals that are approved by the UN. Much of that can be done from science that already exists, by packaging the existing knowledge in a way that it can be used by more and more people. However there are some questions that need more research and knowledge. So, I believe that we need to link up with policy communities and decision makers and help them to articulate the questions in such a way that we can address this by research deliver that research results more collaboratively.

How can countries ensure that they achieve the goals?

SDGs are different from MDGs. The SDGs will apply to all the countries and countries will be allowed to decide the indicators relevant to them. Politics, science and civil society—all will influence the progress. The indicators are there to help measure if the country is moving in the right direction. I believe that you need to really focus on what are you trying to achieve. 

Please give an example from your work of how data and technology would help in achieving SDGs?

In India, we have a project currently on water and it’s a really interesting. The number of people coming in for tourism and demands on water have become very high. At the same time, during the last decade, the situation there has become environmentally challenging as the water quality deteriorated so much that the municipality had to install an engineering solution. Data has been really important in terms of tracking the history about the change in that area and to generating evidence about the water quality and about the cost of treating, thus helping to get clean water. This data, along with the numbers of people, come together to tell a story.

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