Review of the SDGs in Asia and Pacific

Review of the SDGs in Asia and Pacific

on August 13, 2020


In line with objective 3 of the RRING project, the research is a first step to “align RRI to the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to provide a global common denominator for advancement of RRI, and address Grand Challenges globally.”

This first step was mainly done through desktop research, relying on UN reports as well as voluntary national reviews (as submitted to the UN High Level Political Forum (HLPF) to determine what are the most important SDGs in each region (named ‘geography’ in this task) and as geographical regions use the 5 regions defined by the UN for its regional commissions, and its monitoring of the SDGs, while noting that every state is different and regional averages can be misleading, because the 5 global regions exhibit internal variety.

The Sustainable Development Goals Report 2019

In July 2019, the High-Level Political Forum for Sustainable Development (HLPF) reviewed global progress on the last remaining set of SDGs. 142 countries have now presented their Voluntary National Reviews. All SDGs have now been highlighted at the HLPF. As mentioned above, this year in effect closes the first cycle of the 2030 Agenda implementation.

July also marked the launch of The Sustainable Development Report 2019, prepared by UN DESA’s Statistics Division with inputs from more than 50 international and regional organizations. It provides charts, infographics and maps on SDG progress, and presents an in-depth analysis of selected indicators. Additionally, the report highlights regional progress and analyses.

The report is accompanied by a comprehensive Statistical Annex and the Global SDG Indicator Database with country and regional data that can also be accessed interactively on the Sustainable Development Goal indicators website.

This data provides a clear overview per country and region of the progress that has so far been made on the SDGs, as well as the challenges that still remain. This allows us to select the data we need from selected countries and regions to determine if there are any trends. However, since these are UN documents, they can only consolidate the information provided by Member States, so as to reveal gaps (and call these gaps priorities). They do not reflect how each country or region is implementing the SDGs except in this broad sense of progress achieved on the basis of measurements taken (e.g. the quality of how the SDG targets are incorporated in national legislation would not be visible in the aggregated record, except by means of illustrations). There are nonetheless, broadly stated conclusions on gaps to be addressed, which may be called priorities, because all states are committed to meet all SDGs. These conclusions are backed by the most inclusive political process and documentation available, so it is considered a reliable source for identifying priorities.

According to the report, the two main challenges facing the world are climate change and inequalities among and within countries, corresponding to respectively SDG 13 ‘Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts ‘and SDG 10 ‘Reduce inequality within and among countries’. Though progress has been made, poverty remains an issue in many parts of the world and hunger has actually been increasing in recent years.

The overview per region below takes many direct excerpts from the UN SG’s report.

Asia and the Pacific

SDG 2 (hunger), SDG 3 (Health), SDG 4 (Education), SDG 5 (Gender Equality), SDG 6 (Water), SDG 11 (Sustainable Cities), 13 (Climate Change) and 14 (Rising Sea Levels) are most important. This is the largest region and is divided into three subregions in the report: Central and Southern Asia, Eastern and South-Eastern Asia and Oceania. As this region is very large and diverse, so are the results of the SDG report. Central and Southern Asia face similar problems as Africa, such as hunger (SDG2) and slums (SDG11), while Eastern Asia is on track. Oceania has as some of its most Important SDGs climate change (SDG13) and rising sea levels (SDG14).


Eastern Asia has made big improvements as its poverty rate fell from 52% in 1990 to 1% in 2015. The other sub-regions are also seeing massive improvements on population living below $1.90 per day. The same can be said about the employed population living in the region. This means SDG 1.1.1 is overall going well. Least well are Central and Southern Asia (still at 12%) and Oceania (still at 20%, excluding Australia and New Zealand). Notable for SDG Indicator 1.3.1 is that only 14.4% of children are covered by social protection systems in Eastern and South-Eastern Asia. Worth mentioning here again that climate-related disasters are increasing, floods, storms, droughts, heatwaves or other extreme weather events, causing huge economic and human loss, especially in the poorest countries (SDG Indicator 1.5.1).


This SDG could be considered a ‘priority’ for a number of reasons. Data for SDG Indicator 2.1.1 shows that 277 million under nourished people live in Southern Asia (roughly one third of the global total and 39% of all undernourished children). The regional proportion of undernourished children in Central and Southern Asia regional proportion went down from 49 to 32%, but up from 37 to 38% in Oceania, excl. Australia and New Zealand. In any case, both sub-regions are still far below the target for SDG Indicator 2.2.1. Furthermore, more than half of children with acute undernutrition (wasting) live in Southern Asia (SDG Indicator 2.2.2). Asia also still has a high number of small-scale food producers that are poor; have limited capacities and resources; face regular food insecurity; and have limited access to markets and services (SDG Indicator 2.3.2).


Many problems remain, making it another ‘priority’ SDG. Southern Asia and Oceania*[1] still face very high levels of maternal mortality ratio (SDG Indicator 3.1.1). 30% total number of under-5 deaths were in Southern Asia (43.7 deaths per 1,000 live births in 2017, SDG Indicator 3.2.1) while Oceania* is also still far above the global average with 47.6 deaths per 1,000 live births. South-Eastern Asia and Oceania* have the highest rate of tuberculosis incidence (SDG Indicator 3.3.2). Additionally, Oceania* has the second highest rate of malaria incidence after Africa (SDG Indicator 3.3.3). Lastly, as with all tropical regions neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) are a diverse group of communicable diseases that affect some 880 million people in Asia and the Pacific.


Another priority SDG, particularly for the south, as parts of Central and Southern Asia lagging behind on this SDG. In Central and Southern Asia, 81% of children (241 million) were not proficient in reading, and 76% (228 million) lacked basic mathematical skills (SDG Indicator 4.1.1). In Eastern and South-Eastern Asia, the percentages also remain high at 31% and 28% respectively. According to SDG Indicator 4.2.2, Central Asia only has 55.6% of children participating in early childhood education. As with Africa and the Arab States, girls are more excluded from education that boys as for every 100 boys of primary school age out of school in 2017, 127 girls were denied the right to education in Central Asia. Nearly half the global population who are illiterate live in Southern Asia. Add to that another 10% for Eastern and South-Eastern Asia (SDG Indicator 4.6.1). Lastly, Central and Southern Asia are also lagging behind on SDG Indicator 4.a.1, proportion of schools with access to basic facilities.


This could be considered a priority for the southern and central regions of Asia. As previously indicated, there is no data in the report of its statistical annex by region on SDG Indicator 5.1.1 ‘Whether or not legal frameworks are in place to promote, enforce and monitor equality and non‑discrimination on the basis of sex’ though it could be interesting to include them at a later stage. The highest percentages for ever-partnered women and girls aged 15 to 49 years subjected to physical and/or sexual violence by a current or former intimate partner in the previous 12 months, are in Oceania* (34.7% in 2017) and in Central and Southern Asia (23%) according to SDG Indicator 5.2.1. Child marriage has gone down significantly in Central and Southern Asia but remains very high nonetheless (SDG Indicator 5.3.1. Along with the Arab States, the proportion of women in parliament and in managerial positions in Central and Southern Asia are some of the lowest across the globe. Central and Southern Asia also has the lowest proportion of women aged 15-49 years who make their own decisions regarding sexual relations, contraceptive use and health care after Africa (48.7% in 2014, SDG Indicator 5.6.1 – though data coverage was limited to only three countries).


Major challenges remain. Even though progress is being made, Central and – particularly – Southern Asia are lagging heavily behind on SDG Indicator 6.1.1, with only 60.4% of the population having access to safely managed drinking water services in 2017. Eastern and South-Eastern Asia are making the fastest progress on SDG Indicator 6.2.1 but in spite of this, the majority of the 673 million people that still practise open defecation are in Southern Asia. As mentioned previously, most countries with high levels of water stress are located in Northern Africa and Western Asia and in Central and Southern Asia, with Eastern and South-Eastern Asia also experiencing high levels of water stress (SDG Indicator 6.4.2). River pollution, as mentioned earlier, is worsening, particularly in Africa, Asia and Latin America (SDG Indicator 6.3.2). Central and Southern Asia and Oceania* also have a low degree of integrated water resources management implementation (37 and 37 respectively out of 100 in 2018, SDG Indicator 6.5.1). There are also very low levels of transboundary cooperation (SDG Indicator 6.5.2) and low participation from local communities in water and sanitation management (SDG Indicator 6.b.1)


This SDG has mixed results. Oceania* is the sub-region with the second lowest number of population with access to electricity (63% in 2017 – up from 29% in 2000 – SDG Indicator 7.1.1). Renewable energy as a share of total energy remains low across the region with Oceania*, Southern Asia and South-Eastern Asia doing better than the average. Energy efficiency is another mixed bag. Eastern and South-Eastern Asia was the only sub-region to be above the target with an improvement rate of primary energy intensity of 3.4% between 2010 and 2016 while Oceania* was the only sub-region to decline (SDG Indicator 7.3.1).


Central and Southern Asia and Eastern and South Eastern Asia have had strong annual growth rate of real GDP per capita (SDG Indicator 8.1.1) and per capita (SDG Indicator 8.2.1), while Oceania is lagging behind and even saw a 1% decrease per capita in 2017, excluding Australia and New Zealand. Central and Southern Asia also has a high proportion of informal employment in non‑agriculture employment (76% in 2016, SDG Indicator 8.3.1). Eastern Asia and Australia and New Zealand have the highest domestic material consumption per capita (22.79 and 35.69 tonnes in 2017, SDG Indicator 8.4.2). Lastly, in Central and Southern Asia, 46% of young women were not engaged in either education, employment or training (NEET) compared to 10% of young men (SDG Indicator 8.6.1).


As with the previous SDG, Eastern Asia and South-Eastern Asia show good numbers with the highest increase in manufacturing value added share in GDP (26.5% in 2018, SDG Indicator 9.2.1) while Oceania was lagging behind with only 6.3%. Of concern is that Eastern Asia is responsible for nearly one third of total CO2 emissions from fuel combustion (10,881 millions of tonnes in 2016, SDG Indicator 9.4.1) – Europe and Northern America being responsible for another third of total. Expenditure on R&D is high in Eastern Asia and South-Eastern Asia and low in Central and Southern Asia (SDG Indicator 9.5.1). While all sub-regions apart from Eastern Asia were below the average, Southern Asia also has the second lowest number of researchers worldwide (222 per 1 million population) in 2016 according to SDG Indicator 9.5.2. The report states that medium-high and high-tech sectors account for 45% of the global manufacturing value added (2016), but the share is only 1.9% in Oceania and 7.7% in Central Asia (2016, SDG Indicator 9.b.1).


Not a lot of data is given per region in the report nor in the statistical annex, though it is stated that rich and poor countries alike can benefit from policies promoting equality and inclusivity. One point of note, however, is that Central and Southern Asia was one of the main drivers for a decline in the global labour share (SDG Indicator 10.4.1), as it decreased more than 5% between 2004 and 2017. Eastern, Western and Southern Asia all had the high resource flows (net disbursements) for development (SDG Indicator 10.b.1).

SDG11 ON SUSTAINABLE CITIES: This is another ‘priority’ SDG for the region. As indicated in the report, 370 million people in Eastern and South-Eastern Asia and 227 million people in Central and Southern Asia are living in slums (2018, SDG Indicator 11.1.1). In Oceania* only 21% of residents have convenient access to public transport, below the 53% global average and only slightly better than Africa (SDG Indicator 11.2.1). Despite no direct reference, SDG target 11.5 on disaster risk reduction with a special focus on the poor, interlinks with SDG targets 1.5 and 13.1. The latter two are referred to in the report and it is therefore worth mentioning this one as well – especially considering that South-Eastern Asia experiences frequent seismic activity, and particularly recollecting the massive damage caused by the tsunami in 2004 in South-Eastern Asia or the 2011 tsunami in Japan, among other disasters that have happened in the region. As for SDG Indicator 11.6.1, Oceania* only had 60.5% of its municipal solid waste collected in 2018. Central and Southern Asia was one of two regions with the largest increase in in particulate matter concentrations in the air. As mentioned before, more than 90% of air-pollution-related deaths occur in Asia and Africa.


Domestic material consumption (DMC) is increasing worldwide. The increase is largest in Eastern and South-Eastern Asia, from 17,356 tonnes in 2000 to 42,480 tonnes in 2017. This accounts for the lion’s share of the increase at the global level (SDG Indicator 12.2.2). Per capita, the numbers are also higher than the global average of 11 tonnes (Australia and New Zealand 35.69, Oceania 28.01 and Eastern Asia 22.79). Domestic material consumption per GDP – or the amount of material needed to produce the same amount of economic output – is highest in the entire Asia and Pacific region (excluding Australia and New Zealand) and Africa. Fossil-fuel pre-tax subsidies are highest in Central Asia (4.42% in 2015, SDG Indicator 12.c.1).


This is another priority SDG, in particular with regard to Oceania* where a lot of the world’s small island developing States (SIDS) are located. SIDS are impacted more rising ocean levels and other consequences of climate change – such as weather-related disasters. The report stress that access to finance and the strengthening of resilience and adaptive capacity have to be much faster, particularly among LDCs and small island developing States.


This could be considered a ‘priority’ SDG due to the large number of SIDS in the region. As mentioned before, ocean pollution remains a global problem but the challenge is most acute in some equatorial zones, especially in parts of Asia, Africa and Central America (SDG Indicator 14.1.1). Data on SDG Indicator 14.4.1 shows that the Southeast Pacific region had the second lowest percentage of sustainable fish stocks in 2015 (38.5%). Coverage of protected areas in relation to marine areas is also still below the target of 10% in 2018 in the Asia and Pacific region (SDG Indicator 14.5.1).


Although Oceania* and South-Eastern Asia have a high Forest area as a proportion of total land area, the net forest area decreased with 0.36% between 2011 and 2015 in South-Eastern Asia (SDG Indicator 15.2.1). The report mentions that land degradation is bad in most regions (27.9% for Central and Southern Asia. 24.4% in Eastern and South-Eastern Asia and 35.5% in Australia, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea in 2018, SDG Indicator 15.3.1) and that it is impacting the lives of over one billion people. The total forest area decreased from 31.1 to 30.7% between 2000 and 2015 but this loss of forests in some tropical regions is partly balanced out by an increase in forested land in many parts of Asia, as well as in Europe and Northern America.


In Central and Southern Asia 62.5% of the overall prison population were unsentenced detainees in 2015-2017 (SDG Indicator 16.3.2). Bribery incidence is highest in Central and Southern Asia and in Eastern and South-Eastern Asia (SDG Indicator 16.5.2). Central and Southern Asia also lags behind at 68% of children under 5 that are registered. Also of note is that the proportion of countries with independent National Human Rights Institutions in compliance with the Paris Principles is very low (28.6% in Central and Southern Asia and 8.3% in Oceania* in 2018, SDG Indicator 16.a.1).


Personal remittances as proportion of GDP is high for Central and Southern Asia (3.07%) and Oceania* (2.29% in 2017, SDG Indicator 17.3.2) although However, money transfer costs were some of the highest across many small islands in the Pacific. Internet broad speed subscription remain low in the same sub-regions (SDG Indicator 17.6.2). Central Asia and Oceania had the lowest share of global services exports in 2017 (SDG Indicator 17.11.1). The report also indicated that South-Eastern Asia had an import tariff rate of 1.7%, which indicates the region’s growing openness to international trade.

[1] Oceania marked with * from now on refers to Oceania excluding Australia and New Zealand