Focusing on Indonesia’s SDG priorities

By Armida S. Alisjahbana on
Ahead of the UN Sustainable Development Summit from 25-27 September, and to mark the 70th anniversary of the United Nations, a 10-minute film introducing the Sustainable Development Goals is projected onto UN Headquarters. UN Photo/Cia Pak

Almost a year ago the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) agenda was adopted by world leaders at the UN Summit. The extent and breadth of the global commitment is evident by quoting the UN Outcome Document on the SDGs.

“Alongside continuing development priorities such as poverty eradication, health, education, food security and nutrition, it sets out a wide range of economic, social and environmental objectives. It also promises more peaceful and inclusive societies. It also crucially defines means of implementation.”

Where to start? An obvious answer would be to mainstream the SDGs into national development plans and work from there. All goals and subgoals may be deemed equally important. But, as the SDGs are medium- to long-term in nature, it would make sense to delineate the focus from Indonesia’s long-standing development challenges and

Since 1998, Indonesia has unarguably achieved much. Economic growth has transformed the economy and improved welfare, democratization has deepened and political stability has ensued. However, several development challenges remain and new opportunities abound.

First, poverty and inequality are still a major concern. During the period of 2005 to 2015, about 6.1 million people escaped poverty and extreme poverty, while the depth of poverty has reduced significantly. However, a sizable number of low-income and vulnerable people are still a cause for concern.

Second, although the trend of informal sector employment is decreasing, it still absorbs about 60 percent of jobs in Indonesia. Despite unemployment rates falling below 6 percent since 2014, the rate of youth unemployment is two to three times higher than the economic growth rate. The number of people working part-time remains high at around 26 million. This figure is not surprising as 60 percent of the labor force are junior high school graduates or lower.

Third, poverty alleviation is still a major concern. Low-income people cannot only depend on social safety net programs to emerge from poverty, but must have decent jobs. There will be no sustainable poverty alleviation without decent jobs through which the poor can earn a living. Sustainable livelihoods through micro credit and basic infrastructure programs with cash-for-work schemes need to be further developed.

Fourth, it is necessary to develop “new sources of growth” that do not exploit natural resources and are environmentally friendly: tourism and the creative economy; the biodiversity economy; and the knowledge and services sector (such as consultancy or hospitality). New sources of growth should be developed in poor areas through job creation that is both inclusive and sustainable.

Fifth, the population is projected to reach 305.7 million by the end of 2035. At present, more than half of Indonesia’s population lives in urban areas. By 2035, more than two thirds of the population will live in cities or urban areas. Sustainable infrastructure, water, energy and food will be some of the challenges faced by urban populations.

The good news is that since 2012, until beyond 2035, Indonesia has been and will experience demographic dividends with a young and productive population. Meanwhile, in less than four years from now, Indonesia will enter an aging population structure where the percentage of people over 60 years old will be more than 10 percent.

This will raise health issues and potential fiscal burdens with increasing pension funds, retirement and health benefit needs. However, if members of the aging population live healthy lives and contribute to the economy, this will turn into a situation where Indonesia is said to benefit from “double demographic dividends”.

Sixth, the quality of human resources is still low, as indicated for example by the average duration of schooling of about eight years. This condition is exacerbated by inequality in the years of schooling among different income groups.

The rate of school dropouts among children in the poorest 20 percent of the population is quite high. The quality of education in relation to science (including mathematics), language and logical reasoning is lagging behind.

The other measure of human resources quality is health, as indicated for example by the maternal mortality rate, malnutrition rate and stunting. All of these health indicators are far from satisfactory. The prevalence of stunting, for instance, was at a very worrying rate of 37 percent in 2013.

Seventh, investment in basic infrastructure and connectivity should be significantly increased. Investment in infrastructure such as roads, bridges, clean water, sanitation and electricity will open up isolated areas, creating multiplier effects for the economy and reducing poverty and inequality.

Eighth, aligned with human resources quality improvement, science and technology acquisition and the capacity to innovate are key to economic productivity improvement. Increasing investment on research and development from government and the private sector; collaboration between businesses, universities and the government; increasing access to venture capital; and the protection of intellectual property rights are priority areas.

Ninth, good governance, strong institutions combined with legal certainty and the rule of law are vital. Key to this issue are the quality and skills of civil servants and bureaucracy.

Those development challenges and opportunities point to nine focus areas of Indonesia’s SDGs: ending poverty and inequality in all its forms; ensuring quality universal education (to senior high school level) and the acquisition of research and development skills together with capacity to innovate; ensuring a universal continuum care of health services; inclusive economic growth and decent work opportunities; basic infrastructure and connectivity; sustainable cities; combating climate change and its impacts; conserving and sustainably using natural resources, biodiversity and marine resources; and good governance and strong institutions.

A focus on those nine areas will be sufficient for Indonesia to achieve the SDGs. In the current global situation, a necessary situation of macroeconomic stability is a must.

This includes stability in the current account/balance of payments, manageable budget deficit, exchange rate stability, low inflation and moderate to high economic growth.

Experiences and lessons learned from 15 years of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) implementation revealed that two weak links are the roles of local administrations and communities, not to mention the role of the people themselves.

The SDGs are not only about the central government’s priority policies and programs.

The SDGs need active participation and collaboration from local administrations, the private sector, communities, NGOs and academics. These are the frontlines for successful SDGs and will create adequate conditions for their realization.


The author is a professor at Padjadjaran University, Bandung, and director of the University’s Center of Sustainable Development Goals Studies (SDGs Center). This article includes excerpts from her inaugural lecture as a member of the Indonesian Academy of Sciences (AIPI) in Bandung on Aug. 25, 2016. The article was originally published in The Jakarta Post on 13 September 2016.

Photo Credit: UN Photo/Cia Pak.