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The diagram above illustrates how T&T did on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) Index.

Board Director, Environment Tobago

Let’s be the Singapore of the Caribbean! That’s basically the underlying wish of many of Trinidad and Tobago’s policy documents. We are very often compared to the city-state, especially along economic lines. In fact, we focus a lot on economic measures: we are called a “developing economy.” With COVID-19, everyone wants to reopen “The Economy” and some folks are calling the National Recovery Committee an “Economic Recovery Committee.” Aren’t there other things that need reopening and fixing nationally?

This focus on economic comparisons is at best, unfortunate. We intrinsically know that our personal value is not based on our bank account but the non-financial wealth of our lives. Harvard University’s 75-year study on Adult Development has shown that the key to long-term happiness and success at life is not the bank account but rather our relationships with family, friends and community. They found that “loners” often died earlier than those with marital satisfaction for instance (but perhaps the study subjects weren’t trapped with their partners during an extended lockdown!). Would it be purely semantic wrangling to say that we should be working to reopen and fix our entire “society?”

Oh the Humanity!

The UN understands that countries are first and foremost made of complex webs of people, institutions, nature, and culture that we call “society.” This is the basis of the significant global achievement in 2015, of declaring Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for the world to aspire to by 2030 that were agreed on by 193 countries. The 17 broadly defined SDGs (and 169 supporting targets), though not perfect, cover so much that we find important here in T&T: from ending hunger and gender inequality, to protecting nature, to ensuring quality education, to good health, to generating economic wealth. So with this declaration, the UN is promoting the shift in focus from purely economic development, to human and societal development. T&T is not only a signatory to this, we were also very involved in helping identify the most relevant SDGs for CARICOM.

Port-of-Spain was the location for the 2015 workshop to prioritise the SDGs for CARICOM. We also incorporated the SDGs into our National Development Strategy, “Vision 2030,” which is s aimed at guiding us in the long term. So we should remember that holistic and sustainable development is our goal, not only economic development, although the two are closely related as shown in SDG8 “Decent Work and Economic Growth.”

Our national score

In terms of holistic development, how is T&T doing? Are we achieving the SDGs? What should any societal recovery focus on?

Well, the SDG Index of the UN tracks achievement of the SDGs. The index is based on available data that measure how well we are meeting each target and then aggregates them into a single score that summarises our performance. This is similar to a GDP per capita metric but is far more important for our nation’s well-being. The latest data for 2019 show T&T’s SDG Index as 67.6, which puts us at 85th place of all countries with available scores (for comparison, our GDP per capita from the IMF of US$17,130 puts us in 50th place in the list of countries). With such an SDG Index, we are behind comparable countries like Jamaica, Dominican Republic, Singapore and Estonia. We are even behind Bhutan, a country with a GDP per capita that is a third of our own. Notably, though, Bhutan is the country that developed the Gross National Happiness as a guide for their national policy, showing how important it considers non-economic data as critical to future societal growth.

Did T&T do well on any aspect of the SDG Index? On SDG1 (No Poverty) (as defined by the UN), we are given good marks and we’re pretty good on SDG4 (Quality Education) and SDG7 (Affordable and Clean Energy). However, we scored poorly on the remaining goals with available data. We got failing grades on SDG13 (Climate Action) since we are one of the highest per-capita emitters of greenhouse gases worldwide. We also failed SDG16 (Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions) mainly because of our high murder rate. See a summary in inset figure.

˚Settling the score

Some important realisations should occur here. Firstly, even adjusting for limited data on some metrics, it’s clear that focusing solely on economic growth without actively working on these other key metrics of our country’s development is not in our national interest. Secondly, clearly developing all these areas requires developing the economy as well as livelihoods, and that means fully achieving Vision 2030 or any updated version of it. All newer initiatives must help us achieve this, including our National Recovery Committee. Thirdly, despite the need for its leadership, there is no way that any government can do all of this alone. There is a critical role for the private sector as well as civil society in implementing Vision 2030 (not just planning for it). Civil society, in particular, is as broad and diverse in focus and capabilities as the SDGs themselves and can be the conduit connecting the state, public sector and the wider public on some matters. Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) are already busy at work on some of these.

For instance, take the EU-funded project Enhancing Civil Society Capacity for Governance of Environmental Transparency and Accountability in T&T’s Extractive Industries. Its aim is to improve the system for data gathering and decision-making on the environmental impacts of our extractive sectors (gas, oil, mining). In this project, where Environment Tobago is partnered with four other national CSOs, we collectively engage both the state and the private sector. If this project achieves its goals, it will help improve our national performance for SDG12 (Responsible Consumption and Production), SDG13 (Climate Action), SDG14 (Life Below Water), SDG15 (Life on Land) and SDG17 (Partnerships). This tripartite partnership model is a great approach for helping T&T reopen and fix our society. Imagine its impact if expanded to other ailing SDG scores with the help of entrepreneurs!

To our credit, we already have the SDGs incorporated into national policy (Vision 2030) and we have an extraordinary opportunity to align our limited resources with (more or less) national backing and interest. We therefore need to ensure that the recovery plan is written with a sufficiently broad perspective on our societal recovery, that all stakeholders are invited to provide their input (as we have seen) and all are ready to pull their weight as well as partner with others in other sectors. 2030 is less than 10 years away but it still gives us just enough time to develop a healthier population, reduce our climate vulnerabilities, holistically reduce our crime rate and generate more non-energy income. If we do it right, countries like Bhutan might aspire to become the “Trinidad and Tobago of Asia.”

Environment Tobago is a partner on the European Union-funded Action ‘CSOs for Good Environmental Governance’ that is working to enhance the capacity of T&T’s civil society for governance of environmental transparency and accountability in the country’s extractive industries.