Q&A: A shift in mindset for the LDCs

The Least Developed Countries need a new way of thinking if they are to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, says Saleemul Huq.

An image of villagers in a remote village in northern Bangladesh proudly displaying their first solar panel, purchased with a micro loan. Bangladesh aspires to be one of the world's largest solar providers (Photo: ILO in Asia and the Pacific, Creative Commons, via Flickr)

The Least Developed Countries (LDC) Independent Expert Group (IEG), IIED and the ESRC's STEPS Centre will host a dialogue on Monday, 13 June: 'Reimagining development in the LDCs: what role for the SDGs?'.

Ahead of the event, IEG member Saleemul Huq discusses why the LDCs need a new way of thinking if they are to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). 

What opportunities do these goals open up for the LDCs?

SH: The SDGs' 15-year timeframe gives the LDCs time to think more laterally about how they will shape their development pathways.

The fact is that many of the LDCs have not been following policies that are the most green or the most equitable. We're now seeing many countries beginning to challenge the business as usual scenario and explore new pathways that are fairer, less polluting, and more sustainable.

But government ministries typically work to very short time horizons. Finance and planning departments are often thinking about the immediate annual budget or working to, at most, a five-year plan. This short-term view makes it very hard to think outside of the box and not just extrapolate ways of doing from the present.

So the 15-year period gives the LDCs the space to start thinking about new development agendas now, developing new policies and investing in new programmes now that will prevail in 15 years' time.

Is that change happening?

SH: These goals present the opportunity to completely change our world by 2030. This will require a paradigm shift in the way we approach today's persistent and complex development challenges. It's too early to talk about dramatic change but we are seeing many countries making inroads and governments starting to think differently.

Taking access to clean and affordable energy, many LDCs are pressing ahead with ambitious renewable energy agendas. Bangladesh for example has very progressive solar energy policies and aspires to be one of the world's largest solar providers.

But old habits die hard and big fossil-fuel plants are ingrained as the default energy pathway. Many countries face chronic energy poverty and governments are overwhelmed with pressures to supply electricity.

Changing existing systems is a major challenge. In Bangladesh, alongside its solar energy plans, the government is pursuing investments in coal. So we're seeing promising change on one hand, but business as usual on the other.

It's also about a shift in mind-set. Coal, oil and gas have been the paths followed by developed countries. Economists, planners and engineers in the LDCs see those as the default: "this is how others have done it, this is how we must do it".

Renewable energy pathways look very different. Off-grid energy systems for example are set up on a much smaller scale but have the potential to reach millions of households, particularly in rural areas. But it's a very different way of doing things, a very different way of thinking about energy.

What are the biggest challenges LDCs face in implementing the SDGs?

SH: The LDCs keep asking for more money – they see that as the biggest challenge. But for me, the biggest challenge is their own mindsets.

Countries must believe they can get out of poverty, they must believe they can bring their citizens the quality of life they aspire to. But they must believe they can do this without the same footprint from pollution and consumption left by developed countries.

"We are poor, we need help" – that's the mindset that the LDCs have had for some time now. The ambition of the SDGs sets out that within 15 years these countries will no longer be LDCs.

The question they need to ask themselves is – how will we get there? The paths taken by the United States, Europe or China are no longer viable. So the LDCs need to think about how they can get out of poverty in a way that is both equitable and environmentally sustainable.

Finance is obviously a crucial element but unless countries start to think differently, any financing will just be more money to do the same thing, to keep making the same mistakes of the past.

What are the political shifts needed to enable this change?

SH: Political leaders, decision makers, planners and intellectuals, they all need to lead this new way of thinking. Politicians are too often wedded to old pathways so we need either existing politicians to think differently or new politicians to take us down a new path.

And strong political will must be backed by good governance. Good governance is the backbone of sustainable, equitable development and economic growth. One of the reasons the LDCs are poor is because they haven't been governed well. Weak governance and, in some cases, high levels of corruption have been a major constraint for their development.

But changes to political systems cannot be imposed from outside – the countries themselves must address these issues. But they can learn from others and South-South cooperation is a very powerful tool here, for example sharing information on good governance or knowledge of how to make economic growth more equitable.

Every country pays lip service to good governance but not all governments live out their pledges. So it's about making them walk the talk, and providing support to do that.

We're also seeing major shifts in the development finance landscape where the binary rich-poor divide is blurring and new kids on the block such as China, Brazil and India are funding a lot of activities in the LDCs.

New players coming in to provide assistance to poorer countries opens up new opportunities. But it's a major change from the old aid architecture and brings with it new challenges; countries need to be ready to adapt and learn.

Are the richer countries ready to embrace their SDG commitments?

SH: SDGs make a major leap from the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) where every country is expected to work towards achieving the goals.

The approach for richer countries will of course be different. They don't need to go for zero poverty but tackling climate change or conserving the oceans – these goals are relevant for all.

Under the MDGs richer countries were only required to provide funding. With the SDGs each country has to think about how they can domestically achieve the targets. So it's a completely new, universal agenda that binds all countries of the world.

This calls for dramatic change – and I see that change beginning to happen.