Integration: A bird’s-eye view of Johannesburg. While a focus on housing is necessary, the manner in which the housing is being planned in cities is not helpful. It needs to be seen as an integral aspect of urbanism as a whole, rather than as an isolated segment, the writer says. Picture: YOUTUBE
Integration: A bird’s-eye view of Johannesburg. While a focus on housing is necessary, the manner in which the housing is being planned in cities is not helpful. It needs to be seen as an integral aspect of urbanism as a whole, rather than as an isolated segment, the writer says. Picture: YOUTUBE

Achieving the UN’s sustainable development goals, which include quality education, gender equality, good health care and human wellbeing, will be nearly impossible without governments overhauling their approach to public spending, according to new report.

The report by The Economist Intelligence Unit, supported by the UN office for project services, comes as SA is caught in a low-growth trap, rising public debt and unsustainable state spending mainly to support failing parastatals, even as tax revenues fall.

SA’s debt has shot up over the past decade as government resources are increasingly consumed by debt servicing costs while economic growth has nearly stalled.

As a result, spending on social infrastructure in areas such as housing, education and health services has been compromised.

In 2015, SA joined other UN member states in adopting the ambitious 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which is a universal call to action to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure that all people enjoy peace and prosperity.

But in 2020 unemployment, poverty and inequality remain rife in the country.

Governments around the world have also been accused of not acting decisively to tackle climate change, which threatens humankind.

The Economist Intelligence Unit report highlights how less wasteful, more efficient government spending practices can free up resources to address a critical funding gap in achieving the sustainable development goals. At the same time, the strategic procurement of goods and services can promote social and environmental sustainability.

The report, which includes contributions from leading experts in related sectors, including from the government of Ghana, the World Bank, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and the Inter-American Development Bank — argues that the sheer size of public spending, typically between 15%-30% of GDP, makes it a powerful force for change.

Efficient public procurement allows governments to make substantial progress towards achieving their social, environmental and economic sustainability objectives, the authors report said.

Grete Faremo, the executive director of the UN office for project services, said how and what governments spend money on can have a huge impact.

“It can drive innovation, help build jobs and local economic growth. It can drive behaviour and help contain levels of carbon emissions. As governments face severe funding gaps to achieve their development agenda, they have a unique opportunity to use their purchasing power strategically to make substantial progress in meeting the SDGs — this research really underlines the importance,” said Faremo.

Jeremy Kingsley, senior editor at The Economist Intelligence Unit, said: “Our study demonstrates a number of ways that governments can use procurement as a lever to achieve sustainability objectives, and that improving the efficiency and effectiveness of public spending can itself release funds for sustainable development.”

According to the report, while governments are starting to recognise the importance of procurement as a powerful policy tool problems remain. These include a perception that sustainable development is too expensive or short-term thinking that prioritises the cheapest price today over the financial, social and environmental cost of a product over its lifetime. Other identified blockages include fragmented organisational structures, corruption and a basic lack of knowledge of the procurement market.

The report also explores how governments can use digital technologies to advance sustainable purchasing, for example, to analyse contracts, monitor supply chains or identify corruption.

phakathib@businesslive.co.za