For sustainable development, look at the faces not numbers

It is the human face of miseries, not statistics, that motivate us to work toward uplifting the underprivileged

Ehtesham Shahid
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Beginning January 1, 2016, the United Nations set 17 Sustainable Development Goals as part of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. With these new universal goals in place, it was agreed that, over the next 15 years, countries will mobilize efforts to end all forms of poverty, fight inequalities and tackle climate change. The basic idea was to ensure that no one is left behind.

This is indeed easier said than done. Remember, this means dealing with the future of 836 million people living in extreme poverty around the world, 795 million (one in nine people) undernourished and 65.3 million people who have been forced away from their homes.

Unfortunately, while numbers give us the scale of the misery surrounding us and the need for us to do something about it, they hardly shake us out of our slumber. That is why we need to routinely remind ourselves of the human faces that become victims of conflict, calamity and callousness, rather than rely on mere statistics.

Inequality in today’s day and age is manifested in several other ways. The United Nations admits that corruption, bribery, theft and tax evasion cost developing countries around $1.26 trillion every year. This money could be utilized to help, for at least six years, those living on less than $1.25 a day.

Unfortunately, while numbers give us the scale of the misery surrounding us and the need for us to do something about it, they hardly shake us out of our slumber

Ehtesham Shahid

Floods and other water-related disasters still account for 70 percent of all deaths related to natural disasters. Almost, 1,000 children die every day due to preventable water and sanitation-related diarrheal diseases. These are colossal tragedies of our times yet we fail to respond to them unless they stare us in the face.

Sustainable development has been defined as meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. It is true that we cannot address these development needs without grappling with these mammoth numbers, yet the numbers can also cloud the reality beneath.


It always helps to set clear objectives and to make relentless efforts to get stakeholders around the world to comply. However, it is impossible to quantify a displaced family’s horror, a poverty-stricken child’s appetite for food and an ailing elderly person’s need for health service.

We in the media must also take the blame for obsessively seeking figures that sizzle as headlines. Even when the focus shifts to human interest, it seldom goes beyond sensationalism. Policymakers and government officials routinely get caught up in the deluge of numbers. Officials under pressure to address failure often hide behind figures to escape responsibility.

Those trying to put their best foot forward also have a task at hand. So when the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon travels to Sri Lanka next week he would do well to shine a spotlight on the victims of the country’s 37-year conflict, which has claimed at least 100,000 lives.

When he travels to Myanmar, the challenge will be to highlight the plight of the Rohingyas, around 120,000 of whom have been living in camps while thousands have been displaced. We cannot take our eyes off the fact that they are humans of flesh and blood and anyone else in their situation would feel the same pain.

Sustainable development is ultimately about human beings and their environment. Numbers may give us a sense of where we stand but beyond that it is our empathy that counts. To put it differently, in order to make development sustainable, we must humanize welfare programs instead of reducing them to mere numbers.

Ehtesham Shahid is Managing Editor at Al Arabiya English. For close to two decades he has worked as editor, correspondent, and business writer for leading publications, news wires and research organizations in India and the Gulf region. He loves to occasionally dabble with teaching and is collecting material for a book on unique tales of rural conflict and transformation from around the world. His twitter handle is @e2sham.


Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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