Critical thinking, integrated analysis and awareness raising on Sustainable Development Goals and a post-2015 development agenda

Make sure the SDGs are about action, not just words

Wed, 2015-02-18 15:59
Åsa Persson

Most of the attention in the Sustainable Development Goals process to date has been on deciding what they will be. But if we can’t figure out how each country will go about achieving the goals, we might as well not bother.

image shows sihouette of high rise blocks in setting sun

There are still seven months of international negotiations to go before we know exactly what form the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) will take. The current debate on framing the SDGs is important. But, as we ‘re already well into this spring’s New York negotiation schedule, this should not stop us thinking about what implementing the SDGs will mean in practice, in each country – developed as well as developing – and how we need to prepare. After all, this is ultimately how the SDG vision will be realized, and what the general public and many other stakeholders will care about: how the SDGs might actually affect their daily lives through new or altered policies or private initiatives.

Glancing at the SDG framework proposed by the UN Open Working Group (OWG), such practical consequences might include household-level measures to minimize food waste (target 12.3), better access to tertiary education for young women (4.3), or assigning conservation area status to a particular coastal strip (14.5).

With that in mind, I’d like to propose four issues related to practical implementation that need early consideration and collective learning if we want the SDGs to keep having an impact beyond their launch, and all the way to 2030.


Don’t let the SDGs get lost in the crowd

The SDGs will be launched into an already crowded space of global policy targets. Looking at environmental sustainability alone, over 300 goals have been agreed globally (and, sadly, goals in only two areas have been achieved). The SDGs will have to compete for the attention of policy-makers and stakeholders whose daily work is awash with global and national priorities, commitments and initiatives.

This has two implications. The first is that it is the targets, not the goals, that the implementing actors will probably care more about; targets are more measurable, and are what their performance will be evaluated against. So, getting the SDG targets right is more important, just now, than the higher-level goals. The technical review of targets proposed by the Secretary-General’s report is therefore essential.

Second, when the negotiations now pick up, at least as much time should be spent on agreeing a strong monitoring and accountability system as on the SDGs themselves; this will boost the chances that SDG implementation will get the attention, and resources, necessary.


Look beyond global deals and national strategies

There has been a lot of talk about “means of implementation” - SDG-speak for revitalizing the “global partnership for sustainable development” - and things like mobilizing finance (including increasing official development assistance), technology transfer, reform of the trade system, and coordinating policies for global macroeconomic stability. These are big and highly political issues; important, and necessary for creating an enabling environment for the SDGs for sure, but not even the best deals on these will by themselves ensure the SDGs are realized.

Then there’s what I call “paper” implementation: formulating national implementation strategies and reporting periodically on the measures taken. Of course little meaningful progress is likely without some kind of national plan in place, but such plans on paper should not end up being the high-water mark of SDG action at national level. According to a major review of the National Strategies for Sustainable Development that countries were asked to design under Agenda 21 in 1992 and again at the 2002 Johannesburg World Summit on Sustainable Development, many countries failed to use sufficiently concrete policy measures to put their plans into action. It could be said that implementation stopped short, only producing the strategy document.

What is the message here? Don’t let formulating national strategies and hammering out global political deals on implementation distract from the all-important practical implementation of the SDGs; the steps on the ground that will be needed to actually achieve the SDG targets, like adopting new policy instruments or removing incoherent ones.


To mainstream or not to mainstream

In their practical implementation of SDGs, national governments will soon have to choose whether to manage SDG implementation mainly through a separate, dedicated policy track, with its own SDG unit and funding, or to mainstream the goals and targets into sectoral decision-making (e.g. in energy, agriculture, social security), to some degree delegating responsibility to those sectors.

While it sounds like a bureaucratic issue, it could have a huge impact on success. Mainstreaming well would increase the chance that the SDG targets are internalized, and are more “owned” by the respective sectors. However, mainstreaming would almost certainly mean the goals, and the action taken to achieve them, will become less “visible”. This would make it much harder to tell whether they have been internalised, and progress is being made, or whether they are simply being neglected. Previous experiences tell us that mainstreaming policy goals well is an art. Countries, and other organisations for that matter, should start sharing best practices on effective mainstreaming, so they will be better equipped when SDG implementation starts.


Accountability at national level

My final point is on accountability. While there must be accountability and reporting between the member states and the UN, the Secretary-General’s report is spot-on when it says the “national segment” of the global SDG review process will be the most significant, since it is “closest to the people” (para. 149i). Accountability mechanisms between the state and its citizens could really unleash action – through elections, through media reporting.

For this to happen, there must be communication of the goals and transparency – not just what the goals are but regular monitoring of results, shared with the media and the wider (voting) public. And stakeholders in each country need to mobilize public interest, so that there are political stakes in delivering on the goals. National stakeholders – NGOs, campaigning organizations, interest groups and the like – therefore need to engage with the SDG process not just at the global level but also at the national level.

It’s crucial that the SDGs are not left to languish on paper, just another set of aspirations among the many goals and targets countries have already signed up to. The wider SDG community – scientists, campaigners, responsible businesses – could really help the negotiation process happening in New York by increasingly trying to visualize how the SDGs could work in practice, especially at the national level, and pointing out valuable lessons from past development and sustainable development agendas. Are there any good examples out there?

Åsa Persson is a Senior Researcher with SEI


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