The 2030 Agenda requires a sense of urgency

Three years have elapsed since the introduction of the 2030 Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) on the world stage. This summer, I interacted with UN and World Bank officials, country representatives, academics, civil society organizations and numerous think tanks. My goal was to better understand the current status of policymaking and implementation of the SDGs at global, national and local levels. Here is a brief overview of what I found.

UN headquarters in New York gearing up for the High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF)

Photo: Dan Banik

Last month, several thousand delegates – government officials, civil society organizations and academics – attended the 2018 High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF) at UN headquarters in New York with the overall aim of discussing “Transformation towards sustainable and resilient societies”. The Forum typically reviews current practices, successes and challenges in relation to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and this year around 46 countries presented their Voluntary National Reviews (VNRs) related to SDG 6 (clean water and sanitation), SDG 7 (affordable and clean energy), SDG 11 (sustainable cities and communities), SDG 12 (responsible consumption and production), SDG 15 (life on land), and SDG 17 (partnerships for the goals).

Successes and failures thus far

A short introductory video shown during the HLPF 2018 opening ceremony, and based on the findings of the recently published Sustainable Development Goals Report 2018, put the current state of world development in perspective.

The world has indeed witnessed numerous successes.

  • Maternal mortality has declined by 20% and child mortality by 50% since 2000 in Sub-Saharan Africa.
  • In South Asia, the risk of child marriage for girls has declined by over 40%.
  • In the poorest countries of the world, the share of population with electricity has more than doubled in the past two decades.

However, such successes must be viewed in relation to the rising problems and challenges. Some of these have been well-documented in the SDG Atlas published by the World Bank, drawing on its World Development Indicators.

  • After several years of decline, world hunger is on the rise again, partly due to conflicts and natural disasters but also due to climate disruptions.
  • Urban-based residents in both developed and developing countries are more exposed to air pollution than in previous decades and several hundred million people lack access to safely managed sanitation facilities.
  • Almost a billion people around the world still lack access to electricity, and recent projections show that unless drastic changes take place, 674 million people will continue to live without electricity in 2030.

What, then, are some of the major obstacles for achieving the SDGs?

Let me highlight four overarching sets of challenges based on a summary of the Voluntary National Reviews that countries presented at the HLPF earlier this month and my recent conversations with a broad range of individuals and organizations this summer.

  • SDG awareness: Despite growing attention, the SDGs continue to be largely unknown outside specialist circles. Numerous surveys confirm this trend. And this problem is not limited to low-income countries. Citizens all over the world, including in many high-income countries, remain largely aware of the existence of the SDGs. Still others mistakenly believe the SDGs apply only to poor countries and hence a matter of foreign aid policies. While large businesses in many parts of the world have embraced the SDGs (and there is increased attention on discussing the SDGs at schools), there is an urgent need to re-engage all sections of society on the 2030 Agenda, including civil society, businesses, local and national politicians, city and regional associations, citizens groups and academics. The key in many parts of the world is to frame the issues in a language that emphasizes the relevance of the SDGs to “us” rather than only the “them”. Some national governments are finally making an effort to make the SDGs widely known. One such example is Malawi, which is translating SDG-related documents from English to Chichewa, Tumbuka and Yao as a first step towards promoting “localization of the 2030 Agenda”.
  • Institutional set-up and policy coherence: Many countries are yet to harmonize and integrate the SDGs into national plans and strategies. This resembles a similar delay that occurred in many parts of the world during the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) era, where some countries were slow to get things started. Indeed, many national governments are yet to begin mapping existing policies and programs against SDG-targets. Many experts as well as local officials cite lack of capacity and expertise and the lack of political commitment. The problem of weak or non-existent institutional set-ups is, however, not limited to low-income countries, and applies to many in the Western world, some of whom have adopted a decentralized approach – leaving the planning, monitoring and reporting to individual ministries rather than strengthening policy coordination (and thereby coherence) at the highest political level (e.g. at the office of the Prime Minister or President). But there are also several examples of countries with strong political support for the SDGs. Rwanda is one such example, where there is considerable SDG-talk at the highest political and administrative levels. And Bangladesh has appointed a senior official as Chief Coordinator for SDG Affairs in the Prime Minister’s office, tasked with coordinating policies across government ministries. However, there is little evidence so far on how and to what extent such institutional arrangements have broad political support and whether they are continued with when a new political party or coalition assumes power.
  • Financing development: Despite numerous international commitments and initiatives that have highlighted the importance of increased flow of grants, loans and investments together with greater domestic resource mobilization for achieving the SDGs, many low-income countries continue to cite lack of adequate resources as the single most important constraint in achieving faster progress. Many countries, including high-level UN officials, believe China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) can fill the financing gap, particularly in infrastructure development, but others are not so sure. Citing the recent case of Sri Lanka’s Hambantota port, they argue that poor countries will be unable to repay the loans they are being offered by China, creating a new era of highly indebted countries that will require bailouts in the near future. Others are placing their bets on the private sector, believing that businesses all over the world will take the lead to reduce the finance gap. But others question the real motives of the private sector and claim that businesses are incapable of fruitfully engaging with national and local governments in most developing countries. Rather, many scholars and practitioners highlight the need for multilateral development banks to better coordinate their approach in terms of the public and private sides of their development portfolios. For example, the World Bank, through its Senior Vice Presidency for the 2030 Agenda, has highlighted a “cascade approach”, which aims to mobilize private sector finance while using guarantees and risk-sharing instruments in high-risk contexts. The Bank also insists that it must work with governments on reforms aimed at improving project feasibility. And that public resources ought to be used in such projects only when market solutions are not possible.  
  • Monitoring and assessing the state of the world: There is considerable on-going work at the UN and at country levels on defining indicators and improving the quality of available data specific to the SDGs. However, national statistics offices in large parts of the world remain notoriously understaffed and underfunded. Thus, a major challenge is to strengthen statistical capacity that is required to generate high quality, timely, reliable and disaggregated data that can support effective policy and decision-making. Many UN officials also worry that only 40% of the SDG indicators are well-defined and regularly reported. Others point to the distinction between data used in implementation (more timely, reliable and quick data in the form of administrative reports, citizens-based reports, etc.) versus data for monitoring (many goals call for eradication, which is different from monitoring).

An overall conclusion of the discussions at the 2018 HLPF is that the pace of action is slow and that far too many people of the world are still being left behind. Marie Chatardová, President of the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), argued that the SDGs “require more than the dedication and goodwill of governments … they should be the program on which people hold their governments accountable”. Many others I interacted with spoke of the importance of ensuring that actions keep pace with aspirations. Still others noted that problems and challenges of implementing the SDGs are largely ignored by countries when they present their Voluntary National Reviews at the UN. In his preface to the Sustainable Development Goals Report 2018, UN Secretary General Guterres notes that a particularly worrisome fact is that the most disadvantaged and marginalized groups are not being prioritized and that youth unemployment is steadily increasing in many parts of the world. He aptly observes, “With just 12 years left to the 2030 deadline, we must inject a sense of urgency”.

Tags: SDGs, HLPF, awareness, policy coherence, financing, cascade approach, monitoring, VNRs By Dan Banik
Published Aug. 14, 2018 9:07 AM - Last modified Sep. 10, 2019 10:18 AM
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Oslo SDG blog

A blog by the Oslo SDG Initiative.