What has actually changed with the 2030 Agenda?

Has the 2030 Agenda really changed the way politics work? And, how do concepts change practices?

Whenever the 2030 Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are discussed, we usually hear the same refrain: this is a new way of thinking about development! The language of donors and recipients is passé; we are all developing countries now; we are all in the same boat; this is a universal approach to development, and so on. Although rhetorically effective, these expressions beg the question of whether the change is primarily an ideational revision, or whether it is actually changing politics. To put it more bluntly: Is the 2030 Agenda mainly changing semantics, or is it changing practice?  

UN corridors 

Photo: Nikolai Hegertun

Huge bodies of literature have explored the role and power of ideas in politics. Still, a policy area such as foreign policy (which in most countries strongly influences development cooperation) has been dominated by theories emphasising the international distribution of power and rational pursuit for security by nation states, as drivers of politics. Although more constructivist theories emphasizing the power of ideas, symbols and perceptions have grown in popularity in recent years, they are far from dominating the field.

Nevertheless, the complexity of modern politics and the cognitive limitations of individual policy-makers should make us pay more heed to the insights emerging from these theories. After all, policy-makers engage emotionally with information and facts. Their ‘sense-making’ of the world has a lot to do with how they mould different ideas and beliefs into cognitive short-cuts and ‘narratives’. Indeed, the concept of ‘belief’ - and how this is transformed into actual policy - is essential to most research on public policy.

So, is the 2030 Agenda a ‘belief’ – a good idea – or has it evolved and materialized itself as a force setting the agenda and shaping policies? The question we need to ask is the following: Is the 2030 Agenda merely a new way of framing development cooperation? And is it really changing policies, practices and institutions?

According to Peter Hall, new ideas and policy learning can lead to change at three different levels. First order change is merely incremental alterations of policy instruments. Second order refers to more profound changes in policy instruments, but not in the overall goals, while third order represents a fundamental shift in both policy instrument and the overall goals underpinning the policy.

What about the 2030 Agenda? I see four challenges to the Agenda’s ability to generate a fundamental change.   

  • Unquestionably, the Agenda is increasingly taking up headlines and columns in policy papers, policy briefs, and speeches. There are also signs that some countries are starting to change certain practices – although until now these changes remain relatively rudimentary and procedural. For example, in Norway, each ministry has to produce an annual progress-report on the parts of the Agenda that falls under their responsibility, in addition the Parliament receives a summary-report of the progress. The authorities have also initiated a forum consisting of government officials, representatives of businesses, civil society activists and researchers whose mission is to counsel the government on policy coherence for development. Other countries have other models – some of which more integrated in the institutional set-up, including sub-national integration, and carry more clout than the Norwegian one. Nevertheless, according to Hall’s terminology, the changes we see at the country level pertains primarily to first order change. A test of the profoundness of the change would be to ask the hypothetical question: are we doing anything now that we would not have done if it wasn’t for the 2030 Agenda? To me, the answer is “probably not”.
  • At the international level, the UN’s High Level Political Forum is an interesting new platform where all countries are supposed to report on their progress on the 2030 Agenda. However, similar to observations from the country-level, there are few mechanisms to enforce or strongly incentivize member states. Thus, the reporting and compliance mechanisms vary considerably from country to country. Perhaps a model more like The Universal Periodic Review on Human Rights – including a stronger peer review – could have helped the Agenda move along. At a more fundamental level, the complexity of the Agenda (which paradoxically many would highlight as one of its strengths) might also be a reason for why the ‘narrative’ is not shaping global politics even more forcefully. After all, the whole point of a simple idea or a ‘narrative’ in politics is to render a series of events into an intelligible and understandable whole. Right now, the Agenda seems too broad for ordinary voters to understand and get engaged, and flexible enough for countries to keep on doing whatever they like – or have done in recent years – but framing it as a part of the 2030 Agenda.
  • The researchers Brian Hogwood and Lewis Gunn once summarized a number of criterions for a policy idea to succeed. While the 2030 Agenda is not a ‘policy’ as such, it is worth a quick look. According to Hogwood and Gunn success requires:
    • clear, consistent and well communicated objectives that are understood;
    • a good solution to the problem;
    • all the required resources committed to the programme;
    • policy implementation by skilful and compliant officials;
    • the implementers not being reliant on the cooperation of others;
    • support from influential groups, and;
    • that conditions beyond the control of the decision makers do not undermine the process.

Without going into further detail, is suffices to say that many of these requirements are currently lacking in the discourse on the 2030 Agenda and the SDGs. The goals are numerous and partly inconsistent and there is no consensus on the solutions to the problems. Moreover, we certainly lack the resources and implementing agencies are reliant on cooperation of a range of partners. Although embraced by many, important influential actors remain lukewarm in their implementation (for example, US, Russia and Japan are lagging behind in integrating the SDGs), and most progress needs to happen in severely demanding contexts where conditions are out of control (e.g. fragile states).

  • For an idea or a belief to actually change policies and institutions, it must meet at least two conditions: first, a broad base of support from outside its specialized field of devoted insiders, and second, the help of an external shock that can upsets power-relations and possibly alter the mind-set important actors. In addition, these shocks must be mediated and exploited by the advocates of change in order to increase the public’s understanding of the problem. The combination of a broad coalition with external shocks to the system can possibly create more forward momentum for implementation of the SDGs. Alas, there are considerable obstacles on both fronts. The awareness of the SDGs is currently low outside circles of development cooperation, and more importantly: the adoption of the 2030 Agenda coincided with Brexit and the election of Donald Trump – and an ensuing wave of protectionism and hostility towards international integration and multilateral agendas.

These are the realities of the external environment that the 2030 Agenda needs to interact with. And although we are starting to see actual changes, this is probably why the idea and narrative of the 2030 Agenda remains primarily at the ideational level – for now.

Tags: 2030 Agenda, SDGs, public policy, politics, ideas, HLPF By Nikolai Hegertun
Published Aug. 13, 2018 9:00 AM - Last modified Aug. 13, 2018 1:50 PM
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Oslo SDG blog

A blog by the Oslo SDG Initiative.