September 22, 2016

One year has passed since the SDGs were agreed. What’s happened?

Louis WertzEcoAgriculture Partners

How is the “integrated and indivisible” nature of the Sustainable Development Goals being translated into action by national governments?

Over nearly four years of drafting and negotiation, involving the largest public consultation process ever undertaken, United Nations member states defined and then agreed on “the Future We Want.” The agreement includes 17 Sustainable Development Goals, plus a preamble and a declaration, and is technically titled Transforming Our World: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Unanimous accord on the new agenda in September 2015 was a watershed moment: countries, UN agencies, private sector entities and thousands of aligned civil society organizations (including EcoAgriculture Partners) were suddenly in the “implementation phase.” One year later, what progress has been made? Specifically, how is the “integrated and indivisible” nature of the 2030 Agenda being translated into action by national governments?

The world’s first SDG progress reports

In July 2016 the High-Level Political Forum on the 2030 Agenda (HLPF) convened for the first time, bringing government ministers from most of the 193 UN member states together in New York, with thousands of representatives from civil society and the private sector. “The purpose of [the HLPF] is to provide a forum for the exchange of regional, national and even local or subnational experiences in terms of the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals,” Thomas Forster, Senior Fellow with EcoAgriculture Partners and lecturer on food policy and governance in the Food Studies Program of the New School for Public Engagement said when I spoke with him in August. The centerpiece of the HLPF are Voluntary National Reviews (VNRs), this year prepared by 22 countries, on their progress implementing the SDGs. This first major international knowledge exchange dedicated to SDG implementation revealed two important ways governments are moving the agenda from the page into practice.

Making progress on tracking progress

While the SDGs establish international expectations for sustainability in countries across the wealth spectrum and around the world, the HLPF, and its associated country and thematic reviews, provide a mechanism to hold countries accountable to progress towards those goals. However, without good data (comparable, complete, relevant, indicative), it will be impossible to track progress on the goals, and determine if efforts are effective or not before it is too late to change strategies. So, one major task in front of the world in these first years of the 2030 Agenda is ensuring that national governments are keeping tabs on the right things, and that they have the capacity to do so effectively.

The government of the Philippines, in their voluntary review, focused specifically on how the government is setting up its tracking system for progress on the goals. They note, “The assessment and prioritization of the global SDG indicators based on national context have undergone a participatory and iterative process, jointly led by the national planning and statistics agencies.” That process included two technical meetings with hundreds of participants from government agencies, academia, and civil society in which country-appropriate indicators for each of the 17 SDGs were selected. In Egypt, “a Sustainable Development Unit (SDU) within the National Statistical Agency (CAPMAS) was established to lead the monitoring and evaluation of the implementation of the SDGs.”

For all member states, and the UN system itself, developing monitoring & evaluation systems for the SDGs is still, in Forster’s words, “very much a work in progress.” And that’s a good thing, he said, “because there is a need for creative and manageable approaches to dealing with vast amounts of information and making it useful for decision-makers at all levels.”

Building links between sectors for effective implementation

Another encouraging development to emerge from the 22 voluntary reviews was the prominence of efforts to bridge sectoral divides between agencies and ministries in government for planning and implementation of the 2030 Agenda. For instance, Mexico acknowledged: “One of the most important challenges of Agenda 2030 is establishing precise linkages and coordination mechanisms between the different entities involved in the implementation of public policies that lead to compliance with the SDGs. Therefore, in consideration of the cross and multidimensional nature of the Development Agenda 2030 (social, economic and environmental), we are identifying existing government structures to perform this function.”

Colombia has been a champion of integration at the highest levels of government to achieve sustainable development. Way back in February 2015, 7 months before the goals would be agreed, the president created a High Level Commission for implementation of Agenda 2030 and the SDGs. Germany likewise has a National Sustainable Development Strategy (NSDS) that they are busily transforming into a framework for achieving the SDGs. Implementation of the NSDS is steered by the State Secretaries Committee for Sustainable Development, which includes representatives from each of the federal ministries. China, meanwhile, says it has linked “the 2030 Agenda with domestic mid-and-long term development strategies,” and that “The domestic coordination mechanism for the implementation, comprised of 43 government departments, has been established to guarantee the implementation.” One of Morocco‘s six lines of effort to implement the SDGs is simply called “La maitrise de la coordination des politiques publiques” or “The mastery of policy coordination.”

However, as Forster noted, “the percentage of the goals and targets that have to be achieved at the local, the landscape level, is something like 80 percent of them. So it really is about local implementation. The role of the organizations that help translate between those different levels is key.”

New support for bringing people together

Most of the 22 reporting countries appear to recognize that implementation “is not just a top down process. It is really going in both directions,” as Forster told me. Policy coordination and improved monitoring & evaluation are important preliminary steps on the implementation pathway. The approaches that many of the voluntarily reporting countries are taking to those tasks suggest that the “integrated and indivisible” nature of the 2030 Agenda is receiving far more than lip service.

As Forster says, “The efforts to actually bring disparate parties together in specific landscapes to work in new ways is a long term commitment, but it may have new support in the short term to help build that capacity to get things done, and to do it in this timeframe of the next 15 years.”

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