The final text of Agenda 2030, and its centrepiece, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), are quite staggering achievements. But at some point they have to go beyond aspiration and into action.
The SDGs are expected to be adopted by international consensus in a few days in New York, and there are barely three months to go before Agenda 2030 goes live. Officially, the new agenda will become the instruction manual for development – in the rich world as much as the poor – on 1 January next year. But few governments seem to have done much serious thinking about what this means.
Earlier this year, our team at Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) set out to see how far we could get in turning the SDGs into a national action agenda for Sweden.
We soon found out how tricky it was – and that, whatever our expertise in sustainability matters, the task was not one an independent research institute like ours could meaningfully complete.
Scratch at their surface and the SDGs quickly reveal themselves as profoundly political. If the SDGs are going to make a difference, deciding what they mean in terms of national action is a process that must be government-led and inclusive.
So here are seven tips that policy-makers might want to bear in mind when they try to formulate national targets and action plans for Agenda 2030:
- Work out what the goals and targets mean in your country: On the face of it the SDGs deal with clear, specific issues. But this impression quickly dissolves as soon as you try to work out what they mean in practice for national (or any other) level. Many of the targets are international in scope. Others specify an action, but no achievable end point. Most are open to different readings. And it’s not only a case of picking out which targets apply to your country, but also what would be an appropriate level of ambition.
- Break down the targets: few of the targets deal with a single policy challenge. Countries will find that some dimensions of a specific target are more relevant to them than others; some demand more work, others less; and they may require very different policies and action. The national interpretation and target-setting process needs to operate at the level of issues, not global targets.
- See what the data tells you (and what it doesn’t): How to measure global progress towards 169 SDG targets, many of which deal with policy areas where data is sparse, is already proving a headache. But that’s only half the story. Even the best data can only get you so far in analyzing how close a country is to achieving many of the targets. This is especially true of targets to “promote X”, “significantly improve Y”, or “eliminate Z”, which simply can’t be measured without subjective, often political, interpretations.
- Work out how to make the political calls: Once you have identified all the areas needing political judgment (chiefly ambiguous, unmeasurable goals, and deciding which targets should be priorities) there is the question of who makes the calls. Ultimately, responsibility rests with the government, but in the spirit of Agenda 2030 – and to ensure that the actors who need to implement the agenda feel they have a stake – it needs to be democratic, consultative and transparent.
- Define a national vision and narrative: Agenda 2030 is all about a global vision; but every country is starting from a different point, and doubtless heading for a different destination. Defining a national vision and narrative for Agenda 2030 should be an integral part of the interpretation process (and will make it much easier). It might mean revisiting existing national and regional development visions.
- Don’t leave the SDGs out in the cold: The global goals deal with issues at the heart of politics and social debate. It makes no sense to keep them as a separate and parallel agenda. Policy responses and management responsibilities should be integrated as far as possible with existing policies and structures. There will, of course, need to be some kind of oversight of the whole agenda – ideally from the Prime Minister’s Office or its equivalent.
- Don’t forget policy coherence: Another reason to mesh Agenda 2030 with existing national debates and structures is to mitigate the huge risk that policies in one goal area will undermine progress in another. Incorporating Agenda 2030 into national policy is a perfect opportunity to review coherence and cooperation between different policy areas, and between national, bilateral and international policy levels.
Agenda 2030 has proved surprisingly effective at uniting the countries and people of the world. The challenge now is to translate that unity of purpose into strong national action to achieve the goals by 2030.
This is part of a series on the Global Goals for Sustainable Development, in collaboration with the Stockholm Resilience Centre. This article focuses on goal 17 – Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development.