This past week, I had a unique opportunity to meet with officials at all levels of one country’s national and local government, as well as civil society, for discussions on applying the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). This country is currently working to adopt some of the best practices that emerged from the 2016 round of the Voluntary National Reviews that governments presented to the High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF), including involving the President’s office in the formulation of a national plan to implement the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. I also learned about the country’s advanced e-government initiative, an open data tool that one official said has helped government agencies work better together, even before the country started planning for the SDGs. Officials expect that gaining experience with e-government will provide the country with a head start when it turns to tracking the SDG indicators, which the UN Statistical Commission has just recommended for adoption as the final component of the SDG framework.
One discussion that stands out among these many illuminating exchanges is a high-level official’s questioning of how the SDGs are different from the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). He described a development project supported by his country during the MDG era, in which animal husbandry techniques and best practices were incorporated into a pig farming initiative. The project had delivered multiple benefits, even before the SDG framework had defined synergy and integration as the new standard for international development. The official wondered if the SDGs were the equivalent of the restructuring of an organization’s hierarchy and procedures, nothing more than the latest attempt at reform with no guarantee of success?
On one level, the answer is to agree that the animal husbandry project would be just as appropriate as part of the SDGs and might not need to change its operations at all from when its focus was on implementing the MDGs to a focus on implementing the SDGs. The actions to be taken under the SDGs are not, in and of themselves, new. The change, however, comes in the examination of the impact of the operations of the pig farming initiative against each of the SDGs. Food security (SDG 2), economic growth (SDG 8) and elimination of poverty (SDG 1) could be improved through the project under both goal frameworks. What is unique to the SDG framework is the call to evaluate a project’s operations and outcomes against a series of other considerations – or threaten the achievement of multiple SDG targets, as measured by the indicators. For example, does a pig farming project displace marginalized populations (SDG 5 and SDG 10) who engaged in similar projects before the introduction of new technologies to make pig farming more productive and, possibly, dominated by larger scale operations? Furthermore, how are the implications of pig waste incorporated into the project, to protect waterways (SDG 6), reduce implications on climate change (SDG 13), and possibly even turn waste into new energy sources (SDG 7)?
It is not new to consider the implications of a single project on the community in which it operates. But the SDG targets and indicators provide an incentive to consider multiple impacts. They provide visibility and voice – through the SDG targets and indicators – to those agencies and civil society groups watching out for other objectives, and they introduce a mechanism to ensure that actors at all levels are incorporating best practices into their efforts to implement each project. Whether this mechanism will be enough to redirect efforts depends on the actions taken at each level of government and civil society to implement the SDG framework to its fullest.
The actions underway in this country demonstrate that the switch from the MDGs to the SDGs could enhance sustainable development outcomes. The ultimate answer for this country, and the global community, will depend on whether the commitment to pursue the SDGs by actors at all levels withstands the test of time, and delivers results that demonstrate that a collective refocusing of sustainable development efforts can measurably break from – and improve upon – the past.
IISD’s SDG Knowledge Hub publishes stories that help to tell the story of how the SDG framework is delivering on this promise. The Hub’s stories included in this issue of Linkages Update reveal some of the actions that have been taken recently to implement the SDGs. Our reporting aims to help readers identify whether and how decision makers remain accountable to their commitment to pursue this new approach.