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Jump-starting the SDGs: 4 Lessons from Early Adopters

At the UN Summit in September, the largest-ever gathering of world leaders adopted the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a bold new roadmap to tackle climate change and extreme poverty by 2030. The global community now faces the real work of translating vision into action. Fortunately, early actions by some countries already align with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and help point the way forward.

During an event alongside the summit organized by WRI and the governments of Colombia and Switzerland, four key points emerged as vital to accelerating SDG uptake at the national level:

1) Evaluate and Align Strategies

Governments need to review how their own national priorities and plans mesh with the global goals and targets, then identify synergies and any critical gaps, and assess where adjustments are needed and at what level of ambition. Colombia has already broken down the 169 targets included in the SDGs to identify where national policies line up, where changes to existing institutions might be needed and where the international system can be of help.

Engaging the private sector, civil society groups and political leaders is essential, and governments may need to set intermediary targets within election cycles to achieve the broadest possible support.

2) Make Policies More Coherent

When translating the SDG framework to national levels, domestic policies’ impacts – both in-country and abroad – are crucial. Sweden already puts 1.1 percent gross national income (GNI) towards Official Development Assistance (ODA), but has gone even further: a 2003 resolution on Policy for Global Development mandates yearly reports to Parliament describing progress towards coherent policies. Moving forward on the 2030 Agenda, each Swedish government ministry must formulate an action plan to implement the SDGs, using policy coherence for sustainable development ( PCSD ) as an instrument. While development aid remains critical, it is equally important to ensure that policies don’t undermine aid objectives, nor stifle domestic progress.

Creating the right enabling environment for private sector investment is key. These investments dwarf government aid, so public policies are needed to drive them towards sustainable, equitable and inclusive growth. Without such policies, some industries’ actions may serve to weaken foreign markets, adversely impacting on multiple goals.

3) Integrate Economic, Social and Environmental Decision-making

To put the SDGs into practice, countries need to go beyond business-as-usual strategies. A traditional view of development may be compared to a cappuccino, with espresso as the economic layer, a layer of milk as the social layer, and a sprinkle of cinnamon on top as the environmental layer. But by viewing economic growth as the base, we risk losing the transformation because one can still remove the layers and be left with a drinkable beverage. Instead, think of the SDGs as a cake where the primary ingredients are baked together. Remove one of them from the recipe and lose dessert!

Gabon’s National Land Use Plan, part of the Emerging Gabon Strategic Plan, integrates environment and development. By making land use decisions based on a set of objective sustainable development criteria, Gabon can export pharmaceutical resources and encourage tourism at the same time, diversifying the country’s economy to benefit all citizens while maintaining its high forest cover and low deforestation rate.

4) Retain the SDGs’ Core Principles of Inclusion and Universality

The SDGs are built on the concept of shared destiny – the notion that all countries can contribute to and receive help in a complex and interconnected world. As Switzerland noted, the 2030 Agenda’s universal nature requires countries to face common challenges together. Because the SDG framework demands action by all and moves us beyond the traditional developed-developing world dichotomy, promoting ownership by and convening a diverse range of stakeholders will be crucial to achieving "shared prosperity."

Governments need enough policy space to tweak the SDGs to fit national contexts. In doing so, cooperation by disparate agencies on intersecting goals and targets is key. A whole of government approach is needed in countries across the development spectrum, but must be complemented by bringing in local and non-state actors, including businesses. Doing so promotes education of and participation by ordinary citizens, so they too can own this agenda and take it forward, ensuring that no one is left behind.

Broad Agenda, Targeted Action

The SDGs are a triumph for multilateralism, but without leadership at the national and local level, they will remain a vision for what the world could have achieved. We know that coherent policies and planning can amplify the impact of both financial investments and development outcomes. We also know that integration helps safeguard the resilient, irreversible reduction of poverty that preserves ecosystems. Finally, we know that we must stay true to our principles to achieve sustainable development that reaches the poorest and most vulnerable.

As Pope Francis said before the UN Summit on SDGs opened: “Solemn commitments are not enough even if they are a necessary step towards solutions.” Using the lessons above, governments can act on their commitments.

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