Implementing the SDGs: Acknowledge Prioritizations, Do Not Neglect Them
Photo Credit: Nandhu Kumar on Unsplash
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Leaving No One Behind illustrates that the starting point of sustainable development is social inequality; lessons from Haryana, India, demonstrate this point.

The experiences of Haryana show that although SDG policy coherence is important, a focus on policy coherence as an end goal without taking account of who decides and who benefits might pose serious risks of neglecting and even reinforcing institutionalized inequalities.

Leaving No One Behind is not just a principle, but an active implementation practice. It means that the poorest and most marginalized must be targeted first in pursuing the SDGs. Leaving No One Behind illustrates that the starting point of sustainable development is social inequality, which needs to be considered in the solution in order to achieve sustainable development on a tight 2030 deadline.

It is now 2020, and countries all over the world have been implementing the SDGs for the last four years, but progress towards SDG achievement is not yet evident. What are governments missing?

As part of my research on the effectiveness of the SDGs, I conducted fieldwork in Haryana, India in April-May 2019. I looked at the decision-making for SDG implementation, and its consequences for Leaving No One Behind. Haryana is located around 70 miles northwest from Delhi, in the direction of the Pakistan border.

The SDGs encompass the greatest challenges of our time, and therefore require transformational changes in governance. As part of the premise of all 17 Goals being of equal importance, countries have been conducting action plans for SDG achievement while stressing the importance of policy coherence for the Goals. Policy coherence means that the 17 Goals are interconnected and cannot be tackled in isolation from one another. Rather, they need to be implemented simultaneously and in conjunction with each other, so that no single SDG is prioritized over another, and everyone is included in the benefits.

In reality, conversations on policy coherence have not paid sufficient attention to who is deciding what policy coherence looks like and who should be involved in the decision making. This raises risks of neglecting and even reinforcing underlying structural inequalities. Are countries, facing very different realities, managing to implement all 17 Goals without prioritizing a few of them? And if they are not managing this, are they still succeeding at Leaving No One Behind?

India makes an interesting case for SDG implementation due to its pioneering role in localizing the processes for sustainable development. Every state in India has crafted its own action plan for coherent SDG achievement, including Haryana State. Lessons from Haryana are important to consider and learn from: understanding how to make SDG implementation strategies successful and inclusive is relevant on a global scale and throughout all levels of decision making within society. Haryana is characterized by high levels of agricultural production and relatively high structural levels of gender inequality. As part of the documentation of its official governmental action plan, Haryana therefore pays special attention to strengthening the position of women in order to Leave No One Behind.

However, SDG decision making in Haryana has not led to the equal prioritization of gender equality compared to other SDGs. In order to implement the SDGs the 17 Goals have been grouped into seven clusters, based on Haryana’s existing institutional structures. This has facilitated interlinkages, but the interlinkages within the groups are higher and considered as more important than the interlinkages between the groups.

Moreover, some groups are more marginalized than others due to differences in department capacities. For example, within SDG governance processes, departments related to SDG 1 (no poverty) and SDG 2 (zero hunger) were more strongly represented in the decision-making processes than departments related to SDG 5 (gender equality), with the consequence that SDG 1 and SDG 2 are being taken up more strongly in the implementation processes than SDG 5. Gender issues are taken into account, but not with a gender mainstreaming approach. This means that existing social inequalities remain structurally present within Haryana due to persistent institutional structures, despite attempts to implement the SDGs as inclusive and equally important. This is discouraging given the critical urgency of implementing the SDGs equally and in an inclusive manner, and it reveals a relevant dilemma: SDG implementation needs to align with current institutional structures in order to enable national ownership over the SDGs, while these structures carry engrained inequalities that need to be changed.

The experiences of Haryana show that although SDG policy coherence is important, a focus on policy coherence as an end goal without taking account of who decides and who benefits might pose serious risks of neglecting and even reinforcing institutionalized inequalities. If questions related to stakeholder inclusiveness and social consequences are not part of SDG policy coherence processes at the core, the SDGs will probably not be achieved in the end.

Although it is good to aim high, perfect policy coherence might not be realistic in the form some are striving for. Policy coherence is not a “holy grail” but requires detailed consideration of what form of coherence we aim for, and what consequences these choices have for whom.

Inequalities are a structural part of today’s world and are present in every country and every context, in their own way. Therefore, structural inequalities and prioritizations need to be understood as part of their context and acknowledged as part of SDG decision making. Other than maintaining the strategy to focus on the end goal, accept that structural inequalities and prioritizations are present and hindering inclusive SDG achievement, and incorporate questions around who decides and who benefits into SDG implementation from the start.

The author of this guest article, Nikki Theeuwes, is a Utrecht University graduate.

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