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It is time to develop a clear vision of what contributes to SDGs, and what does not.

UN agencies could position themselves more clearly to help countries and actors identify the actions that contribute to the SDGs, and to identify their actions that could hinder progress.

The 2030 Agenda could be useful as a decision-making tool that informs orientations and trade-offs for sectoral strategies in light of sustainable development, such as to help discuss trade agreements.

The SDG Summit held in New York on 24-25 September 2019 concluded the first four-year review cycle of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, and from the discussions came a clear message: we are far from achieving the SDGs. At Iddri, we thought it was time to reflect on the usefulness of the SDGs as a framework.

Our recent study asks what the SDGs have achieved so far, and whether actors have started to use them in a way that will actually get us closer to the world we want to live in by 2030?

It is time to develop a clear vision of what contributes to SDGs, and what does not.

The 2030 Agenda promises an integrated and universal agenda, mobilizing action from all countries and actors. Most of all, it promises transformation. This advancement of new development models places the fight against inequalities and the protection of our planet at their heart, but it has been contested since the very beginnings of the Agenda. But if the SDGs are to make up a credible agenda, ready to face the challenges of our time, it is this transformative part of the vision that we need to pursue today.

How Serious Is Our Response So Far?

Since its adoption in 2015, international organizations, governments, the private sector and non-state actors have made numerous references to the 2030 Agenda and the SDGs. For example, European Commission President-elect Ursula Von der Leyen has included an explicit reference to the SDGs in her mission letter to the future Commissioners, calling on them to “ensure the delivery of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals within their policy area” and tasking them collectively with “the overall implementation of the Goals.”

As the UN Secretary General’s special progress report notes, the SDGs have given a renaissance to development planning and sustainable development strategies. The 2030 Agenda has also encouraged countries to set up new participation mechanisms. As an example, the Moroccan government organized two major national consultations in 2016 and 2019 on the implementation of the SDGs and in preparation for the preparation of the national report submitted to the United Nations (HLPF). In South Africa, the Global Compact Network South Africa has mobilized companies to contribute to the implementation of the SDGs in relation to the National Development Plan. At the same time, a number of interesting experiments have been conducted, particularly involving the integration of the SDGs into budgetary processes (eg. Mexico, Finland).

These actions, strategies and trends could be encouraging, if behind them is serious reflection on long-term transformations. However, with a few exceptions, SDGs have very rarely been used to challenge practices, and have not triggered the transformative project they promised. For the 2030 Agenda to become a real global roadmap and decision-making tool, and for it to help achieve the SDGs by 2030, it is necessary to go beyond declarations of intent, to put deeper change at the heart of complex and difficult debates. The Agenda provides guidance on the necessary trade-offs to develop national-level sustainable development pathways.

Everyone and No one

With the principle of partnership, the 2030 Agenda is based on the bet that the SDGs will have a mobilizing effect, a mobilization fueled by regular meetings (HLPF, SDG Summit, national events, etc.) that motivate and initiate learning processes. There are signs that this prediction is coming true, but the implementation of the SDGs is complicated by the fact that the 2030 Agenda does not specify who commits to what. It defines targets and indicators without assigning responsibilities.

It must be acknowledged that the adoption of such an ambitious agreement was possible only because it does not require concessions or a change in behavior from anyone in particular. But this dynamic conflicts with the transformative promise of the SDGs, and might explain the inertia we observe in its implementation.

Mapping and Streamlining are Not Enough

Interpretations by these different actors of what contributes to the SDGs and what doesn’t are blurry. Mapping existing projects, strategies and policies to the SDGs has become a popular exercise.  Too often, this exercise leads to the formulation of SDG strategies limiting themselves to streamlining existing initiatives. This can lead to purely “cosmetic strategies,” a tendency that already characterized previous sustainable development approaches.

A recent survey among French companies observes the same pitfall for private SDG strategies. The study shows that SDGs are first and foremost considered a reference framework for structuring and communicating existing CSR strategies. Only in a few cases did the SDGs cause reflection on the creation of new products and services. As for investors who use the SDGs, it is also often in the form of an ex-post mapping of existing initiatives.

Time to Overcome the Implementation Inertia

It is time to restore the backbone of the 2030 Agenda and develop a clear vision of what contributes to SDGs, and what does not. Firstly, we must ensure that the SDGs no longer fall prey to overly vague interpretation games, in which everyone can participate without actually questioning the real impact of their actions on all areas, and especially the transformation imperative of the 2030 Agenda.

To provide added value, the 2030 Agenda must encourage actors to ask themselves if we can do things differently and better, with a view to maximizing the impact on the SDGs (handprint) and preventing negative impacts (footprint), particularly regarding inequality, biodiversity, climate and waste, four areas identified by the 2019 Global Sustainable Development Report (GSDR) as strategic for avoiding negative spillover effects on the entire agenda. UN agencies could position themselves more clearly to help countries and actors identify the actions that contribute to the SDGs, and to identify their actions that could hinder progress.

Secondly, the 2030 Agenda must create space for debate on strategic sectoral policies–such as food, industry and energy, but also trade–and their impacts on the 17 SDGs. The 2030 Agenda could be useful as a decision-making tool that informs orientations and trade-offs for sectoral strategies in light of sustainable development.

For example, it could be used to discuss trade agreements: based for several decades on the sole objective to increase trade, they are now confronted with a necessary alignment with sustainable development objectives (2030 Agenda, Paris Agreement on climate change) and reveal diplomatic frictions about opposing visions of development. The question today should be: how can trade agreements contribute to the implementation of the 2030 Agenda and what does this mean for the countries involved? Recent tensions around the free trade agreement between Mercosur and Europe show the difficulties inherent in this change of perspective.

After three years of implementation, the SDGs have had limited success in transforming the concept of sustainable development into a framework for action, and their primary value remains political. This value is not to be overlooked in the current state of multilateralism. But there is a window of opportunity to use the 2030 Agenda as a new globalization narrative, one that challenges business as usual and helps companies to envision their role in a sustainable future. This might be what UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres means when he speaks of the SDGs as a “blueprint for a just globalization.” There certainly is a need for such a narrative.

In three years we will reach the halfway point of the 2030 Agenda. In 2022 we could utilize an important political juncture, the celebration of Stockholm+50, the 50th anniversary of the UN Conference on the Human Environment, to create momentum around ambitious SDG implementation strategies. In the meantime, it is necessary to restore the backbone of the 2030 Agenda and launch a dynamic that identifies truly innovative practices.

The author of this guest article, Elisabeth Hege, is a Research Fellow in Governance and Financing for Sustainable Development at IDDRI (Institut du développement durable et des relations internationales).

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