Giving Governments the Tools to Deliver the SDGs: Lessons from Advisors in Africa
UN Photo/Marco Dormino
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Achieving the SDGs will be based on the capacity of the domestic public and private sectors to deliver.

The 2017 report titled, ‘The Jobs Gap: How to Make Inclusive Growth Work in Africa,’ contains this and other lessons from helping governments to achieve their SDG priorities in the context of resource constraints and local political differences.

Our advisors work with 13 African governments to support their development agendas and meet the SDGs. Increasingly, governments ask for support with economic transformation and inclusive growth, particularly for economic diversification to job-creating sectors, and for infrastructure and human capital development, which align predominantly with SDGs 8 and 9. Responding to these demands, this year we published a report titled, ‘The Jobs Gap: How to Make Inclusive Growth Work in Africa,’ containing our lessons to date in helping governments with these challenges.

Government leaders often see their job to be like opening a Meccano building set. They know what they want the end product to look like; they’ve just got to figure out how to assemble the pieces. In the words of an advisor to an African President we work with, the reality is much more frenetic. It’s less Meccano, more Whack-a-mole! Each day challenges rise fast and you simply can’t beat them all: what you worked on yesterday is forgotten because today you have a whole different set of issues, demands and crises to deal with. And before long, the day, the week, the month and the years are over. We need a way to ensure that the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) aren’t just another mole we try to whack and then forget.

Governments need more than mallets to meet the SDGs. They need a plan to build, as well as the tools to allow them to keep working on it day after day, even while other demands arise.

From where we sit within presidents’, prime ministers’ and ministers’ offices across the continent, this plan starts with governments prioritizing the SDGs, and then sequencing their implementation. We find that the best tools we can give are those that help governments take a strategic, prioritized approach that is focused on implementation and that accounts for the political, social, economic and institutional context in which they operate. Our most common advice has been to, first, prioritize the development outcomes most important to your country; and second, set up a implementation structure that is fit-for-purpose and dedicated to making it happen.

Achieving the SDGs will depend on the capacity of the domestic public and private sectors to pay workers, judges, social workers, farmers, doctors and water technicians to deliver those outcomes. And those who decide whether to invest in this capacity are politicians, who will base their decision on the realities shaping their political environment and incentives. Supporting actual government priorities is key for systemic change.

Here is an example of the constraints faced by developing country politicians. In well-resourced countries, politicians can meet their obligations to those that put them in power primarily through a formal government budget process that allows doctors and teachers to be paid and to be given enough resources to deliver. But in poor countries, politicians cannot meet their obligations in the same way. Government budgets are simply too small to pay all the doctors, teachers, social workers and judges and give them the resources to deliver. Because of this limitation, politicians tend to be much more responsive to ‘clients’ that fund them. Operating outside of the formal process strengthens patronage systems and corruption, and undermines state capacity. Such non-conducive political environments are the single greatest threat to the SDGs.

In order to ensure the success of the SDGs despite these challenges, we suggest that the development community recognizes three factors in designing our SDG interventions.

First, SDG outcomes require local sustainable and effective systems to deliver them. SDG implementation projects should seek to strengthen such systems within the context of the local capacity to manage them, rather than directly providing services, which could undermine efforts to build the systems to help countries in the long-term. This applies to education, judicial, health, water and agriculture market systems, and other sectors.

Second, achieving the SDGs is fundamentally a factor of domestic politics in each country. This determines whether governments pursue the building of public and private capacities needed to develop the various local systems, i.e. state building.

Third, domestic politics depend on the economic and social set-up of each country, as well as its historical legacies. An extensive emerging literature – led by thinkers such as Douglass North, Mushtaq Khan, Matt Andrews, Michael Woolcock, Lant Pritchett, David Booth, Dirk Willem te Velde, Dani Rodrik, and the Effective States for Inclusive Development research project – shows that the “sweet spot” for state building lies between the ability of governments to govern and the nature of economic growth. These two factors are essential for fostering the systems vital to the SDGs success, such as agriculture, education and water.

This is why many of the presidents we work with in Africa – from Sierra Leone, Guinea Togo and Liberia to Rwanda, Kenya, Ethiopia and Mozambique – have prioritized SDGs 8 (decent work and economic growth) and 9 (industry, innovation and infrastructure). In Liberia, for example, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is working to develop growth corridors connecting 400,000 people to the capital via a newly paved road, which also will provide 120,000 people with access to electricity and create up to 20,000 new jobs and better livelihoods.

Helping countries prioritize SDGs 8 and 9 should allow for a structural transformation conducive to domestic politics that supports state building. This has happened in India, China, Bangladesh and Botswana, but too many other states – both low and middle income – are stuck in “capability traps” by which domestic politics prevent implementing needed reforms. In such cases, the focus needs to first go on releasing this trap. Without accounting for local political and capacity contexts, the quest for SDGs such as zero hunger and no poverty will be much harder, if not impossible, to achieve.

We in the development community must accept a country’s priorities of SDG outcomes, and not apply our own.

Our June 2017 report, The Jobs Gap: Making Inclusive Growth Work in Africa, suggests one way to build these three points into SDG programmes. The solution emphasizes helping government leaders articulate a coherent developmental vision for their own country and how they can work their political, social and economic reality to gain real traction on the ground – just like Ethiopia and Rwanda have been able to do. In contrast, Sierra Leone and Liberia have not. This is not for lack of trying, but because they have lacked the right type of support over a prolonged period. When we provided the needed support in these countries, their initiatives started to gain real traction.

One more element is needed to make this formula work: we in the development community must accept a country’s priorities of SDG outcomes, and not apply our own. Then we can support government with an effective coordinating structure for those priorities – focused on the local public and private sectors in the first instance, followed by development partners thereafter – and with implementation mechanisms that are “fit-for-their-purpose.”

If we can begin to put such approaches into place, governments won’t continue to get stuck in repetitive cycles, but can instead focus on a more productive path of building the local systems necessary to deliver the SDG outcomes. Meccano, not Whack-a-mole, and we’ll make the SDGs a success.

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