29 August 2019
When Agendas Align: The SDG Summit and ‘Sustainable Foreign Policy’
Photo by IISD/ENB
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The SDGs and foreign policy share the same objectives: peace, prosperity and stability.

For the SDGs to succeed, integrated action is key, and integrated action across thematic silos is just where foreign policy can provide valuable support.

Global progress in achieving the SDGs is slow, and in some cases off track. While SDG implementation is primarily a national task and responsibility, it also requires concerted international cooperation. This article presents two arguments why foreign policy could play an important role in their achievement.

This year marks the end of the first four-year cycle of 2030 Agenda implementation. In July 2019, the UN High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF) – the successor to the Commission on Sustainable Development – convened in New York to review global progress on the last set of SDGs and to allow countries to present Voluntary National Reviews (VNRs). To inform the Forum, two official SDG progress reports (the UN’s official Sustainable Development Goals Report 2019 and the Secretary General’s report) as well as numerous civil society reports (such as the SDG Index Report 2019) shed light on the progress the world is making, and they show that the global response to the 2030 Agenda has not been ambitious enough.

According to these reports, advances have been made on some of the SDGs, but no country is on track in achieving all 17 Goals. The reports also suggest that land use and food production are not meeting people’s needs, and in fact are undermining key aspects of sustainable development: while agricultural practices are destroying biodiversity and forests, squandering water resources and driving climate change, 800 million people remain undernourished.

Despite high-level political commitment to the SDGs, many governments have not taken critical steps necessary to implementing them. Most countries have endorsed the SDGs in official statements, but their central budget documents, financing schemes as well as bilateral and international agreements fail to mention the SDGs or live up to their promises.

Governments need to implement more radical and ambitious solutions. To that end, foreign policy is urgently needed: foreign policy actors play a key role in taking leadership, in increasing political will at a global scale, and in steering international action to implement the Goals. Diplomats can take up a more deliberate approach to the SDGs, an approach that one could call “Sustainable Foreign Policy.”

Why is sustainable foreign policy needed? First, the need is urgent for renewed multilateralism and international cooperation. SDG implementation is primarily a national task and responsibility, but its solutions require concerted and coordinated multilateral action. For example, high-income countries often generate environmental and socio-economic spill-overs through commodity imports. Tax havens undermine other countries’ abilities to generate public revenue to finance the SDGs. Poor labor standards in international supply chains have negatively impacted the world’s poor as well as women in many developing countries (key findings of SDSN’s Sustainable Development Report 2019). Shifting away from these systemic problems and pathways requires people who see the bigger picture; people who can work across geographical, linguistic and cultural borders, and who are doing the constant, persistent, day-to-day work of trust-building, seeking agreement and compromise, coordinating and communicating with various actors.

Foreign affairs actors are well placed to take up this task. They can strengthen and shape the level of international cooperation that is needed to address global structures, through fora such as the UN, G20, G7 and EU. Just as importantly, they can help build relationships and enable cooperation on the ground.

The other reason for countries to adopt a sustainable foreign policy approach is that SDG implementation prevents conflicts and yields a high peace dividend. Violent conflicts are increasingly linked to global challenges such as climate change, natural disasters and transnational organized crime. Without pursuing the transformation envisioned in the SDGs, international peace cannot be secured in the long-term. The 2030 Agenda can be considered a framework for prevention, or as Oli Brown of Chatham House has called it, “planetary health insurance.” In fragile contexts or states that are locked into cycles of conflict, foreign policy is particularly vital to ensure that SDG implementation takes place in a conflict-sensitive manner.

Both the SDGs and foreign policy share the same objectives: peace, prosperity and stability. But policymakers often still see the SDGs as an add-on or as one topic among many others, and they wonder how to engage with the Goals and their interlinkages. At the same time, there is a widely held view that SDG implementation is a technical exercise that lies mainly with the ministries of development or environment.

For foreign policy to move towards being more preventive, the 2030 Agenda serves as an ideal compass. The benefits are mutual: for the SDGs to succeed, integrated action is key, and integrated action across thematic silos is just where foreign policy can provide valuable support.

As world leaders head to New York for the SDG Summit in September 2019, they have a chance to renew their commitment to the SDGs and revive the spirit of 2015. The September high-level week brings a critical window of opportunity for the transformative change that the agenda envisions. Foreign policy actors have an opening to discuss what could be possible beyond the status quo and drive the political will to make it happen.

The author of this guest article, Stella Schaller, is a Project Manager at adelphi. In cooperation with the German FFO and a number of international think tanks and organizations, adelphi has started an initiative to explore concrete areas of action for foreign policy to engage with the 2030 Agenda. One outcome is the essay volume titled, ‘Driving Transformative Change: Foreign Affairs and the 2030 Agenda,’ which was presented at the July 2019 session of the HLPF. The volume comprises six incisive essays which highlight different foreign policy approaches to the SDGs:

  1. Leadership for the SDGs: Why Foreign Policy Must Recharge Multilateral Cooperation Now – by Oli Brown (Chatham House) and Stella Schaller (adelphi)
  2. Beyond 16: The SDGS and the Opportunity to Build a More Peaceful World – By David Steven (Center on International Cooperation, NYU), Rachel Locke (Center on International Cooperation, NYU) and Lukas Rüttinger (adelphi)
  3. Beware the Politics: Leveraging Foreign Policy for SDG Implementation – By Daria Ivleva (adelphi), Alexander Müller (TMG Think Tank for Sustainability), and Benjamin Pohl (adelphi)
  4. Managing the Trade-Offs of Transformation Through Foreign Policy – By Clare Church (IISD), Alec Crawford (IISD) and Stella Schaller (adelphi)
  5. Worth Every Cent: Smarter Approaches to Addressing Fragility – By Sara Batmanglich (OECD)
  6. Beyond Rhetoric: Why Foreign Policy Needs to Foster Private Sector SDG Implementation – By Benno Keppner (adelphi), Daniel Weiß (adelphi) Pietro Bertazzi (CDP), and Bibiana García (adelphi)

Photo credit for author photo: Martin Kath/adelphi

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