Five Ways the SDGs Are Changing International Development
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The discursive effect of the SDGs has already been seen during the long lead-up to the adoption of the 2030 Agenda.

Movement in the five areas described here suggests that we won't be waiting ten years to see further action.

UN Member States adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development in September 2015, after almost three years of negotiation. While many actors, including development agencies, took part in the consultations, many also doubted that there could be coherent and effective action on such a wide-ranging agenda. Some believed that the ambitious agenda of 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and 169 targets would do nothing to change the balance of power that ultimately determines national and international priorities (Green, 2013). On the ground, development agencies often struggle with insufficient funding to address the sheer scale of human need: many expressed concern that the SDGs must not dilute their focus on meeting immediate needs for humanitarian relief and poverty eradication.

Despite these concerns, the new agenda now provides a framework for development cooperation over the next 15 years, and it recasts the scope of what we mean by “international development.”

While the task of implementation has only just begun, this policy update identifies five ways in which the 2030 Agenda is affecting practitioners of international development.

1. Whereas the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) identified actions to be taken in developing countries, with support from developed countries, the SDGs have recast development as a shared, universal enterprise. The SDGs seek to spur action toward addressing common problems, and all countries are expected to evaluate how the SDGs could be implemented in their national context. An important result of this new approach is that the SDGs have framed development “beyond aid” and beyond an aid industry based on North-South transfers, implying new partnership approaches and the erosion of traditional donor-recipient relationships (Gavas, Gulrajani and Hart, 2015).

This orientation is shored up by the outcomes of the Third International Conference on Financing for Development, which preceded UN Member States’ adoption of the 2030 Agenda, and which promoted the case for even the poorest countries to look to international trade, private sector investment and collection of domestic tax revenue to fuel development, in addition to aid. The implications for development agencies are many. In the aid world, public-private partnerships are being initiated at every scale: “business development” has become a sought-after skill. Fundraising approaches based on highlighting the vulnerability of poor individuals – for example, child sponsorship – have become less effective. While these changes were happening for other reasons besides negotiation of the SDGs, the 2030 Agenda affirms the orientation toward new kinds of partnerships.

2. International development is seeking to incorporate environmental concerns to a greater extent than before. This doesn’t mean that practitioners will take their eyes off the goal of poverty eradication – but it does mean they will likely take a more consistently holistic approach, underlining that the environment is important for poverty eradication, and factoring in the true costs of economic growth to the environment. The 2030 Agenda strongly affirms the value of multi-disciplinary and inter-sectoral frameworks as a basis for development aid.

Examples of such approaches include the Poverty-Environment Initiative jointly carried out by the UN Development Programme (UNDP) and the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), and the ‘One Health’ approach applied by agencies including the World Health Organization (WHO) and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which brings together physicians, ecologists and veterinarians to cooperate on addressing public health threats.

Such approaches are not brand new, but the SDGs provide a framework for always considering the three dimensions of sustainable development (economic, social and environmental). In the words of Claire Melamed of the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), “Now we know what good looks like.”

3. Poor countries are increasingly recognized as stewards of planetary resources for all humanity. The stewardship role of countries that are poor in gross domestic product (GDP) but rich in natural resources provides a different kind of rationale for development assistance, based on recognition that the adoption of sustainable approaches may have short-term costs for those countries, and that fair compensation may be in order.

This idea was promoted at the Third UN Conference on Small Island Developing States in Samoa, a year before adoption of the 2030 Agenda. For example, Kiribati showcased its creation of the Phoenix Islands Protected Area, one of the world’s largest marine reserves, while at the same time highlighting its vulnerability as a low-lying atoll nation to the impacts of climate change. The 2030 Agenda has helped cement the view that all countries are contributors to the health and welfare of the planet, and some face additional costs in meeting their responsibilities.

Just as development aid moved from “needs-based” to “rights-based” approaches in the late 20th century, in years to come we may look back and say the 2030 Agenda marked the point at which “planet-based” approaches began gaining traction in development circles.

4. The 2030 Agenda has brought with it higher expectations around monitoring of progress. “Follow-up and review” was one of the most hotly debated aspects of the 2030 Agenda, as countries grappled with the prospect of how governments can produce sufficient and credible data for measuring progress, and how they can enhance statistical capacity. In particular, the need for disaggregated data to respond to the 2030 Agenda’s foundational principle of “no one left behind” demands the capacity to gather and analyze large amounts of data about populations that traditionally may have had little contact with government services and structures.

The Inter-Agency Expert Group on SDG Indicators (IAEG-SDGs) has been engaged in a process to develop indicators for the 169 SDG targets. At the last count, the indicators numbered 229, and more are on the way. The final indicator package, eventually, will be a monitoring challenge for all governments.

While the promise of “big data” and the data revolution holds out hope that these high expectations can be met, the process of negotiating the 2030 Agenda also underlined that monitoring is not a purely technical role, but has a political dimension.

Where they are able to negotiate the existing political minefields around treatment of minorities and remote populations, development agencies can support governments to meet this new level of statistical challenge. Agencies may find a role in providing statistical capacity, sharing their own data about under-served populations, and using the SDG indicators to introduce greater rigor in assessing performance.

5. Crowdsourcing of development solutions will become a more frequent and respected complement to technical, expert-led approaches. Between the UN Conference on Sustainable Development in June 2012 (Rio+20) and the adoption of the SDGs in 2015, online consultations through the UN and civil society ‘World We Want’ initiative made the shaping of the 2030 Agenda, arguably, the most participatory international process ever. Crowdsourcing through web-based communications is not entirely new, but the World We Want process has bedded down this approach.

Already, it has become standard for UN conferences to have an online space in which diverse actors – companies, NGOs, municipal governments and others – post their own commitments toward implementing conference outcomes. The Lima Paris Action Agenda (LPAA) stands out as the most recent such example. This initiative is led by France, Peru, the UN Secretary-General and secretariat of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), and was promoted as one element of the outcome package from the Paris Climate Change Conference. Multi-stakeholder partnerships are not just a buzzword but, increasingly, a common standard for tackling policy problems.

The arena for action has moved to national implementation. Widespread action will probably not yet have taken place before the July 2016 meeting of the High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF), the UN body tasked with following up and reporting on implementation. Nevertheless, some countries have begun taking concerted, high-level action. Colombia, notably, created an Inter-Agency Commission for the Preparation and Effective Implementation of the Post-2015 Development Agenda and the SDGs back in February 2015 (Espey, 2015).

ODI research shows that the MDGs had an almost immediate “discursive effect” on policy language (Sarwar, 2015). The same research noted that, in some countries, it was 10 years before national institutional commitments began to appear, and those impacts were not necessarily a result of the MDGs’ adoption.

This time around, the discursive effect of the SDGs has already been seen during the long lead-up to the adoption of the 2030 Agenda. Movement in the five areas described here suggests that we won’t be waiting ten years to see further action – and development agencies will continue to play an important, if modified, role within the framework set by the SDGs in the interests of people and planet.


The International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) is pleased to bring you a series of policy updates on national reporting and implementation processes within the multilateral environmental agreement (MEA) processes that we have been tracking for over two decades. Decisions taken in 2015 by intergovernmental policy makers have sought to change the approach to implementing sustainable development. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Paris Agreement on climate change are universal agendas, with implied implementation obligations for all countries. Our Earth Negotiations Bulletin writers and thematic experts for our Policy & Practice knowledgebases have monitored discussions on the successes and shortcomings of national planning and reporting processes within the MEAs and other processes we follow. Our hope is that this series will help all concerned with implementing the new sustainable development directions of 2015 to build on lessons of the past.


C. Melamed, “So the SDGs Are Agreed – What Now?” ODI blog post, 7 December 2015.

M. Gavas, N. Gulrajani and T. Hart, Designing the Development Agency of the Future: Conference Framing Paper, ODI, April 2015

IISD-RS, “Researchers Propose 100 Questions for Post-2015 Development,” blog post on the Sustainable Development Policy & Practice site about a “knowledge co-production” exercise in 2014, led by the Sheffield Institute for International Development and the UN Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD)

Moiza Binnat Sarwar, National MDG Implementation: Lessons for the SDG Era, ODI Working Paper 428, November 2015

D. Green, “Anyone fancy a post-2015 Wonkwar? Me v. Claire Melamed on the biggest development circus in town,” From Poverty to Power blog post of 30 April 2013, Oxfam International

J. Espey, “Getting Started With the SDGs: Emerging Questions from the First 30 Days of SDG Implementation in Colombia,” blog post of 30 October 2015, UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network (UNSDSN)

UN Statistics Division, Transcript of speech by the Co-Chairs of the Inter-agency and Expert Group on Sustainable Development Goal (SDGs) indicators at the President of the General Assembly Informal Briefing on the Global Indicator Framework for the SDGs, Thursday, 28 January 2016

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