The SDGs have provided a common cause, and language, for we the peoples to combine our varied strengths.
We can attest the Goals have taken on a rich life of their own, as diverse constituencies and communities adopt and adapt them to reflect their aspirations for the future.
“When different players – be they an individual, organization, business or government – take action bound by a common cause, we are all energized, and our vision is brought that much closer to reality.”
When then UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon shared these words in June 2008 in our first guest article, he not only captured the UN’s objectives but the core benefit of collective action. As we celebrate the fifth anniversary of the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals – as clear a manifestation of “We the peoples of the United Nations” working toward shared aims as you will ever find – it is worth reflecting on the UN’s efforts to inspire action bound by a common cause.
Even when the 17 Global Goals were adopted five years ago, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos Calderón lauded them for laying the necessary foundations for peace. To his view, they supported all other areas of development in a “virtuous circle.” He and the negotiators of the SDGs could not have anticipated the depth and breadth of the virtuous circles that have since embraced the Goals.
We were close observers of the negotiations that led to the Goals’ adoption on 25 September 2015. We have closely followed the sharp learning curve of these first five years of implementation. We can attest the Goals have taken on a rich life of their own, as diverse constituencies and communities adopt and adapt them to reflect their aspirations for the future. The Secretary-General’s SDG Progress Report in 2019 recognized this “wealth of action” undertaken by governments and other stakeholders in response to the 2030 Agenda. Regional governments and cities, civil society, young people, academia, and the private sector – all have “identified entry points to align with and advance SDG implementation.”
National governments were always expected to be at the center of SDG implementation. They have almost universally accepted the invitation to report their SDG progress at the annual check-in sessions known as the High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF). When the invitation to present “Voluntary National Reviews” was first agreed, few expected so many countries would eagerly accept the offer. Organizers now need to cap the list of presenters at around 40 countries every year. The 2019 Secretary-General’s SDG Progress Report cites strong country ownership, with governments prioritizing integration of the SDGs into national plans and policies, and creating institutional arrangements to support implementation and monitoring of progress.
The virtuous circles of SDG implementation have looped in local level leaders – civic officials who find the integrated accountability framework of the SDGs helps map progress and track objectives in their cities, towns and regions. Approximately 200 municipalities have produced or have committed to producing voluntary local reviews. These reports put the spotlight on “where the bulk of SDG implementation is happening.”
The role of business is to “participate in delivering on the SDGs, use the power of business to solve the world’s most urgent problems, and inspire others to do the same,” in the view of the head of B Lab. In 2019, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) identified several trends on corporate SDG action. One was increased scrutiny of business commitments to the SDGs, such as a ranking of 2,000 companies by the World Benchmarking Alliance to examine their contributions to the SDGs. They also cited more tools and resources available to the private sector, such as the SDG Industry Matrix and WBCSD’s SDG Sector Roadmaps.
Civil society participation is critical to both measure and reach the SDGs, though concerns are rising about their diminished roles as stakeholders. In June 2020, we reported that 460 civil society organizations from 115 countries sent a joint letter to UN Member States regarding the need for meaningful civil society participation in the July 2020 HLPF session. They explained the “HLPF processes derive strength from the engagement of diverse actors.” True – and a good balance to the shared platform and vocabulary the SDGs have given CSOs to advocate for the causes they care about.
This short overview leaves out many of the communities and sectors we have seen taking action, bound by the common cause of the SDGs. Universities have incorporated the SDGs into their missions. Countries’ Supreme Audit Institutions recognize their role in ensuring governments keep their pledges to implement the SDGs. Thousands of statisticians and self-proclaimed data geeks have put their collective heads together to find new ways to measure progress and support evidence-based policy.
The SDGs have provided a common cause, and language, for we the peoples to combine our varied strengths. The virtuous circles will continue as long as the 2030 Agenda inspires a diversity of energized communities to keep working together. Onward to the world we the peoples deserve.
Faye Leone and Lynn Wagner authored this policy brief.