3 August 2022
Researchers Find Limited Evidence of SDGs’ Political Impact
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The article presents “condensed evidence” from an analysis of more than 3,000 scientific studies on the SDGs issued in the period from 2016 until April 2021.

The authors find that while the Goals have had some political impact on global and local policies and institutions, this impact has been “largely discursive, affecting the way actors understand and communicate about sustainable development”.

A group of researchers published an article presenting the results of a meta-analysis of the available scientific evidence on the political impact of the SDGs. The authors conclude that the Goals have had “only limited transformative political impact” thus far and that “profound normative and institutional impact,” such as legislative action and changing resource allocation, remains rare.

The article, published in Nature Sustainability, presents “condensed evidence” from an analysis of more than 3,000 scientific studies on the SDGs issued in the period from 2016 until April 2021. The authors find that while the Goals have had some political impact on global and local policies and institutions, this impact has been “largely discursive, affecting the way actors understand and communicate about sustainable development.”

Although there are some limited effects of the SDGs, they are not yet a transformative force in and of themselves.

The assessment is organized around five dimensions derived from the core ambitions stated in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The paper looks at the political impact of the SDGs on:

  • Global governance: Among other findings, studies suggest that the High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF) “has not lived up to expectations of becoming an effective ‘orchestrator’ in global sustainability governance.” 
  • Domestic political systems: While many countries have started to integrate the SDGs into their administrative systems, most national governments lag behind in SDG implementation, and some evidence suggests that sub-national authorities, especially cities, “are often more pioneering and progressive … in building coalitions for implementing the SDGs.”
  • Integration and coherence of institutions and policies: The authors indicate that whereas there are some studies that find that SDG synergies and trade-offs “manifest differently across political systems and governmental levels,” “comparative assessments of the impacts of SDG interlinkages on national politics are lacking.”
  • Inclusiveness of governance from local to global levels: The article points to “a mismatch between rhetoric and action.” While policymakers and civil society activists often prioritize vulnerable people and countries in their “pronouncements,” there is limited evidence of the normative or institutional effects of such “discursive” prioritization.
  • Protection of ecological integrity: The researchers find limited evidence of the SDGs’ political impact towards advancing ecological integrity, as the Global South and the Global North alike tend to continue to prioritize socioeconomic SDGs over environmental Goals.

The researchers underscore the need for more research to better understand the interlinkages between the SDGs, “the steering of the SDGs on national and global inclusiveness,” and the variation in the ways the SDGs affect different actors and institutions. They find “more fundamental change is needed for the SDGs to become ‘the bold and transformative steps … to shift the world on to a sustainable and resilient path’” envisioned in the 2030 Agenda.

The article was published in June, ahead of the July session of HLPF 2022. [Publication: Scientific Evidence on the Political Impact of the Sustainable Development Goals]

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