25 April 2017
Getting Up to Speed to Implement the SDGs: Facing the Challenges
UN Photo/Cia Pak
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Operationalizing the 17 Goals presents considerable challenges for many countries and organizations.

As reported in the Voluntary National Reviews (VNRs) presented to the UN High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF), many countries are putting in place initiatives to advance their SDG implementation.

Some of these countries have used interesting approaches to: address the challenges related to the cross-cutting nature of the SDGs; prepare data, indicators, and establish processes and structures to measure SDG progress; and communicate the SDGs.

The international community took on a tremendous challenge when Heads of State and Government agreed, in September 2015, to implement a comprehensive, universal and integrated sustainable development goal (SDG) framework. Given that they only gave themselves 15 years to accomplish the SDGs, it is very encouraging to see that many countries and organizations are already getting up to speed to institutionalize the SDGs and monitor progress. This brief reviews a number of ways in which actors and actions have taken shape during the first one-and-a-half years of SDG implementation.

The Challenges of Implementation

When negotiating the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, UN Member States agreed that the SDGs should be addressed in an integrated, indivisible manner, by recognizing their interlinkages, to ensure “that the purpose of the new Agenda is realized.” They committed to engage in systematic follow-up and review of implementation of the 2030 Agenda over a 15-year period, and placed equal priority on implementation efforts and monitoring progress. They also called on all countries, as well as on all stakeholders, acting in collaborative partnership, to implement the Agenda.

While these commitments are critical for achieving sustainable development, operationalizing the 17 Goals presents considerable challenges for many countries and organizations:

  • The challenge of implementing the SDGs in an integrated manner: None of the SDGs is new. The 17 Goals are all related to issues on which countries and organizations were already working before the SDGs were adopted. However, the novelty of the SDGs comes with the challenge of implementing them in an integrated or cross-cutting manner, which calls for revisiting the way organizations work. This challenge requires organizations to change from working in a “silo” or sectoral approach, and to work instead across sectors.
  • The challenge of measuring and monitoring progress: As the second year of SDG implementation gets underway, many countries are still figuring out not only how they will institutionalize the SDGs, but also how they will measure progress on the 17 Goals. Questions raised include the data and indicators needed to follow-up on implementation and the types of institutional structures and mechanisms that will be needed to monitor progress.
  • The communication and outreach challenge: As discussed during a UN retreat organized by the President of the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) in January 2017 to advance the implementation of the 2030 Agenda, most people outside of the UN have never heard of the SDGs even though the Goals “represent everyday problems.” The Government of Colombia, which is one of the most advanced countries in terms of laying the groundwork for SDG implementation and monitoring, reported in 2016 that, according to a perception survey, only 12% of its population was aware of the 2030 Agenda (IISD SDG Knowledge Hub, 2016). The same percentage (12%) was reported by Denmark at the end of March 2017 regarding awareness of the SDGs among the Danish population (Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark, 2017). Some officials from leading SDG-implementation countries have also highlighted the challenge of bringing the SDGs and their targets closer to citizens and making them tangible enough to incentivize action.

Facing the Challenges

As reported in the Voluntary National Reviews (VNRs) presented to the 2016 session of the UN High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF), many countries are enacting initiatives to advance their SDG implementation. In total, more than 70 countries from all regions of the world have, so far, volunteered to participate to the 2016-2018 VNRs: 22 countries volunteered in 2016, 44 countries have volunteered for 2017, and at least ten countries have already indicated that they will be participating to the 2018 reviews (UN Secretariat, 2017). The summary below illustrates how some of these countries have put in place interesting approaches to address the SDG challenges.

Addressing the cross-cutting challenge

The need to address the 17 SDGs in a cross-cutting manner calls for, inter alia, adopting more collaborative structures and for keeping the information flows going, especially among actors and sectors that do not normally work together. Some countries have started to implement initiatives in this regard.

According to a synthesis of the 2016 VNRs prepared by the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA) and a UN Secretariat Note on VNR Executive Summaries presented at the 2016 session, countries such as Colombia, Finland, Germany, Madagascar and Sierra Leone have established coordination committees at the level of the Prime Minister’s or President office to guide SDG work within their government. Some of these countries (including Finland, Madagascar, Sierra Leone) have formed cross-ministerial committees at the level of Ministries or departments to support higher-level coordination committees and ensure that the 17 SDGs are taken into consideration at the implementation level.

Others have created cross-ministerial committees coordinated by one Minister, instead of the Head of State. In Egypt for instance, the Ministry of International Cooperation serves as coordinator and rapporteur of a national interministerial committee that seeks to follow up on the implementation of the SDGs and ensure alignment and integration of the SDGs with Egypt’s sustainable development strategies and priorities (UN Secretariat, 2016).

The composition of the coordination and cross-ministerial committees varies from country to country, and some are inclusive in nature. In Finland for example, the Coordination Secretariat for the SDGs in the Prime Minister’s office includes not only officials from that Office, but also from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and from the National Commission on Sustainable Development. The Commission is a Prime Minister-led partnership forum that has been operating in Finland for more than 20 years and includes representatives from the Government, the Parliament, municipalities and regions, the business sector, trade unions, NGOs, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland, science and research, the Social Insurance Institution of Finland, and educational organizations (UN Secretariat, 2016).

Countries have started to integrate the SDGs into their national policies, plans or programmes. In its 2016 VNR, Colombia reported that it had aligned the SDGs with the peace agreement between the Government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). It added that the agreement would be the first of its kind with a focus on sustainable development and, consequently, the SDGs would become a tool for peacebuilding in Colombia. Finland announced that it aligned its strategy ‘The Finland We Want by 2050: Society’s Commitment to Sustainable Development’ to the 2030 Agenda as well as its Development Policy. Among other countries, Switzerland has also incorporated the SDGs into its Foreign Policy Strategy 2016-2019.

Preparing data, indicators, and establishing processes and structures to measure SDG progress

Countries are at different stages of preparations regarding measuring and monitoring SDG progress. Some have assessed the availability of data for each of the global SDG indicators. Uganda reported in July 2016 that it had approximately 35% of its data readily available to measure progress on the 230 global indicators developed by the Inter-Agency and Expert Group on the SDG indicators (IAEG-SDGs) established by the UN Statistical Commission (UNSC). Around the same time in 2016, Estonia said it had approximately 14% of its indicators measurable; Colombia reported having complete information for 54%, and partial information for 30% of the global indicators; and Finland said approximately 40% of its indicators were readily measurable while another 40% could be measured with additional resources (UN Secretariat, 2016).

In July 2016, countries such as Colombia, Finland, France, Samoa, Sierra Leone and Switzerland also reported that they had aligned or made plans to align their national indicators to the global SDG indicators, with some specifying the use of a consultative approach to do so. In Samoa, for instance, the Samoa Bureau of Statistics issued the preliminary framework of SDG indicators, and invited all key sector stakeholders to provide comments on relevance and other criteria (UN Secretariat, 2016). Finland outlined plans to invite a range of organizations, in addition to statistics authorities, Ministries and various research institutions, to align its national indicators to the 2030 Agenda. (Finland, 2016).

Other countries and organizations have put in place approaches and processes to monitor progress. The US, for example, has developed a monitoring platform for the SDGs, titled ‘U.S. National Statistics for the UN Sustainable Development Goals,’ which is organized according to each SDG, with links to relevant data for the associated indicators. The site presents global metadata as well as national data, and notes where further work will need to be done to assess certain indicators. During a meeting of the Permanent Council and the Inter-American Council for Integral Development (CIDI) of the Organization of American States (OAS) in February 2017, the US remarked that the US platform is open source and available for other countries to use for their own reporting purposes (IISD SDG Knowledge Hub, 2017). In addition, the Asia-Pacific SDG Partnership has launched the SDG Data Portal, showing the current status and progress towards the 17 SDGs for the 58 member states of the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP), and the World Bank has released a 2017 Atlas of SDGs which includes over 150 maps and data visualizations to assist with efforts to track progress in achieving the Goals.

Norway developed a plan for national follow-up to the SDGs, which is linked to the budget process. Responsibility for each of the 17 Goals is given to a coordinating ministry, which has to consult with the other ministries involved in the follow-up of various targets under the Goal concerned. Each ministry reports on the status of follow-up for its respective Goal(s) in its budget proposal, and the Ministry of Finance sums up the main points in the national budget white paper, which is then presented to the Parliament annually, along with the State budget.

Finally, some countries have established specific units to monitor progress on the SDGs in their government. Egypt announced that, in April 2016, it established a sustainable development unit within the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics to lead the monitoring and evaluation of the implementation of the SDGs and Egypt Vision 2030, its strategy for sustainable development that is aligned with the 2030 Agenda (UN Secretariat, 2016).

Better communicating the SDGs to a wider audience

The SDGs have been characterized by some diplomats as “the UN’s best-kept secret,” referring to the fact that the Goals are not widely known by country and local officials, citizens around the world, the private sector and other stakeholders. Some UN Member States have dedicated resources and efforts to “demystify” the SDGs and make them more widely known.

In the Republic of Korea and Norway, for example, these governments encouraged educational institutions to include the SDGs as part of schools curriculum, and the Republic of Korea noted that it carried out nationwide campaigns for the implementation of the Goals (UN Secretariat, 2016). According to a UNDP report on SDG experiences at the country level (UNDG, 2016), the Sierra Leone UN Country Team (UNCT) prepared an SDG communication strategy to domesticate and simplify the messages of the SDGs, and organized SDG exhibitions in Freetown as well as campaigns at various universities by engaging with mayors, university teachers and students. In Uganda, the government, in collaboration with the UN, organized a national SDG launch event, including an exhibition of the 17 SDGs by stakeholders, and appointed five eminent Ugandans to serve as SDG ambassadors to help raise awareness on the Goals. In both Uganda and Sierra Leone, SDG trainings were provided to journalists (UNDG, 2016).

Finland reported that, in April 2016, over 240 actors from companies to ministries, schools, municipalities, civil society organizations and individuals had already joined its strategy, titled ‘The Finland we Want by 2050: Society’s Commitment to Sustainable Development,’ by launching their own operational commitments (UN Secretariat, 2016). To communicate the SDGs, Finland organized parties to recognize champions of SDG implementation, collaborated with NGOs on communication activities (IISD SDG Knowledge Hub, 2016). The country also said it would plan regional tours to disseminate information on the 2030 Agenda 2030, in cooperation with cities, municipalities, regions, NGOs and signatories of regional operational commitments to sustainable development (Finland, 2016).

The 2030 Agenda: A Variety of Countries, a Variety of Approaches

Even as the second half of the second year of SDG implementation gets underway, this brief shows that various approaches have already been explored to address the SDG challenges of integration, measurement of progress and communication. More approaches will be presented at the 2017 HLPF meeting in July. Considering that some countries are still wondering how to proceed to implement the 2030 Agenda and its SDGs, these experiences should provide them with some food for thought in order to be ready for the next 13-and-a-half years.

This policy brief is authored by Nathalie Risse.

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