Several reports launched in June and July 2019 call for “transformations” or “transitions”—of economies, of energy systems, of skills and jobs, of health care—in order to achieve the SDGs and ensure that no one is left behind. This SDG Knowledge Weekly brief reviews a selection those reports, with a focus on those that have made waves prior to, or relate their recommendations back to, the High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF).

After a briefing on preliminary findings of the 2019 Global Sustainable Development Report (GSDR) in April 2019, some UN Member States took up key concepts envisioned by the GSDR authors, including six “entry points for transformation.” These are: Human wellbeing and capabilities; Sustainable economies; Energy decarbonization and access; Food and nutrition; Urban and peri-urban development; and Global commons. The agreed political declaration to be adopted at the SDG Summit in September 2019 also uses this concept, taking note of the GSDR’s “identified entry points for transformation and transformative levers for realizing the 2030 Agenda.” The GSDR will be presented to the UN General Assembly during the SDG Summit.

In June, the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) and Bertelsmann Stiftung published the ‘Sustainable Development Report 2019,’ including an SDG Index and Dashboards. Flagging that “the concept of ‘transformative change’ is gaining momentum in the research, business and policy communities due to alarming trends in climate change and biodiversity protection that may soon become irreversible,” the report recommends operationalizing the SDGs through six transformations. The transformations are largely policy-oriented and aim to address synergies and trade-offs across the 2030 Agenda. They are: 1) Education, Gender and Inequality; 2) Health, Wellbeing and Demography; 3) Energy Decarbonization and Sustainable Industry; 4) Sustainable Food, Land, Water, Oceans; 5) Sustainable Cities and Communities; and 6) Digital Revolution for Sustainable Development. A report on designing and implementing these transformations is forthcoming.

Although it is the fourth installment of its kind, the SDG Index and Dashboards report notes that the 2019 edition’s results – measuring countries’ progress towards the SDGs – are not comparable with previous reports, in part due to the inclusion of new indicators. Consequently, “a change in a country’s ranking does not necessarily signify a change in its SDG performance.” An SDSN press release is available here, and further coverage is available on the SDG Knowledge Hub, highlighting “major performance gaps” on SDG 12 (responsible consumption and production), SDG 13 (climate action), SDG 14 (life below water) and SDG 15 (life on land).

A blog on Global Policy Watch notes that the numbers in SDG Index and Dashboards are “surprisingly similar” to those found in the Human Development Index (HDI), published annually by the UN Development Programme (UNDP). The blog analyzes country scores on each, and finds that the two reports have a correlation coefficient of .91, explaining that, “in other words, if you know a country’s HDI value, you can forecast its BS/SDG ranking with 91 percent precision.” Author Robert Bissio argues that the HDI and Human Development Report, which turns 30 next year, should not feature such high levels of correlation, given that the HDI is reliant on only three factors (income, health and education), whereas the SDG Index reflects performance and measurements on all SDGs. Bissio describes the SDG Index and Dashboards as an “average of averages [of progress on each goal]” and calls for a more nuanced measurement system that also acknowledges spillover effects and trade-offs.

The Overseas Development Institute (ODI) argues that “the transformative potential of the SDGs will not be realized unless the interactions between them – both synergies and trade-offs – are grasped and acted upon.” Co-authored by David Donoghue, ODI’s working paper titled, ‘Achieving the SDGs and ‘Leaving No One Behind’: Maximizing synergies and mitigating trade-offs,’ highlights challenges of prioritizing policies and actions, supported by country case studies of both successes and failures. Recommendations for governments include:

  • Establishment of a unit or mechanism close to or within the office of the president or prime minister that examines the implications of potential government decisions relevant to SDG implementation, among other duties;
  • Making explicit in countries’ Voluntary National Reviews (VNRs) to the HLPF linkages between Goals and targets and how they have been exploited or managed; and
  • Providing public reports that follow up in the VNRs in years where they do not submit an update for review at the HLPF.

The paper identifies the July 2019 HLPF and SDG Summit in September as immediate opportunities for influence.

Linking SDG synergies to governance and social policy, the German Development Institute (DIE) released a discussion paper on ‘The Relevance of Social Policies for Democracy: Preventing Autocratization through Synergies between SDG 10 and SDG 16.’ Prepared as background for the GSDR, the paper “investigates how social and economic inequalities contribute to autocratization.” The authors define autocratization as the opposite of democratization, and featuring “less inclusive forms of governance that place limits on the role of citizens in selecting leaders, accessing justice and influencing policy.” They find that that although income inequality does not affect the likelihood of autocratization, inequalities in the provision of public goods such as health care and education have a clear and consistent relationship. The authors also note that as countries provide social opportunities more equally across their population, they are significantly less likely to experience autocratization.

Also on governance, the ‘Spotlight on Sustainable Development 2019: Reshaping governance for sustainability’ report examines “(global) governance arrangements and institutions that will be necessary to implement alternative policies and to unleash the transformative potential of the SDGs.” Authored and launched by a coalition of CSOs and trade unions known as the Civil Society Reflection Group on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the report laments that the world is not on track to achieve the SDGs. It argues that “governments have failed to turn the transformational vision of the 2030 Agenda into real transformational policies” and calls for a revisiting of the “hardware” of sustainable development. Five chapters are dedicated to cross-cutting policy areas that highlight interlinkages across the framework and the need to remove policy approaches from their current siloes, followed by “spotlights” that provide examples of good or bad governance on each of the SDGs. A press release is also available.

At the regional level, Eurostat launched the 2019 edition of a report titled, ‘Sustainable Development in the European Union: Monitoring report on progress towards the SDGs in an EU context.’ The report describes progress over the past five years against 99 indicators, of which 55 are aligned with those utilized by the UN system and 37 are ‘multi-purpose’ in that they monitor progress towards more than one SDG. Of note, Eurostat highlights progress towards SDG 3 (good health and well-being), SDG 1 (no poverty) and SDG 8 (decent work and economic growth). The only negative trend noted is on SDG 9 (industry, innovation and infrastructure), attributed to “stagnating trends in R&D expenditure and sustainable transportation patterns.” SDG 6 (clean water and sanitation), SDG 14 (life below water) and SDG 16 (peace, justice and strong institutions) were not assessed due to insufficient data coverage. A detailed release summarizing the report’s findings, by the Institute for European Environmental Policy (IEEP), is available here. WWF expressed disappointment at the report’s findings on the environment-related SDGs and continued lack of sufficient data on ocean health in a short press release.

Also at the regional level and focusing on Europe, a Spotlight Report titled, ‘Who is paying the Bill? (Negative) impacts of EU policies and practices in the World’ will be launched in the margins of the HLPF on 15 July, by SDG Watch Europe.

Additional issues of the SDG Knowledge Weekly can be found here.