At the end of September 2015, New York City and UN Headquarters were not only busy with the visit of Pope Francis, but with hosting over 9,000 people, including more than 130 Heads of State and Government, ministers, business leaders, representatives of civil society and other stakeholders, who gathered for the UN Sustainable Development Summit.

The Summit adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development – a document described by many as a “charter” or global “plan of action” for the next 15 years. It provided a space for Member States, UN organizations and civil society to highlight the challenges ahead, outline what they have already accomplished to implement the agenda, and celebrate the culmination of a long process of intergovernmental negotiations characterized by broad consultations around the world.

From words to action

At the Agenda’s adoption, several high-level representatives and celebrities noted that commitments are not enough, even though they are a necessary step to solutions, and emphasized the need to go beyond political will.

The singer Shakira remarked, as she took the floor at the opening of the Summit, “now is not the time to imagine, but to do.” Lars Lokke Rasmussen, Prime Minister of Denmark and Co-Chair of the Summit, noted that the work had just begun, and it was necessary to “turn words into action,” and Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic, President of Croatia, said it is not enough to be aware or create a vision – there is a need for real leadership to “get the job done.”

Based on the Earth Negotiations Bulletin and IISD RS’ other coverage, this policy update examines “the first step” in operationalizing the Agenda: the commitments announced during the UN Sustainable Development Summit, and the political intentions they represent.

What are the commitments about?

Heads of State and Government and other high-level officials made broad statements of support for the new agenda, such as the US’ commitment to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and noting this will require addressing “bad governance,” inequality including women’s rights, and climate change. More specifically, leaders announced commitments belonging to three broad categories: financial commitments; commitments related to national planning processes and implementation; and commitments related to specific areas covered by the 2030 Agenda.

Financial commitments

Countries including France, Germany, Ireland, Norway, Spain and Turkey announced commitments related to Official Development Assistance (ODA). France said it will provide an additional €4 billion in public aid for development beginning in 2020. Germany announced that it “stands by the obligation” to use 0.7% of gross domestic product (GDP) for development assistance, adding its budget for development cooperation will be increased substantially in the next few years. Ireland said it will continue to meet the 0.7% ODA target and will focus aid on the poorest countries, while Norway said it will continue providing aid at 1% of GDP, as a catalyst for the private sector. Spain committed to providing 0.7% of GDP for ODA by 2030, with an emphasis on least developed countries (LDCs). Turkey noted that development is at the center of its current G20 presidency, and the country has increased its ODA to 0.45% of gross national income and will further increase it.

Among other financial announcements:

  • Canada highlighted its work on the ReDesigning Development Finance Initiative (RDFI) on blended finance as a way to finance the SDGs;
  • China laid out an attention-grabbing list of financial commitments, including the establishment of a US$2 billion assistance fund for South-South cooperation to implement the SDGs, and increasing investment in LDCs to US$12 billion by 2030;
  • The International Monetary Fund (IMF) highlighted a 50% increase in concessional resources available to the poorest countries, and intensification of support for fragile and conflict affected states;
  • Nigeria said the country is committed to transparent financial and fiscal management, and putting in place mechanisms to prevent oil theft; and
  • The Russian Federation said it has written off US$20 billion in debt and is instituting debt-for-aid swaps for the poorest countries.

National planning processes and implementation

Many countries expressed their intentions to translate the 2030 Agenda into national planning documents, with some noting they have already aligned the Agenda and SDGs with their plans and programmes.

For instance:

  • South Africa said the SDGs are aligned with the African Union’s 2063 Agenda, while Kazakhstan said the SDGs are aligned with its 2050 Strategy respectively;
  • Afghanistan and Bangladesh noted that their new national development plans will be coherent with the new global agenda, while Solomon Islands, said its country is incorporating the SDGs into its 20-year national development strategy;
  • Timor-Leste said its Council of Ministers has already endorsed the SDGs, paving the way to operationalize them within its strategic development plan and budget;
  • The Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Lao PDR) committed to integrating the SDGs into its plans including Vision 2030 and the ten-year economic and social strategy;
  • Tajikistan announced the creation of a 2030 development strategy, which will take into account the SDG targets; and
  • The International Organization of La Francophonie said it will help countries elaborate national sustainable development strategies.

Among other commitments, Germany said it will report to the High-Level Political Forum on sustainable development (HLPF) on national implementation in 2016. Jordan outlined that indicators will be built into the ‘Jordan 2025′ development blueprint to monitor progress in implementing the SDGs, while Trinidad and Tobago announced a mechanism to support data collection and implementation.

Specific areas of the 2030 Agenda

Broad commitments were heard on several of the areas covered by the 2030 Agenda. For example, Cabo Verde highlighted its ambition to build a green and blue, fair and inclusive economy, while São Tomé and Príncipe noted its efforts to reduce poverty by 2030 through, inter alia, economic diversification, management of public finance, and job creation for youth.

Commitments were also made on specific goals.

On achieving gender equality and empowering all women and girls (Goal 5), Costa Rica announced plans to incorporate more women and girls with disabilities into workforce. Iceland said it will continue to provide funding for gender equality, noting that its Parliament has agreed to a “huge increase” in funding for equality for five years, with at least half of that amount dedicated to international efforts. The Netherlands reported that it will launch programmes to: address inequalities for women and young people; fund leadership opportunities for women; and build capacity for civil society organizations (CSOs) to lobby and advocate for all women and girls. The Republic of Korea announced a number of commitments including the Better Life for Girls Initiative, which will support the most vulnerable girls in developing countries, and Zambia reported that it will implement women and youth empowerment programmes.

On ensuring access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all (Goal 7), Brazil noted a commitment of reaching 45% of renewable energy. Ecuador announced that it will increase its renewable energy portfolio by 2025. Iceland noted that it will continue to support developing countries in harnessing geothermal energy. Kazakhstan said it will host a 2017 International Expo focused on “energy of the future,” and Palau said it aims for 20% of its energy use to be renewable by 2020.

Many commitments were heard from delegations on taking urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts (Goal 13). Some countries reported their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reduction targets, including Brazil (37% reduction by 2025 and 43% by 2030, with 2005 as a baseline) and Montenegro (30% reduction by 2030 compared to 1990 levels). Senegal, Nigeria and others announced the preparation of climate change mitigation and/or adaptation policies or plans, with Italy noting its ongoing work in developing a Green Act to decarbonize the economy. Germany said it expected to double its climate finance by 2020; and the Asian Development Bank (ADB) noted that it will double its climate financing by 2020, from US$3 billion to US$6 billion. A few countries such as Costa Rica, Iceland and Palau said they are striving for carbon-neutral economies. Mauritius outlined its commitment to monitor climate variability and address problems related to sea-level rise in coastal regions, and Niger noted its intention to overcome the effects of climate change by increasing adaptive capacity.

On conserving and sustainably using the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development (Goal 14) Grenada said it aims to conserve 20% or more of near-coast marine resources and will host a Blue Growth Investment Conference, and Palau outlined that it is establishing the Palau National Marine Sanctuary, which will close an area the size of France to commercial fishing.

On protecting, restoring and promoting sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably managing forests, combatting desertification, and halting and reversing land degradation and halting biodiversity (Goal 15), Brazil committed to support domestic policies in the land use sector, noting it will end illegal deforestation, and restore 12 million hectares of deforested land and 15 million hectares of degraded pasture land. Panama said it will restore 50% of Panama’s deforested areas over the next 20 years.

Leaders also outlined specific commitments on anti-corruption, education, humanitarian aid, ending hunger and achieving food security and improved nutrition, health, infrastructure, and youth. The UK announced its commitment to host a major Anti-Corruption Summit in 2016. Norway committed to doubling assistance for education and doubling humanitarian aid for Syria. Zambia noted its determination to end hunger, ensure food security and end all forms of malnutrition, and Mali said 15% of the national budget will be allocated to ending hunger in the country. The US announced new commitments to tackle AIDS, including investing US$300 million to help achieve a 40% reduction in new HIV infections among young women and girls in the hardest-hit areas of sub-Saharan Africa. Japan said it will promote quality infrastructure investment in regions such as Asia and Africa, and Niger said it will guarantee decent jobs for youth under 25, and promote good political and economic governance.

Will commitments lead to implementation?

Now that the commitments have been made, at both the collective global level, and the individual national level, the critical question is: will these commitments lead to implementation and make a difference for people, planet, prosperity, partnerships and peace, in the “five Ps” of the Agenda? Will they make a difference in the lives of men, women, and children who suffer, struggle and live and strive to overcome great poverty?

The fact that some countries and organizations are already undertaking initiatives on the ground gives some hope. Among these “early implementers,” Viet Nam highlighted its multidimensional poverty eradication programme that tackles income, health care, education, clean water and sanitation, and access to information. Spain recalled that it established with UN Development Programme (UNDP) the first SDG fund, which is financing projects in over 17 countries. Sweden informed about the launch by several world leaders of the High-level Support Group for the SDGs to engage all sectors and stakeholders in implementation.

The translation of commitments into practice, and their ability to make a real difference on the ground, will depend on various factors, especially political will and leadership, ownership, financing, capacity, data availability and quality, transparency, inclusiveness and accountability. In the view of Abhijit Banerjee, the keynote speaker for this year’s session of the UN General Assembly Second Committee (Economic and Financial), translating the Agenda into impact depends not only on financial resources but also on the “intellectual space” and capacity of countries and institutions to innovate, which includes creating simple but low-cost initiatives that increase the impact of pre-existing programmes and projects. If the plethora of ideas presented by government leaders for the three-day Summit in New York last month is an indication, the Agenda may get off to a good start.

This policy brief is authored by Nathalie Risse.