It’s Not the Boxes that Count, but the Arrows: GSDR Scientists Call for Focus on Levers of Change
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The 15 independent scientists who are preparing the 2019 edition of the Global Sustainable Development Report briefed UN Member States and stakeholders on preliminary findings of their report.

The 2019 GSDR will be the first GSDR edition to be issued by an independent group of experts, and the first that will inform the UN’s summit-level global review of the 2030 Agenda.

The first draft of the report will be posted online for review and comments by Member States and other stakeholders by mid-May and finalized in July, in order for key findings to be presented at the July session of the HLPF, while the official version will be formally launched at the SDG Summit in September 2019.

12 April 2019: The 15 independent scientists who are preparing the 2019 edition of the Global Sustainable Development Report (GSDR) briefed UN Member States and stakeholders on preliminary findings of their report, and the process through which they have reached their conclusions. The 2019 GSDR will be the first GSDR edition to be issued by an independent group of experts, and the first that will inform the UN’s summit-level global review of the 2030 Agenda.

The GSDR was called for in the outcome of the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) in 2012. In 2015, the 2030 Agenda said the GSDR should inform the UN High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Forum (HLPF) by strengthening the science-policy interface and providing a strong evidence-based instrument to support policy-makers in promoting poverty eradication and sustainable development. In July 2016, the ministerial declaration of the HLPF (E/HLS/2016/1) called for the GSDR to be produced once every four years, rather than annually, and be timed to inform the HLPF when it convenes under the auspices of the UN General Assembly (UNGA). As outlined in this SDG Knowledge Hub policy brief, that declaration also called for an independent group of experts to be established to draft each report. The group of scientists was appointed later that year.

The group of scientists is co-chaired by Endah Murniningtyas, the former deputy minister for natural resources and the environment of Indonesia, and Peter Messerli, the director of the Center for Development and Environment at the University of Bern, in Switzerland. The briefing was hosted by the Permanent Missions of Indonesia and Switzerland and the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA).

Alexander Trepelkov, DESA, said the first draft of the report will be posted online for review and comments by Member States and other stakeholders by mid-May and finalized in July. Its key findings will be presented at the July session of the HLPF, while the official version will be formally launched at the SDG Summit in September 2019.

Jurg Lauber, Permanent Representative of Switzerland, said a global review of progress on the 2030 Agenda is especially important this year, when the HLPF will convene under both the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) and the UNGA. He differentiated the GSDR from the Secretary-General’s annual SDG progress, noting their different natures. He reported that the GSDR has a focus on the science-policy interface, and is systematic, scientific and analytical, prepared by scientists, and independent.

Ruben Escalante Hasbun, Permanent Representative of El Salvador and the facilitator for the modalities of the 2019 SDG Summit, said the GSDR is being anticipated with great “hunger for knowledge.” He stressed the need for it to infuse Member States’ discussions at the SDG Summit in order to inform action on the remainder of the 2030 Agenda. Therefore, he had urged the group of scientists to finalize the report as quickly as possible, and thanked them for making that a reality.

Murniningtyas outlined the variety of ways in which the group has engaged with each other and a broader set of scientists, including face-to-face meetings, virtual meetings, regional consultations, calls for inputs from other scientists around the world, and an external review process following the production of the zero draft of the report. She said 114 scientists responded to that draft.

Messerli presented the key elements of the report as it is currently drafted, and said it aims to answer the question, “what do we know about transforming the world?” He reported that the group found a “sobering picture” on SDG progress. With some targets moving forward but many not progressing (maternal mortality), and many others moving backwards (biodiversity loss is taking place at an unprecedented rate all over the world), he said “our starting point is a message of alarm, a message of huge urgency.”

As for what to do about this, he said, “if we run after every target, we won’t be able to make it,” and working to achieve single SDGs is not sufficient. With each of the 17 SDGs linked to each of the other 16, he said the key is to think systematically: “it’s the arrows that count, and not the boxes.”

Explaining this approach, Messerli said that if progress on one target is pursued “blindly” without regard for its range of impacts, other targets will be damaged. However, vicious cycles can be turned into virtuous ones through a focus on global flows, as set out in a three-part model of change.

First, the group identified six entry points for transformation:

  • Human wellbeing and capabilities;
  • Sustainable economies;
  • Energy decarbonization and access;
  • Food and nutrition;
  • Urban and peri-urban development; and
  • Global commons.

They also set out four levers for change across those areas: governance; economy and finance deployed “with purpose”; behavior and collective action at both individual and societal levels; and science and technology. Similarly to economy and finance, science and technology are to be pursued not as ends in themselves but as means to employ according to society’s priorities.

Third, Messerli said each lever, combined with each entry point for transformation, comprises a pathway. Within a given pathway, such as the role of finance in the food system, the details will differ between countries and contexts, but all can use the same lever. He said the report seeks to inform actors by identifying “the buttons we have to push” and showing how others are doing it. These tools and successes can then be shared and scaled up.

The Group also identified “blind spots” where information is lacking on relationships among SDG targets, for example on the interactions between food security and cities. Messerli said such a lack of information can affect the occurrence of trade-offs. A member of the group of scientists added that synergies “do not take care of themselves,” nor does avoiding trade-offs. Both require deliberate action.

Finally, Messerli reported that the Group examined the role of science in sustainable development, asking whether the needed knowledge is being produced, and reported that it has generated a map of “science for sustainable development.” The findings include that the majority of research funding comes from business, while public knowledge for the 2030 Agenda is a small share. Moreover, very low-income countries, which are exposed to the greatest challenges, have the least knowledge available to design their own pathways to sustainable development.

Representatives of UN Members States asked a number of questions, including how the GSDR scientists interpret the poverty eradication mandate in the context of the SDGs overall. A member of the group of scientists said that, when you reduce poverty only through income, you are dealing only with one dimension. When one uses SDG target 1.2 and other dimensions, then more interlinkages are accounted for. Otherwise, a danger exists that we reduce poverty with environmental costs.

One delegate highlighted the difficulty of working beyond silos at the national level, especially with regard to budgeting and coordination across ministries. He suggested that this could be one of the biggest challenges of the SDGs’ remaining years. A member of the group of scientists reinforced the need to break silos, and said this also applies to the world of science. [GSDR Website]


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