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Leadership is needed - but who and how?

Thu, 2016-10-06 12:40
Helen Burley

A UK parliamentary committee wants to know how best to deliver the Sustainable Development Goals. One year into the 2030 Agenda, countries are starting to explore different paths.

photo shows a man tapping for rubber on a plantation in Liberia

Implementing the SDGs in Liberia means balancing economic development with forest protection, photo: Solidarity Centre via flickr.com, creative commons licence.

The UK Parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) recently held an inquiry to look at how the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) should be implemented in the UK. One of the questions asked was how best to deliver the goals. What structures, governance mechanisms and lines of accountability are needed? And who should provide leadership?

The questions are timely and not just in the UK context (where there has been little evidence of action so far). IRF has been talking to people in government in different countries, and these interviews, alongside countries’ own national reviews for the UN’s High Level Political Forum (HLPF) reveal that one year after the SDGs were endorsed by global leaders in New York, progress on these basic questions is mixed at best.

Existing leadership

Countries with a track record in sustainable development clearly have a head start – with national bodies staffed with experts, budgetary capacities and a broader understanding of what is required.

Finland, one of the 22 countries to submit a voluntary national review to HLPF in July, has had a National Commission on Sustainable Development headed by the country’s Prime Minister, since 1993. The country already has a strategy for sustainable development, and this has been updated to bring it in line with Agenda 2030. A national plan for implementing the SDGs will also be developed by the end of the year, with leadership coming from the Prime Minister’s office.

Mexico, which also submitted a voluntary review (Spanish), told RIMISP that the government wants to show leadership to achieve a “paradigm shift” and encourage the Mexican people to think in a more sustainable way. The former Specialised Technical Committee for the Millennium Development Goals in Mexico now focuses on the Sustainable Development Goals, bringing in more government departments, and a mapping exercise is underway to look at who should deliver on policies to achieve the Goals.

Shifting focus

In some other countries there has been less emphasis on sustainable development, with many of the world’s poorest countries focused on achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Shifting from this focus to the more ambitious SDGs may require reform and adjustment at the policy level.

An interview with a representative from the Government of Malawi, carried out by IRF partner, ODI, found that Agenda 2030’s emphasis on domestic resource mobilisation required a totally new approach. Malawi still needs to develop an action plan, and must find ways to juggle this with the country’s own Vision 2020 Growth and Development Strategy II and Africa’s Agenda 2063.

Despite the challenges, the government has stated its commitment to achieving the SDGs and is engaging stakeholders in the SDG action plan. But policy and strategic guidance are needed on how to take this forward, as well as funding support.

In Liberia, a representative from the government’s Ministry of Finance and Development Planning said integrating the SDGs into the country’s next national development plan, and the Africa Agenda 2063, was being led by the body currently responsible for coordinating the country’s national development plans. But while steps are underway, implementation will be a huge challenge in this war-torn country, inevitably involving trade-offs between the need for rapid economic growth and protection for the country’s natural resources.

The country, he said, would need technical assistance with research and analysis, knowledge sharing and support for capacity building if it was to successfully balance these trade- offs and harmonise the different goals and targets. The security situation, with the departure of international peace-keepers and with general and presidential elections due next year, also had to be considered.

Who and how?

Other countries have embraced the 2030 Agenda, establishing commissions and bodies to oversee implementation of the SDGs, or develop plans.

Colombia, which also submitted a voluntary national review (Spanish) to HLPF, created a High Level Commission on implementation in February 2015, before the 2030 Agenda was formally adopted. This has been involved in national planning activities, and a further body has been set up to involve different sectors and interest groups, operating through five different working groups. But the Agenda has not yet been fully adopted across government, and in an interview with WRI, a Commission official acknowledged that more also needed to be done to involve civil society.

India has charged NITI Aayog (the National Institution for Transforming India, established in 2015 to replace the former Planning Commission) with responsibility for coordinating the 2030 Agenda in India, with state governments also asked to draw up their own plans. While this has the potential to work across different levels and sections of government, IRF partner Development Alternatives (DA) has pointed out, NITI Aayog does not yet have the processes in place to do this effectively. DA also raises concerns about the lack of citizen involvement.

Kenya has created an SDG implementation team within the deputy president’s office, while in Ghana an inter-ministerial committee is coordinated through the planning ministry.  

So what advice for the UK?

The UK does not have an existing body which would naturally take the lead in coordinating domestic implementation of the SDGs – it got rid of its Sustainable Development Commission in 2011. But nor is it starting from scratch – and it is important that it draws on existing expertise.

Establishing clear plans and driving coherent policy action across and between departments is one part of the challenge, and different governments are addressing this in different ways. Leadership from the top is important – but a structure that survives political changes can also be valuable.

Drawing in expertise and perspectives from across business, society and from different levels of government are also key to the 2030 Agenda. It is not solely the responsibility of governments. But achieving that kind of collective action requires government leadership – and a willingness to listen and enable, rather than dictate and control.

As with all countries, the UK must find its own way to implement the SDGs. The decision to leave the Europe Union means the UK must take back policy areas previously controlled by Brussels. This could provide an opportunity to embrace a more joined-up approach.


Helen Burley is a communications consultant working with IRF. This blog benefited from contributions from Paula Lucci and Fortunate Machingura at ODI, Vivian Diaz at RIMISP, Simon Hoiberg Olsen at IGES, and Tighe Geoghegan and Tom Bigg at IIED.


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