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SDGs: Grounded or hopeless?

Tue, 2014-07-15 09:35
Julio Berdegué

Principal Researcher, RIMISP

The sustainable development goals are unlikely to have impact without greater involvement of national and local policy makers. 

The world is very different in many ways from the one that existed in September 2000, when world leaders adopted the Millennium Declaration that launched the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). And one of these crucial differences is that more developing countries have far more power in deciding, funding and implementing their development strategies and policies. In the year 2000, most countries in Africa and in Asia, and a few in Latin America, were still very dependent not only on ODA financial flows but, more importantly, on the ideas and interests that inspired and guided that support. That reality shaped the MDGs and the roles that rich and poor countries played in their implementation.

Now the international community is in the process of designing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that are to follow the MDGs, and this time around, things are different. Only 34 countries are considered low-income, and of the 50 that are classed as lower-middle income, many are growing fast enough so that in a few years they will have passed the $4000 GNI per capita mark and will have become upper-middle income nations.  This is more than a funny classification: it means that these developing countries, plus the many more that are already upper-middle income or even high-income, will have more power to choose and decide, pay for their decisions, and act accordingly.

Making sure the SDGs have impact

Will these heads of state, ministers of finance, of education, of social development, of agriculture, of energy, or of the environment, actually be guided in their decisions by whatever is agreed and signed in New York City? Not likely, unless the SDGs emerge out of a process that is guided by the real and concrete policy processes happening right now in developing countries. An agenda that is the result of a top down process, such as the one taking place in New York, will not have as much influence on real development policy decisions, as an agenda that is a careful synthesis of the very concrete policy dilemmas and action courses that occur in the real arena of development processes, in the developing countries themselves.

How can local, national and regional experience in sustainable development assessments, learning and decision-making processes inform SDG formulation? The most important thing that could occur is to take the SDG discussion to the policy makers themselves. Let ministers of education discuss the goals and targets on education, those of economic development figure out what are the international agreements that could actually help them move forward with their own policies, and so on. The same can happen with the private sector and with civil society: take the process to the real players and not only to those international organizations that can afford to spend time and money in endless meetings in New York.

What can countries do to prepare for successful implementation of a transformative, universal and integrated post-2015 sustainable development agenda? Right now I don’t think that too many people in developing country capitals, much less in provincial towns and villages, care about the SDG process, or even know about it; not even the media, or the more informed sectors of the elite are paying attention. It is the top-down nature of the SDG process that has led to this sorry state of affairs.  Countries—that is, actual government decision-makers, businesspeople, and civic leaders—will care, and be involved, if the discussion is brought to them in a way that gives them reason to believe that they could actually be part of a global agreement.

In short, take the SDG process to the developing world, where development will no matter what be decided and acted upon in the coming years.

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