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What role for governance in implementing the SDG agenda?

Thu, 2015-09-17 15:10
Simon Høiberg Olsen & Helen Burley

The Sustainable Development Goals set an ambitious new agenda, but implementation is what counts. A new book from IRF partner, IGES, looks at how the goals could be achieved.

woman collects water from a stream

Water can be seen as being at the core of the SDGs, photo: Matt Berlin via flickr.com, creative commons licence

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) will be adopted by the global community at the UN General Assembly Summit in New York on 25-26 September. But after the fanfare has died down, what happens next?

IGES’ new book, Achieving the Sustainable Development Goals: From Agenda to Action sets out to try and answer that question. It examines how globally agreed goals can be made relevant to different national and local contexts, and more specifically, it looks at how governance —the way authority is exercised and decisions are made and executed—can infuse action into the new development agenda.

An agenda for a better tomorrow

The SDGs are the centrepiece of a development agenda planned to guide development between 2016 and 2030. This agenda envisages a world free from poverty and deprivation, and where the fundamental conditions for human prosperity—healthy ecosystems, a stable climate, and a clean environment—are safely maintained. This vision is expected to guide international organisations, the private sector, civil society, and governments in all countries and at all levels in the shared pursuit of a healthier world and a better tomorrow.

The book outlines an analytical framework that stresses how three distinct but related aspects of governance influence development: 1) the make-up of national government institutions; 2) the interaction between the design of international agreements and national compliance with their provisions; and 3) the facilitation of collaboration across multiple stakeholders at multiple levels.

Authors argue that designing policies in pursuit of the SDGs will require attention to how the main actors and primary motivations in these three views can help countries make progress on the SDGs.

Building capacity and accountable finance

The first of these (effective governments and rule of law) had a significant influence on progress with the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in a wide range of countries, and authors suggest that international organisations and donor agencies need to devote more resources to building essential skills and capacity in government institutions. This could provide a springboard for a more integrated, transformational and universal agenda under the SDGs.

Finance is of course crucial to implementing the SDGs (as has been noted elsewhere) but authors argue that when it comes to international agreements on finance, it is equally important that signatories are held accountable.

Clear commitments, strong monitoring frameworks, and substantial high-level dialogues on follow-up measures have been essential for ensuring accountability in past international agreements. Indicators are also important, not only to monitor inputs—how much funding is provided—but also to monitor how funds are spent and how this contributes to concrete development outcomes.

The general commitments made at the recent Financing for Development conference in Addis (the Addis Ababa Action Agenda) will make accountability challenging. 

An integrated approach

In the book, authors look at how their analytical framework can help inform our understanding of how the SDGs will perform in different sectors. Looking at water, authors examine how the key to making water systems more secure is an integrated perspective that positions water at the core of the SDGs. A failure to take an integrated perspective could have knock on effects for food, health, energy and environment.

Capturing these synergies goes beyond simply recognising water management’s inherent complexities (which have been well-documented in calls for integrated water resources management). Moving beyond this requires policies and practices that leverage synergies between water and other sustainability objectives. Which of these countries pursue will depend on their prioritisation, whether this is for 1) improved access, 2) enhanced efficiency, or 3) systems transformation.

Similarly, a well-designed energy SDG can alleviate poverty, improve health and wellbeing, and mitigate climate change. But realising these multiple benefits requires countries to tailor SDGs to national contexts. This will involve placing varying weights on energy access, energy efficiency, renewable energy and energy conservation. Existing initiatives such as Sustainable Energy for All (SE4All) could help with this.

Inclusive governance

It is almost inevitable that change on the level envisaged by the SDGs will create tensions – and this is equally true of a shift to more integrated and inclusive forms of governance. The SDGs talk about a new global partnership – and working in partnership, and involving stakeholders, will be key to overcoming these difficulties. These elements are likely to become preconditions for turning aspirational goals and targets into transformational actions.

Simon Høiberg Olsen is a senior policy researcher / task manager with the Institute for Global Environmental Strategies (IGES) and Helen Burley is IRF2015's communications officer.

Achieving the Sustainable Development Goals: from Agenda to Action is available to download here.

The executive summary (English) can be downloaded here.


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