A political baseline for the Sustainable Development Goals

This post is written by Paula Lucci, Research Fellow in ODI’s Growth, Poverty and Inequality Programme, and Andrew Scott, Research Fellow in ODI’s Climate and Environment Programme  

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), to be agreed in September and come into effect on 1 January 2016, will guide international development and cooperation for the next 15 years. According to the draft released this month, they will be aspirational goals, intended to provide a reference for setting national priorities, in rich and poor countries alike.

But despite a three-year debate about goals for the post-2015 development agenda, little consideration has been given so far to the targets that countries already have, how they are used, the extent to which they reflect global targets and what they tell us about existing political commitments in different SDG-related areas.

What we did

To help fill this gap, we conducted a review of existing national commitments, published today. Unsurprisingly, most governments already set themselves targets related to both human and sustainable development. These are often articulated in national and sectoral strategies and plans or in commitments to international agreements.

Our review collected this information for 75 countries, looking for national targets in areas covered by over 60 of the targets included in the SDGs proposal. For a smaller group of targets for which we had comparable information – 13 across eight different goal areas – we went further and compared the level of ambition of existing national and likely (given that these are yet to be agreed) global targets.

Our analysis of the gaps between global and national ambition at this point, just as the SDGs are being agreed, provides a proxy for political commitment, a sort of political baseline. Arguably, having ambitious targets in certain areas can be seen as an indication that governments are prepared to implement ambitious policies in that specific sector or, at the very least, they want to be perceived as aspiring to do something about it.

What we found

Of the 13 areas in our analysis, the top five gaps between SDG and national ambition were in renewable energy, maternal mortality, secondary education, access to electricity and sanitation.

In the case of renewable energy, where the assumed SDG target is to double the proportion of renewables in total final energy consumption (following the Sustainable Energy for All initiative), the gap is mainly accounted for by a lack of ambition among high-income countries. In other areas such as maternal mortality, sanitation, access to electricity and secondary school the divergence between national and global ambition is biggest in low-income countries, although in many cases these targets were still ambitious given current performance and historical trajectories.

So how is this ‘political baseline’ useful?

Comparing current national ambition with the likely global ambition set by the SDGs indicates a number of priorities for both policymakers and advocates in the implementation of new goals. Firstly, most of the hard work will be needed in areas that are either highly politically contentious (climate policy) or expensive (secondary education, electricity and sanitation).  This has implications for how governments structure a review process to increase political pressure on each other, for how civil society organisations focus their priorities to push governments for higher ambition, and also how resources are mobilised for the new agenda, particularly to support low-income countries in delivering a more ambitious set of goals.

Encouragingly, this review also shows the high level of ambition that already exists in many areas, in particular those covered by the existing MDGs, such as primary school completion and gender parity in access to primary education. This suggests the power of global goals to drive focus and ambition, but also reveals their limits; while ambition may be high, the world still has a long way to go to realise the global goals in sustainable development.

The ODI database that accompanies this report is available at targetstracker.post2015.org  for researchers and interested parties to access, analyse and contribute to. We plan to publish updates to provide a resource for analysis of national targets as they are agreed. To submit additional or more up to date information, email targets.post2015@odi.org.uk

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