Taking action: why national ownership of the Sustainable Development Goals is vital to success

This post is written by Åsa Persson and Måns Nilsson, Stockholm Environment Institute

Unless the SDGs can be turned into nationally relevant targets that mesh with existing priorities and processes, they risk becoming just another bit of remote UN agenda.

The global transformation that the SDGs call for requires integrated, concerted action by the UN member states. But at the same time, the intention has always been that, in the words of the political declaration that accompanies the goals: “Targets are defined as aspirational and global, with each Government setting its own national targets guided by the global level of ambition but taking into account national circumstances.”

A major challenge when it comes to national implementation of this common agenda will be finding the right balance between harmonization – staying close to the global targets themselves, which will make comparisons and global progress monitoring easier – and internalization – reinterpreting the targets to make them fit better the national legal framework, social fabric, and political discourse. Both approaches are valuable, but we would argue that there is a potential tension, or even a trade-off, between them.

So far, the emphasis has been on harmonization. Discussion of what comes after SDG adoption has been dominated by defining global indicators. There has been much less talk of how to achieve the goals, of guiding governments and other actors on how to pursue goals and targets, whether by means of introducing new or adjusting existing policy instruments or business models, adjusting organizational arrangements, and introducing policy assessment procedures. There is a genuine risk that the SDGs become all about the indicators, rather than about action towards realizing the larger vision.

Why focus on internalization?
A first reason to put more resources into proper internalization is that the SDGs do not really add any new goals or issues to mainstream agendas; instead, they address core, everyday political and ideological matters about how wealth and the costs and benefits of development are distributed within society. Any serious effort to implement them must be steered by central governments and parliaments. A key challenge in this process will be ensuring the internalization maintains the SDGs’ level of ambition – which could perhaps best be done through an international peer review of nationally set targets and actions.

Another reason is that, presumably, governments are a lot more concerned about accountability to the electorate than to the UN. Nationally set, politically relevant targets would provide a far greater incentive for action than reporting to the UN about a largely UN agenda. If a nationally adapted SDG target could find its way onto a political party’s manifesto ahead of an election, that might be one of the most effective ways of securing action.

Another aspect is timing. The SDG targets are mostly set for 2030; national interpretation processes could set shorter-term targets more in line with national political cycles. Likewise, indicators that do not rapidly reflect change – whether positive or negative – will likely not create much of a stir in national media and policy debates.

We also know from experience that approaches led by internationally defined indicators for sustainable development are not that effective. The 2002 Earth Summit in Johannesburg called for national sustainable development strategies drawing on a regularly monitored global indicator set. In most cases, the action never really got beyond drafting a strategy, and sustainable development stayed outside the political mainstream.

Finally, the SDGs will enter a space crowded with goals and targets stemming from global, regional and national level processes. Far better to integrate the SDG agenda into existing agendas than to introduce a whole new set of parallel processes.

Making it happen
How could internalization be facilitated? For a start, broad awareness of the SDGs and their aims will be needed in order to build national constituencies and political stakes around the agenda. Second, a process of interpretation needs to take place among those who are expected to act on the targets. This will be both a political and an analytical process, where research has a key role. While there are many stakeholders, most important is that national, regional and local governments take ownership. But, as is pointed out in the text for adoption at the Summit, both business and civil society organizations need to be involved.

Internalization will probably be more effective and manageable if a core group of priority national targets is defined, to focus action. And finally, reporting should to a large extent be based on the actions taken, not just on progress towards targets. Many of the SDG issues are simply too complex for quick and easy measurement of outcomes.

Follow-up at global level will allow us to celebrate progress, and to identify where we are falling short. But the ultimate aim of the whole 2030 agenda is to bring about transformation; and for that to happen, the goals and targets must be internalized by those actors who can bring about change.

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