Photo: Chinh Le Duc, Unsplash

Two years into the SDGs: Succeeding or stalling?

25 September 2017
Author: Ruth Fuller

Two years ago global leaders signed up to the most ambitious and comprehensive policy framework ever seen – the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). These 17 goals and 169 targets have the potential to transform our world. If they are achieved, we will see an end to poverty and hunger, fairer and more equal societies, a thriving natural environment, and solutions to climate change. But whether we manage to do this depends on the political will to implement them. 

How are we doing so far? 

The world feels like a more divided place than in 2015.  The head of Nato recently claimed that the world is more dangerous today than it has been in a generation, while WWF’s Living Planet Report is a stark reminder of how we’re trashing the natural resources that our economies and societies depend on. The need for coordinated and concerted effort around the SDGs is greater than ever. 

Climate change is accelerating extreme weather events with tragic human consequences, as we’ve seen with the extreme monsoon floods in Asia and recent hurricanes in the Caribbean and USA. These events have, in a few hours, set back SDG delivery by years. The need to integrate climate change and the SDGs is more pertinent than ever.

Which countries are rising to the challenge? 

So far 66 countries have reported to the UN on how they are progressing on the SDGs and a further 44 countries have volunteered to report in 2018. National governments are certainly stepping up to showcase their efforts, but they vary widely. Bond has done an analysis [PDF] of SDG reporting in 2016 and is currently working with partners to review the 2017 reports. 

Some countries are being innovative. For example: 

  • Finland: has a sophisticated architecture for the SDGs, with a coordination Secretariat that sits in the prime minister’s office
  • Uganda: the prime minister chairs the SDG Policy Coordination Committee
  • Germany: the new Sustainability Strategy is seen as "the overarching strategy of the German government" 

Others have mapped their existing activities and policies against the goals but aren’t doing anything new that will drive change towards delivering the goals.

The SDGs are highly ambitious and a “business as usual” approach to policy making won’t be enough. Big shifts are required in how we fuel our economies, distribute wealth, treat our natural environment and use resources. But very few countries are setting out ambitious plans to address these challenges.

Private sector engagement on SDGs 

Governments are not the only ones with a stake in the SDGs. There’s increasing interest from the private sector, with a wide range of businesses mapping their portfolios against the goals and showing how they contribute. In January 2017, over 80 major UK businesses signed an open letter to the prime minister demonstrating their commitment to delivering the SDGs and calling on the UK government to do likewise. 

Private sector engagement with the SDGs is really important, particularly where companies are committing to shift business models and supply chains in line with the goals. However, there is also the need for accountability, standard setting and ensuring that interest in the SDGs goes beyond mapping and alignment to driving positive changes in business behaviour and impacts. 

Lessons from Wales

Cities and regions are also showing leadership in how to deliver the goals for their inhabitants. Wales for example has taken an innovative approach with its Wellbeing of Future Generations Act, which requires action towards sustainable development from public authorities and links this to the SDGs. There is an opportunity for Wales to share its experiences of delivering through this unique approach with other countries and regions. However, it’s currently unclear how SDG reporting processes for the UK will take account of the experiences of devolved nations. 

How about the UK government?

The UK government has committed to being at the forefront of delivering the SDGs at home and around the world [PDF]. However, three parliamentary committees (the International Development Committee, the Environmental Audit Committee, and the Women and Equalities Committee) have held inquires on the SDGs and all have been critical of the UK’s action to date. 

Disappointingly, the UK also declined the opportunity to be one of the countries reporting to the UN on their SDG progress in 2018, meaning 110 countries will already have reported ahead of us. The UK needs to commit to reporting in the 2019 round and set the bar high for how it’s going to engage stakeholders in this process and deliver a report that is ambitious, forward-looking and innovative. 

The UK was deeply involved in negotiating and setting the framework for the SDGs, and if it wants to retain its positon as a global leader then it needs to act now. The government must demonstrate how it will deliver the goals at domestic and international levels and how it will monitor and report on progress. 

Is there the political will to get serious about delivering the goals? 

The SDGs set out a positive vision for the world we want to live in by 2030. Two years on, governments, businesses and other stakeholders continue to show their commitment to that vision. However, this is often not backed up by substantive policy commitments or the political will to address the underlying drivers of issues like extreme poverty, conflict, inequality, environmental degradation and climate change. 

Without commitment from all stakeholders to tackle the root causes of humanity’s greatest challenges, the SDGs will remain an ambitious vision and never become reality.

Do you work on the SDGs? Join the working group on My Bond to discuss them with others in the sector and help influence their implementation.

About the author

Ruth Fuller

Ruth is international development policy adviser at WWF-UK where she focuses on the links between poverty, natural resources and climate change. Ruth is also co-chair of the Bond SDGs group.