Countries, Not UN, Responsible for Implementing 17 SDGs

NEW YORK (IDN) – Since all the world’s governments adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development in September 2015 and it took effect on January 1, two important questions being discussed around the world are: How will we measure progress in translating the Agenda into practice, and who is responsible for achieving the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

According to a Blue Paper, progress in implementing the Agenda will be measured with the help of ‘SDG Indicators’. Though, the list of SDG Indicators as published on January 28 will not be the last word on this matter; but it is certainly the first.

“With the SDGs, we have the world’s first universal set of goals for a better future. With the SDG Indicators, we now have a proposal for the world’s first universal dashboard, to tell us whether or we are actually creating ‘the future we want’”, says the Blue Paper released by the 17Goals partner AtKisson Group. It provides an analysis of the SDG Indicators sorting the indicators into five categories: People, Money, Plans & Policies, Production & Consumption, and Planet.

The SDG Indicators reflect the 2030 Agenda of 17 Sustainable Development Goals ranging from zero poverty, zero hunger, good health, quality education, gender equality, clean water and sanitation, and affordable clean energy, to decent work and economic growth, innovation, reduced inequalities, sustainable cities, responsible consumption, climate action, unpolluted oceans and land, and partnerships to achieve the goals.

SDGs put People at the heart of the SDG agenda. Over 90 of the indicators are measuring numbers of people, percentages of people, and the like – to make sure that “no one is left behind”.

The next big category is Money: There are 60 indicators framed in terms that ultimately come down to dollars, euros, renminbi and other currencies (most of the actual measurements are in US dollars). They will help answer questions like whether the world is truly investing what it needs to invest, paying the taxes it needs to pay, and funding the programs that will make the SDGs possible, says the Blue Paper.

Then comes governance: 38 of the indicators are looking for whether certain types of laws, plans, and policies have been established and are being implemented. Another 20 are measurements of industrial flows of energy and materials; and just 18 measure nature itself (“Planet” in the AtKisson Group’s category scheme), in terms of forests, water, species, etc. 

But 22 of the 38 indicators under “Plans & Policies” are also measuring various green things. The AtKisson Group counted 62 indicators that were also in alignment with the “green economy” agenda. (Download their report free here.)

This indicator list is not final, and it is also not mandatory: countries will be asked and invited to use it, voluntarily, when they report to the UN, as part of the SDG implementation process. And they are encouraged to supplement the list with indicators of their own, matching their own needs. Cities, companies and others are also expected to use these measures as starting points to review and refine their own indicator systems.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon contributed to the discussion about SDG indicators in a report on January 16 to the UN General Assembly (UNGA): Critical milestones towards coherent, efficient and inclusive follow-up and review at the global level.

In fact, the report covers quite a bit more than “milestones”. It describes the full complexity of the UN’s institutional process, including the roles of the High Level Political Forum (HLPF), the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), and of course the UNGA as well as “other platforms”.

The crux of the report is that the United Nations itself will not be “implementing the SDGs”. The UN’s role is to help the countries – when they ask for help – and to be the forum where they talk about implementation, share data globally, and report on their progress to each other.

At the same time, the SDGs are universal, meaning that we all have a role to play in implementation. But the UN is not going to tell anyone how to do it:  that is up to each national government, and to every other organization and person that chooses to get involved.

The UN chief wants the implementation review process to be “robust, voluntary, effective, participatory, transparent, and integrated”. The key word is “voluntary.” Both implementation of the SDGs, and reporting on progress, are “state-led” – it is the countries who decide.

The UN can only offer suggestions and recommendations about how the countries should report, if they choose to do so, to the international bodies as described below.

Every four years, the heads of state will meet at the UN to review progress and check in on how the world is doing with the 2030 Agenda. The UN Secretariat will be giving them an annual Global Sustainable Development Report, which will analyze the overall trends.

But they will also need to know what the countries, and other actors in society, are actually doing. And because that level of reporting is entirely voluntary, no one can say exactly how it’s going to go, says The AtKisson Group in its analysis.

But many countries are already committed to reporting on their progress, at least once in a while. And soon, the UN Statistical Commission will give them a set of recommended indicators, too. There is a lot to cover: how will they cover it all? The most likely plan is that over the course of four years, at least some of the Goals will be covered every year in the annual review process at the UN – which will likely involve nations reporting to each other at the regional level, and then regions reporting to the global level, making the HLPF the top of a reporting pyramid — so that by the time the heads of state meet every fourth year, all 17 Goals have been covered, all the (willing) countries have reported at least once, and overall progress can be summarized in a useful way.

How this all is going to work, in practice, remains largely to be decided. Ban KI-moon’s report is full of “coulds” and “shoulds”. But one of the most important “shoulds” concerns the systemic nature of the SDGs:

“The integrated and indivisible nature of the SDGs should lead to a review system that promotes a cross-cutting understanding of the significant inter-linkages across the goals and targets. This should foster at the HLPF, integrated and holistic perspectives on progress and obstacles, while precluding any single institution or forum from claiming exclusive ownership of or responsibility for the review of a specific goal.” (Paragraph 17)

“In other words,” says the Blue Paper, “you can’t split these goals up: they are all intended to work together. And not even at the level of the UN should any one agency “own” a Goal:  everybody has to own all of them (though of course some will focus more intently on some goals than on others).”

Further: “We need to avoid a situation (for example) where business and industry just focus on Goals 8 and 9 and keeps working on traditional economic growth, while environmental agencies get stuck with responsibility for Goals 13, 14, and 15, and have to keep fighting traditional environmental battles — because the pursuit of Goals 8 and 9 is making Goals 13, 14 and 15 impossible.”

The analysis adds: For the next 15 years (and beyond – because the sustainable development challenge will not end in 2030), we all have to practice the discipline of keeping everything in mind, all the time:  ending hunger and poverty, providing for other human aspirations and needs, while rebuilding our economic and industrial systems so that they don’t destroy the natural systems on which we all depend. [IDN-InDepthNews – 14 February 2016]

IDN is flagship of the International Press Syndicate.

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