By Dr. Nuttavikhom Phanthuwongpakdee | SDG Move
A series of unfortunate global events of 2016 exemplify how unpredicted shocks can transpire when societal challenges are left unattended. In the absence of steady, inclusive and long-term development progress, societies can renounce foundational norms. Certainly, following waves of political tsunamis, people from different segments of the society are struggling to attain logical references to guide essential decision-making. Agreeing with Bjørn K Haugland, the Chief Sustainability Officer CSO of DNV GL Group, “No-one would blame you for feeling that the world is pretty risky right now” (Haugland, 2017).
Amid the uncertain global political climate that we are experiencing, the world already has the reference point. On September 2015, at the United Nations (UN) headquarter, world leaders agreed on a set of 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that would support them in tackling mutual social, economic, environmental, and, to a small extent, political challenges. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), officially known as Transforming Our World: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is a set of 17 Global Goals with the total of 169 targets between them. Given the flexibility of each goal, each country can customise these goals and many targets in a manner that best suited its own situation to meet the ultimate aim of SDGs, to end extreme poverty, build prosperity for everyone and safeguard our environmental resources for the future, by 2030.
Many countries have been integrating SDGs into their policies and practices. To monitor progress, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development encourages member states to “conduct regular and inclusive reviews of progress at the national and sub-national levels, which are country-led and country-driven” (paragraph 79). One of important review is the voluntary national reviews (VNRs), which aim to facilitate the sharing of experiences, including successes, obstacles and lessons learned, with a view to accelerating the implementation of the 2030 Agenda. The VNRs also seek to strengthen policies and institutions of governments and to mobilise multi-stakeholder support and partnerships for the implementation of the SDGs. Twenty-two countries participated in the first round of VNRs, held during the 2016 meeting of High-Level Political Forum (HLPF) (Division for Sustainable Development Department of Economic and Social Affairs, 2016). Highlights from each participated country are as followed:
China: Sets 5-year plan to reduce poverty, increase minimum wages, decrease unemployment, create more housing, and moderate greenhouse gases. Furthermore, China is committed to working with other developing countries, especially those in Africa.
Colombia: The country initiates SDGs even before it commenced in September 2015. It sees SDGs as long-term regulatory process and allows the private sectors to invest in various SDGs-related services. SDGs are included in the national development plan, with clear financial outlines and mechanisms to engage with different actors. Some local governments have already employed SDGs in their development goals. The country also has done a substantial amount of studies to connect different goals.
Egypt: Outlines a series of challenges that need to be addressed to achieve the SDGs. These include high birth rate, water scarcity, mitigation and adaptation to climate change, energy needs, barriers impeding women and girls from realising their potential for social and economic progress, and instability in neighbouring states.
Estonia: Emphasises on technology and ICT to achieve SDGs. This is done through the creation of Big Data and the use of social media to create public awareness.
Finland: Utilises 39 existing indicators to monitor the progress of SDGs. Together with CSO, it realises that the country’s official development assistance (ODA) is too small and the country to work harder on this issue. Furthermore, every government department creates work plans with SDGs and conducted Gap Analysis and found that to achieve SDGs, Finland should concentrate more on education, peace and justice.
France: Concentrates on linking SDGs to Paris Agreement
Georgia: Established a technical working group including experts from different ministries and from the National Statistics Office (NSO) to discuss the process of “nationalisation” of the SDGs.
Germany: Stresses the need for monitoring and review, and for strengthening capacities on revenues. The country has increased the capacity of the tax administration in the country and suggested that international financial institutions could play a bigger role in enabling partner countries to control what is needed to implement the 2030 Agenda.
Madagascar: Assess how the SDGs are reflected in the country’s national development plan, discuss SDG indicators and monitoring and evaluation, and present a roadmap for SDG implementation.
México: Develops a software to track the progress of SDGs. With the aim of enabling collaboration between, and contribution from, various sectors, the software is open to the public and allow the private sector to invest.
Montenegro: Hold a national meeting to discuss the needs of different sectors within the country in achieving to SDGs.
Morocco: UN organisations, namely UNDP and UNDESA, collaborates with various Moroccan stakeholders to brainstorms various SDGs projects. Also, ensuring that SDGs indicators are presented in a simplified manner to facilitate their understanding by citizens and the media.
Norway: Increases official development assistance for education, with a particular focus on girls’ education, supports climate financing for vulnerable nations, and including the SDGs as part of school curriculum.
The Philippines: The CSO sector is very active. Many of them already used SDGs to guide their works and collaboration with the government. The country has a clear financial plan for SDGs and regularly coordinate with the UN for financial and academic assistances.
South Korea: Initiates the Science, Technology and Innovation for Better Life Initiative to help developing states on Goals 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 8, 19 and 17. At the same time, encourages education institutions to include the SDGs in textbooks for primary and secondary school students, and carries out nationwide campaigns on implementing the SDGs.
Samoa: Conducted a preliminary integrated assessment of the Strategy for the Development of Samoa (SDS 2012-2016), as part of its Mid-Term Review, to provides an indicative overview of the level of alignment between it and the SDG targets.
Sierra Leone: Creates simplified SDGs to educate the public about SDGs
Switzerland: Commits to sustainable development through its foreign policy, including its foreign economic policy, international cooperation, and sectoral foreign policies. With its engagement in international processes geared towards multilateral conventions, bilateral agreements, as well as regional and global programmes, Switzerland contributes to the advancement of sustainable development in its foreign policy.
Togo: Launches a process to develop its national development plan (2018-2022), which will replace the national strategy for accelerated growth and the promotion of employment (2013-2017), and will integrate the SDGs.
Turkey: In 2015, Turkey provided official development assistance (ODA) of 3.9 thousand million US dollars or 0.54% of its GNI. In the next 5 years, Turkey is committed to providing 1.5 thousand million US dollars to least developed countries (LDCs).
Uganda: Increased women in the government sector to at least 30%
Venezuela: Disaggregates relevant data and visualise information about the most vulnerable under the principle “leave no one behind,” and support for the participation of civil society, the private sector, and academia to ensure both a “bottom-up” and “top-down” approach to the implementation of the 2030 Agenda.
In 2017, the theme of the HLPF will be “Eradicating poverty and promoting prosperity in a changing world”, and the event will be held on 10th to 19th July 2017. The set of goals to be reviewed in depth will be Goals 1, 2, 3, 5, 9, 14, and 17.
The obstacles and dilemmas in adopting SDGs
While SDGs were agreed by world leaders, the Goals represent a bold and ambitious global plan, with as many as 169 targets. Achieving this plan is not an easy matter. On the contrary, it is a highly complicated process, requiring a lot of high-quality research, active collaboration between various stakeholders and efficient policy implementations by the government of each country. With their internal development dilemmas, many countries, such as Brazil, Thailand and Serbia, that are neither of highly-developed nor in a vulnerable position to receive assistance can find it extra-difficult to achieve SDGs. The interdependent nature of the 17 Goals and 169 targets also mean that different issues can tie together. For example, to build climate-resilient cities and to promote sustainable urbanisation ones also need to look at issues like urban poverty, climate vulnerability, clean potable water and sustainable consumption.
Regardless, in July 2016, the UN published its first Sustainable Development Goals report, detailing the progress of SDGs six months after it had commenced. Unfortunately, the findings indicate that 18% of the world population still lives in poverty, 800 million people are suffering from hunger, and 2.4 billion people live without improved sanitation (United Nations, 2016). Additionally, a recent study published in December 2016 by the Brookings Institute found that up to 80% of the world’s countries, including highly-developed countries like Canada, Ireland and the United Arab Emirates, are off track on at least one among four targets for child mortality, maternal mortality, access to water and access to sanitation (McArthur & Rasmussen, 2016). Thirty-seven countries, such as Afghanistan, Myanmar, and Somalia, are astray from all four (McArthur & Rasmussen, 2016).
Simultaneously, nearly all countries continue to be burdened with challenges while tackling problems like unemployment, education among girls, mental health, and sustainable cities. Trends in many socio-economic and environmental issues are not heading in the progressive direction. For instance, in the global scale inequality of incomes has spiked to record high (The Institute for Policy Studies, n.d.), atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide continued to be high (Statista, 2016), rate of deforestation continues to increase (Tropical Forest Alliance 2020, 2017), and more than half of the global fisheries have been pushed beyond their limits (World Wildlife Fund, 2017). Within the Southeast Asia region, many countries have seen strong economic progressions; however, the region is struggling to transform this growth into decent job opportunities for the poor. In term of resilient to climate change and disaster adaptation, most resources continue to be invested in strengthening capacities for the physical aspects of disaster management. There has been limited success in applying policies, norms and regulations to manage and reduce risk and vulnerability. It is true that the world has progressed for the better since the start of the Millennium Development Goals (MGDs), SDGs predecessor, as roughly a billion of people escaped poverty cycle, almost 4 million fewer children die annually and better treatment for HIV and AIDS (United Nations, 2014). The present global situation is still unsatisfactory.
SDGs require countries to measure over 230 formidable indicators, a considerable challenge given that many countries are yet to collect several simple data. The world experience from the MDGs underscores the importance of thinking through the indicators as soon as possible. Collecting useful data and using them as indicators are vital for the monitoring of the progress towards achieving SDGs. However, there are concerns by many research institutes and think tanks is the fact that accurate data is missing (McArthur & Rasmussen, 2016).
For instance, collecting potentially-sensitive data, such as those on religion, ethnicity, disability, levels of education, and sexual orientation, as indicators for SDGs is challenging (Bradford Smith & Haslam, 2017). Currently, many countries, including Thailand and Sudan, are grappling with this problem. This difficulty has much to do with existing social and cultural norms. Additionally, problems regarding the reliability of statistics can arise when a significant sample size is not collected. The comparison of data between/among countries, or even different regions within a country experiencing dissimilar development stages, is undoubtedly complicated, requiring the necessary capacity to gather good-quality data. Methodology, such as collection procedure and criteria, which is used while gathering data, must be well-thought-out to minimise potential errors and biases. Over and above the risk that collected data can become too reductive, different organisations can produce repetitive data for overlapping or interrelated SDGs goals and/or targets, a process which is a wasteful use of financial resources, or worse, the obtained data for different goals and/or targets can even be contradictory.
Discussing the risk of reductive, error and biased data also take us to another SDGs issue; the fact that many researchers and related stakeholders do not display the conviction of collaboration for a higher purpose. According to Obino (2016), collaborative research could force SDGs implementation, but there is a lack of cooperation among researchers. As the international academic market is getting more competitive, many researchers are concentrating on the works that will advance their academic careers (Obino, 2016). Incentives must be created to encourage researchers to work together to address questions of urgent societal impact. Given the significance of the SDGs, supporting new formats for collaborative research in the next 15 years will be substantial (Obino, 2016).
Driving SDGs forward on the Global Stage
Against the grim reality, there is a silver lining. We believe contributions from different actors and stakeholders from different sectors are equally crucial and they must act hand in hand to achieve SDGs. Policy-makers and policy-regulators continue to be important actors (Biermann, 2014). Certainly, they must blaze a trail by crafting the sound policy and institutional agenda in which others can act. They must guarantee incentives whereby economic progress is tied to driving solutions to socio-economic and environmental complications. In unison, they must ensure that benefits are distributed in an unbiased manner, without hindering the enthusiasms for innovation (Biermann, 2014). Political parties must work to mainstream sustainable development within national discourse.
Private firms and companies will need to provide core products and services for the SDGs while constantly upgrading themselves for the better and share certain information with the public. For instance, PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) estimated in its report that up to 80% of Southeast Asians, in the study, are more likely to purchase products and services from companies that are committed to achieving SDGs (PwC, 2015). Up to 97% of businesses surveyed plan to address SDGs within the next five years (PwC, 2015). Undeniably, the SDGs come with complexities but also substantial advantages for businesses, big or small. Adopting the SDGs will support numerous business owners, managers, CEOs and other relevant stakeholders in formulating long-term visions for their organisations, advancing the resilience of their business models and expanding opportunities to support national, regional, and international objectives. In the same report, PwC also listed the top three activities, regarding SDGs, are companies are likely to take. They are 1) identify and recognise the Goals that are most relevant to the business, 2) set goals aligned with the related SDGs, and 3) create a Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) or SDGs-related team(s) (PwC, 2015).
Researchers, scientists and engineers will hold the important role of generating crucial knowledge and technological advances to support SDGs. To make an impact on achieving SDGs, researchers must venture out of their institutions and take stands on scientific matters. If one voice is not enough researchers can make a good use of existing academic federations and societies, in all levels, to gain more strength. In Asia, the examples of such organisations are Federation of Asian Scientific Academies and Societies, and the Association of Academies of Sciences (Maslog, 2017). However, researchers should not wait for governments to seek their insight and advice. They must be hands-on and speak out more persuasively on various concerns such as environmental pollution, climate change and threat of epidemic diseases (Maslog, 2017). Positively, achieving SDGs should be viewed as a unique opportunity for science to influence policy and a platform for scientists and researchers to collaborate for the betterment of the world.
Furthermore, banks and capital markets will have a significant responsibility in sponsoring investments that contribute to the SDGs. While civil society organisations (CSOs), Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and media will need to keep innovating to ensure that the public is involved, updated and informed in a way that holds powerful interests liable.
Another important emerging actor that is not mentioned very often is young people. Unquestionably, young people are active drivers of change in many local communities, especially through engaging people at the grassroots level and communicating the goals with a wider audience through tools like social media (Bojanić, 2016). As a lot of young people today uses social media on a regular basis, they can utilise this powerful instrument to spread the words regarding SDGs. Through social media, most people in the world will have the chance to learn more about their rights under SDGs. Indubitably, people cannot fight for their rights and for a more sustainable development world, if they do not know about them.
With right political commitment, adequate fund allocation, meaningful collaboration, and creative mind, people from different stakeholders can fulfil their roles; and that way make the most efficient transformation of the world into a better place for all.
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Biermann, F., Stevens, C., Bernstein, S., Gupta, A., Kabiri, N., Kanie, N., Levy, M., Nilsson, M., Pintér, L., Scobie, M., &Young, O. R. (2014). Integrating Governance into the Sustainable Development Goals: POST2015/UNU–IAS Policy Brief #3 (Policy Brief). Tokyo, Japan: United Nations University Institute for the Advanced Study of Sustainability.
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