So the SDGs are agreed – what now?

7 December 2015
Articles and blogs

The last few months have been a difficult time for SDG-junkies. After all the excitement of the UN General Assembly meeting and the drama of their adoption (Shakira, the Pope and President Obama all in the same room), there’s been something of a deafening silence. And now people are getting worried – is anyone out there? Have the last few years been for nothing? Was Duncan Green right after all?

My answers are yes, no and no. This is why. 

While September 2015 felt like an ending, it wasn’t. Things may have gone quiet for civil society and the outsiders to the system, but inside it – in governments and the UN – the wheels are still turning. We have the goals – a good start – and now the set of incentives that will actually make governments want to deliver them are being put together. If you think the goals could be a useful way to make good stuff happen in the world, this is the bit to watch.

High-Level Political Forums are a mouthful, but they’ll be crucial

Take a key part of the incentives framework: the monitoring and review mechanism.

There’ll be a report soon from the UN Secretary-General (SG) outlining how it could look. The first meeting of the offputtingly-named ‘High-Level Political Forum’ (HLPF) will take place in July 2016. These will tell the wider world about the SDGs’ progress and what governments are actually doing.

It will feel like a slow start – not much will have happened by July next year. But it will be a chance to look collectively at the road to travel (with ODI’s scorecard as a handy guide, perhaps), and for governments to put pressure on one another to get there.

It will be important, once the SG’s report is out and the format of the meeting is clearer, that civil society groups dust off their campaigning boots and return to the fray at the HLPF. They should insist that hard-won concepts like ‘leave no one behind’ be turned into concrete operational plans. These big global moments can be important pressure points for action – if civil society groups and the media step up.

Campaigners should focus their efforts inside countries

However important the HPLFs will be, the main theatre of action on SDGs is not global any more.

Political action has shifted to countries. The vision is global, but those who want to use the SDGs as levers for action – or, more likely, on particular sectors or issues – will have to work one country at a time to form coalitions.

Encouragingly, some countries are already showing signs of a ‘race to the top’.

The Colombian government, for example, have set up a ministerial-level commission to drive implementation across different government departments. Not all governments will do this. But the fact some are hoping for a domestic (and international) political benefit in being seen to move quickly is encouraging. 

‘What good looks like’

A further – and in the end, maybe the most significant – way the SDGs might be changing things is in how they function as a new set of norms.  As the UK’s Secretary of State for International Development put it: ‘now we know what good looks like’.

The SDGs as a globally sanctioned set of norms provides an entry point for governments and others to have conversations that can, at least in part, be elevated above short-term national interests.  This will never trump domestic politics.  But it can help to find where things can be done that are both politically palatable and help achieve the goals’ ambitions.

The SDGs negotiation provided a global political process that, for those groups able and eager to engage at that level, was easy to understand, relatively open, and led to a conclusion that most parties are broadly happy with. That doesn’t come along very often. It’s not surprising that the SDG-hangover has proved lengthy. 

But for those who put effort into agreeing the SDGs, it’s time to move on from the morning after.

A huge global constituency was mobilised to care about and shape the SDGs. The challenge is to draw those people back into the conversation; mobilise the same level of engagement and commitment to implementing them in countries; and use the SDGs’ power as global norms. Onwards and upwards my friends…