My 6 Takeaways on the SDGs

The 17 SDGs present a shared world vision for the next 15 years.
The 17 SDGs present a shared world vision for the next 15 years.

By Anuradha Rajivan

Presenting a shared world vision for the next 15 years, the 17 SDGs came as no surprise as the text was politically negotiated and agreed ahead of time. Here are my 6 takeaways.

It’s official. This past weekend in New York, the 193-member UN General Assembly adopted the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda. Presenting a shared world vision for the next 15 years, the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) came as no surprise as the text was politically negotiated and agreed ahead of time. Here are my 6 takeaways on the SDGs:

1. A shift in thinking about development has happened.

Development is no longer just about helping poor countries do better. For example, sustainable production (SDG12) will have implications for rich and poor countries in energy generation and use, pollution, and waste management. It will no longer be acceptable to get away with not reducing emissions or waste by shifting them to other locations, where the disadvantaged live or where environmental standards are weaker. Similarly, gender equality (SDG5) or fighting inequality within and across countries (SDG10) are now goals that apply to all countries.

2. Paradoxes can make sense.

Sustainable consumption (SDG12) can mean less and more consumption at the same time. The better off in rich and poor countries should shop less, discard less, and squander less; the poor need to eat better, use more electricity, and have access to more social services. Undernutrition needs to be tackled along with growing mountains of waste, as both contribute to sustainable consumption.

3. Some contradictions need special attention.

A key incongruity arises under SDG5, negating the very intent of gender equality. “Ending all forms of discrimination against women and girls” is pitted against being “in accordance with national laws” when it comes to economic assets. And though unpaid work is critical, valuing and sharing it is expected to be “nationally appropriate.” Where national laws and practices of inheritance and property rights or care work favor males, it may seem as if discrimination is intended to be preserved rather than eliminated – a sign of the tenuous consensus and compromises around all humans being equally valuable. This needs to be closely watched in implementation. Yet, there is a way out too. Taken together, the SDGs also include eliminating discriminatory laws and practices under SDG10.

4. Businesses and financial markets are in it, too.

What businesses and financial markets do impacts sustainable development – in positive and negative ways, but most in the private sector are not ready yet. While opportunities from climate change are better understood, the business case for contributing to the other SDGs is not explicit. The benefits that businesses can draw from SDG progress are known, but vaguely articulated. For example, healthy and educated workers mean fewer lost work days and higher productivity. Good transport with less traffic congestion means faster mobility and efficiency. Better social and economic infrastructure contributes to profits. Supporting the rule of law, fighting corruption and rooting out organized crime—all part of the SDGs—improve the climate for legitimate businesses.

But how can businesses contribute and count their contribution to the SDGs? How can they identify the goals most relevant to them? What goals, targets, and indicators can they use to assess their strategies against, monitor progress, and improve over time? As private resources are not directly programmable for development, credibly demonstrating the extent of SDG compatibility could provide positive brand value. It will require business leaders to engage with development experts in a sustained way. The World Business Council for Sustainable Development, the UN Business Advisory Council and the International Chamber of Commerce are some sources for support to companies on this.

5. It’s not about aid, yet aid can be critical and strategic.

In contrast with the for-profit sector, foreign aid is much more directly “investible” in sustainable development. Though official development assistance (ODA) will be a tiny proportion of the funds required, countries which face structural barriers (small populations, little land, narrow economies, remote locations, conflicts, debt overhang) should not be forgotten. For fragile states such as many of the small island countries of the Pacific or Afghanistan, ODA will remain critical to help them expand their economies, increase domestic fiscal space, or access financial markets. Moreover, concessional finance, both grants and loans, can be strategically applied to trigger change, seed investments in cross-border public goods, influence norms, lower risks, and draw in private funds in other countries as well. Apart from official sources, private philanthropic funds will also grow in size.  Clarity on the “SDG value” of these concessional dollars will be of growing interest. In fact, the role of credible indicators against which to assess funds from all sources will grow.

6. No one is in overall charge.

With no “main implementer” and nothing legally binding, how will the SDGs be achieved? There is no shortage of SDG skeptics, and also optimists. Success will depend upon people getting to know the SDGs well, the extent to which decision makers  are held accountable by informed citizens, clients or customers, how the task of indicators for monitoring progresses, and how leaders in the richer and poorer countries respond. New York City already has a sustainable development plan, and Europe has made 2015 the European Year for Development. Since the yardsticks have changed, the SDGs have made all nations into “developing countries” as the continuum and interconnectedness of economies, ecologies, and peoples is better accepted. Though no one is in overall charge, each one of us can do our bit. We are all in it together anyway.