So three years in, what do we know about the impact of the SDGs?

September 7, 2018 17 By Duncan Green

Next Tuesday I have to give a talk on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and I need your help. As you may recall, I was a massive SDG sceptic in the run up to their creation in 2015 (here’s a summary of previous rants, with links). Now I want to see if my scepticism needs to be moderated/abandoned.

My main concern back then was that the SDGs were never designed to influence government behaviour. For example, there was almost no research on what aspects of international agreements (e.g. UN & ILO Conventions) get traction on national governments, and there was hardly any serious research on the impact of the MDGs – people basically said ‘ooh look, poverty has halved, the MDGs are a success’. Causation v correlation anyone?

In the absence of evidence or discussion on how to design for national impact, the SDGs were drawn up as a laundry list for lobby groups, and a happy hunting ground for the data geeks that drove the creation of the MDGs, but what practical difference were they likely to make?

But now I hear lots of stories of the SDGs being picked up by CSOs, governments, companies and others – is it hype or are they actually leading to those players doing something they would not have done otherwise?

So I appealed for things to read via twitter, and here’s what I found – please add ideas and references.

The most useful thing I’ve read was ‘The SDGs in middle-income countries: Setting or serving domestic development agendas? Evidence from Ecuador’, by Philipp Horn and Jean Grugel, a paper in the World Development journal. Based on a load of interviews with government and other players in Ecuador, they found:

‘The SDGs are not determining what Ecuadorian development means. They are, rather, legitimising development goals and policies that have already been decided on.’ Ecuador has picked two SDGs (10.2 on reducing group inequalities and 11 on inclusive cities), and sees the SDGs both as a way to validate its own priorities, and to tell the rest of the world about its work on these areas (particularly interesting on disabilities – the president is a wheelchair user, and the country has done some impressive work in the area).

‘Poverty halved, so the MDGs were a success’

National and City governments have both picked up the SDGs and used them to highlight different approaches to development. Quito city government has challenged that national administration by using a more private sector-friendly approach to urban development, and saying ‘why are you only talking about disability on inequality – what about indigenous people?’ (The government had big fights with Ecuador’s indigenous movements, so chose to focus on disability under the inequality SDG).

More broadly, they conclude that the impact of SDGs is more on norms and debates, a ‘looser script’ than the MDGs.

Elsewhere Shannon Kindornay, Javier Surasky and Nathalie Risse read through 42 country ‘voluntary national reviews’ of their progress on the SDGs, two years in, along with relevant civil society reports (some people have all the fun….). Among other things, their report found that most reporting countries had in some way incorporated the SDGs into national development plans, had set up some kind of institutional oversight (eg committees headed by a cabinet member) and selectively reported on the SDGs they cared about.

Other snippets: Somaliland, which is not even a signatory, has integrated them in its new development plan. Then there’s the impact in the Global North – the SDGs are explicitly universal. Accordoing to the Brookings Institution.

‘In recent weeks, New York City declared it will be the first major city to report directly to the United Nations on its progress toward the relevant economic, social, and environment targets for 2030. This came shortly after an array of Canadian federal ministers emphasized the goals’ importance both domestically and internationally. Meanwhile, in the big leagues of business, many of the world’s foremost institutional investors have indicated (e.g., herehere, and here) they are considering integrating the SDGs into their investment processes. Even Kanye West, the celebrity artist, posted the 17 goals for his 28 million Twitter followers, to many people’s surprise.’

What do I take from all this? Maybe I was too harsh – the SDGs are showing signs of having a drip drip influence that is dispersed and hard to pin down. Lots of spin and lip service, but some impact, albeit softer, more pervasive and harder to measure than ‘have you halved X?’ The SDGs seem to fit a diverse, multipolar world where development priorities are quite rightly decided at a local level, not imposed from outside, and being being subsumed into national politics in different ways in different places.

But that still doesn’t answer the question of why we should devote so much time and attention to the SDGs, when other international instruments are more binding (ILO and UN Conventions). I have still have seen nothing that compares the SDGs against all these other agreements in terms of their impact on decision makers.

Over to you.

Update: thanks everyone. Thanks to you, the talk went fine – most thought provoking discussion was on the tension between local adaptation and universal rights. I like the fact that countries can pick and choose between SDGs to make them relevant to local context, but I also believe that rights are universal. Tricky that. Anyway, here’s my powerpoint (I’m afraid it wasn’t recorded): DG SDGs + 3 TEESNET September 2018