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Governments adopt the SDGs next week. Then what?

Written by Elizabeth Stuart


​The Sustainable Development Goals are, politically, an architectural marvel. They bring a soaring, visionary ambition to the wants and needs of the poorest and most vulnerable in our world.


Constructed around the will of the people – extraordinarily one person in every thousand around the globe has been asked what they should look like – the goals mean that the head of state in every country is about to commit to delivering huge progress for all, to the very last person in their country, to ensure that no one is left behind. This is what democracy on a towering scale looks like.

Their signing next Friday will be historic. We will have a common blueprint for the next 15 years, one that is a progressive, peaceful and sustainable.

As well as celebrating the project’s completion, we should also reflect on the scale of the achievement in terms of the geopolitics involved: a multilateral negotiation successfully completed on time, with little acrimony, and not much bullying.

But we should also ask sober questions. Just as a political party comes into power on the strength of its manifesto but is judged on its ability to deliver, these goals will be more like a shiny – but empty – new building until countries start to implement them.

Why now should countries do anything about the SDGs?

Unlike December’s climate talks, the outcome is not legally binding. The goals are not – sadly – a technical marvel: the frequently clumsy phrasing, and their sheer number, do not readily translate into an action plan. In their raw form, it’s hard to see how they will inspire people to rise up and demand that their governments deliver on their promise.

And they land in a traumatic context. Around the world, government agendas are brim-full of immediately pressing concerns such as the refugee crisis, the effects of a stagnating Chinese economy, and the rise of Islamic State. In some countries where, to put it mildly, UN agendas do not drive government action, looming elections preoccupy.

Many of these issues, not least that of migrants, are the manifestations of problems that the SDGs set out to resolve, such as marginalisation and protracted conflict. Nevertheless, it takes far-sighted leadership to prioritise an agenda that isn’t officially due for delivery until 2030.

The gavel goes down on the SDGs next Friday. Then what happens?

The next stage of the process is to set out the indicators – the granular details of what is actually going to be measured – so that we will know once a target has been met.

Then, countries must adapt the global targets to their own national context. Each country will need its own set of bespoke objectives, shaped by national circumstances and priorities. This will help ensure that there is action because the goals will be seen to be locally relevant, building on a pre-existing agenda but pushing the level of ambition.

Some goals are already in line with existing government ambitions, such as the poverty reduction goal for middle income countries. For example, China is aiming to eliminate extreme poverty by 2020, rather than 2030 – 10 years ahead of the SDG target.

Other goals, such as those on maternal mortality and access to electricity, will require a much bigger shift in government thinking in the poorest countries, and hence a bigger push by campaigners and more scrutiny from others.

Civil society groups, ideally working in broad coalition to ensure that no goal is orphaned, will need to keep pressuring for progress. There are already communications projects underway to frame the goals in a way that can help mobilise people beyond the development bubble.

In reality, no one knows what will happen with the goals, and what does happen will look different in every country. Some governments, and some campaigners, will inevitably focus on specific issues, just as with the MDGs. But however they play out in practice a combined effort to reach them will leave the world a much better place in 2030.

So let’s raise our collective glasses to the SDGs’ unveiling, but let’s also keep our eyes on the real prize: action.