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How to achieve the SDGs by 2030 – lessons from 50 case studies

Written by Kate Bird

The SDGs risk losing momentum in 2017, as President Trump slashes funding to UN agencies and the international political scene appears in disarray. To stay on track, we need to focus on what works.

ODI’s Development Progress initiative looked at more than 50 cases across Africa, Asia and Latin America where progress was faster than expected. Here’s what worked and what got in the way.

1. Strong leadership and vision can drive progress with public support

Progress is faster where clear priorities are linked to a broad national development vision driven by committed political leaders. This is particularly powerful when part of a long-term cross-party consensus widely endorsed by citizens. Public support can spring from a particular political moment or widespread debate. Support for national leaders can be important, in some cases alongside active social movements pressing for change (Tunisia).

2. Local ownership supports innovation and accountability

Governments should mobilise staff towards a clear goal without imposing a blanket approach, as evidence from China and Burkina Faso shows that local expertise responding to local conditions leads to innovation and more effective solutions. Decentralised decision-making also helps tailor services to local needs, improves accountability, and can enhance progress in some sectors. Effective management, performance-based incentives and tackling front-line corruption and absenteeism can enhance delivery.

3. Funds come from many places, but must be well managed

Policy priorities must be properly funded to achieve good results, even in resource-constrained countries. Citizens have been successful in pushing for better public services where policy innovation is supported by additional funding. This investment can come from exports (Mauritius), better management of national budgets (South Africa), economic growth (Vietnam), or international support (Rwanda). Resources should be channelled through strong institutions, which may need reconfiguring in line with priorities.

4. Flip flop policies and political patronage slow progress

The absence of a long-term vision for development can result in erratic policymaking. Policy reversals mean some interventions do not survive long enough to deliver sustained progress, while budgeting failures leave others financially unsustainable. National policy may not translate into local action due to conflicts of interest and weak coordination and monitoring. Harmful patterns of power coupled with a lack of oversight and accountability undermine progress. Implementation becomes inconsistent, hampered by political favours and a lack of transparent systems.

5. Progress not driven by or for people can be reversed

Countries lacking a strong civil society face challenges pushing for sustained investment in a particular policy area. Progress that does not promote socio-economic transformation can also reinforce and widen existing inequality, causing tensions and leaving the poorest and most vulnerable behind. Reversal of progress is more likely where limited structural change has been achieved. Where fertility rates exceed economic growth, public services can be put under unsustainable pressure. Coupled with high youth unemployment, this can be destabilising.

6. External factors play a big part in a country’s progress

External risks and events can have a profound effect on a country. Climate change is a prime example with widespread negative consequences. Other external shocks may affect exports, impacting the income of producers and their families, economic growth and tax revenue. This can have damaging implications for public services and undermine progress across a broad range of areas. Changes in donor priorities and funding behaviour can also have major implications for aid dependent nations.

What we know for sure

Progress can be made in the most unlikely of places and toughest of issues. It mostly boils down to political leadership. Leaders need to be clear about what they want, if there is any hope of delivering the SDGs. Priorities should reflect a country’s financial resources, policy preparedness and institutional strength. They must be widely communicated, properly funded, and provide clarity about the task at hand and the vision for the future.

What we know for sure is that where there is shared national vision, progress is strongest. In highly contested areas, public communication campaigns can help shift public opinion, alongside legislation and careful monitoring. Partnerships with civil society and international development agencies can also support home-grown innovation, and technical support – provided in the right way - can be effective too. Some policy areas will progress more quickly than others, but the hard work on all areas must start now!

This is the final blog in a three-part series on the Development Progress project. Read Liz Stuart’s piece arguing that with aid under attack, we need stories of development progress more than ever, and Susan Nicolai’s blog outlining some of the key challenges to researching progress and how we got around them.