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Will the SDGs influence domestic policy? Some lessons from the MDGs

Written by Paula Lucci, Moizza Binat Sarwar

​With the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) agreed, the next big question is: are governments going to use them? 

Despite many years of experience implementing the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), we still know surprisingly little about how national governments actually use these kinds of international frameworks. 

How countries responded to the MDGs

A new qualitative study of five governments finds that they used the MDGs in three ways:

  • They set up new institutions to track progress – for example, since 2012 Nigeria has convened a quarterly committee of over 25 state governors, heads of ministries and other government officials to monitor national progress towards the MDGs; 
  • Some, such as Indonesia, referenced the MDGs in national development strategies;
  • They saw the MDGs as an opportunity to show international leadership – Mexican politicians, for example, used them to raise the country’s profile across the region.

However, it took countries up to 10 years to translate the MDGs into domestic institutional commitments – they often waited until they had to renew existing domestic targets before doing so. UN-led efforts, particularly the MDG Acceleration Frameworks established in 2010, may have helped prompt eventual action. 

Did the MDGs influence government priorities and budgets?

Yes – but particularly in more aid-dependent countries. A second study, based on analysis of AidData’s Reform Efforts Survey (data here), shows that policy-makers in most developing countries, particularly lower-income countries in sub-Saharan Africa, East Asia and the Pacific, reported that the MDGs influenced their policy priorities. 

So while poorer countries engaged with the goals to meet conditions attached to aid packages and attract more aid, the survey shows that the MDGs were less influential in upper-middle-income countries. These countries often used the MDGs to reinforce existing priorities, rather than to change them.  

The survey results are supported by more detailed analysis of one of the health MDG targets – and the education target too, although there’s less data on this. Countries for which the MDGs were highly influential actually saw increased spending in these sectors. While the data can’t tell us whether this is due to increased domestic resources or increased funding from donors, it does at least suggest that governments were committing the resources to back up their rhetoric.

What this means for the SDGs

These new studies suggest two lessons for the SDGs. 

First, hard work will be needed to keep politically contentious areas on domestic agendas and keep up the momentum. The fact that the MDGs were used to attract aid or reinforce existing policies in richer developing countries means that campaigners will need to work hard to ensure that difficult international targets – such as those related to climate change, inequality or governance – are echoed and followed-up domestically. 

As with the MDGs, there will also be a considerable time lag before SDG progress becomes visible. This means that civil society organisations will have a significant job to ensure SDG implementation remains on governments’ radars. 

That said, given that countries are already familiar with the idea of a global development framework, and their involvement in both SDG consultations and the inter-governmental negotiations means they have already had time to establish priorities, implementation could and should happen faster this time round. 

Second, we need better data on domestic use of targets, government spending, aid flows and performance to make it is easier to assess the influence of the SDGs. At present it is way too difficult to answer simple questions about the domestic influence of the MDGs: let’s make sure that this changes for the SDGs. 

Importantly, to deliver on the SDG focus on ‘leaving no one behind’ will require much more detailed and granular data. Only then will it be possible to monitor whether policy changes and funding allocations are reaching the most marginalised groups. 

We now know that countries are more likely to succeed in those international goals where they already have priorities in place. For the SDGs to become more than nice words, keeping focus and momentum on their implementation during the first three years will be crucial. 

Countries have now signed up to these ambitious goals, which can be another tool for campaigners and citizens to hold governments to account. Let’s make the most of them.