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What’s the point of the Sustainable Development Goals?

You can always count on Duncan Green to ask a good question. In his latest blog post he appealed for examples of the Sustainable Development Goals having had an impact. As someone who longs for the jackpot round in my local pub quiz to be “Name all 17 Sustainable Development Goals”, it seems only right that I stick my hand in the air and have a crack at answering Duncan’s question.

The Sustainable Development Goals, you may recall, were agreed by world leaders in 2015. While it’s easy to be skeptical about their impact, it’s much harder to skeptical about their ambition. If achieved, the world in 2030 will look markedly different to the one we live in now. There’d be no poverty anywhere, gender equality achieved,  inequality reduced, urgent action taken to combat climate change, and terrestrial ecosystems protected and restored. It’s hard to imagine them being agreed in 2018.

The short answer and the long answer

The short answer to Duncan’s question about the impact the Goals have had so far is, “some, but not enough – yet”. The longer answer is more complicated (of course), but also more optimistic. As co-chair of Bond’s SDG Group, we’ve been analysing the reports that countries volunteer to submit that document the progress they’re making towards the Goals. You can find the 2016 report here and the 2017 report here. The 2017 report found that almost all of the reports showed evidence of change to realise the 2030 Agenda in terms of “incorporating the SDGs into national policies, developing institutional mechanisms for implementation, efforts to build partnerships, and/or attention to monitoring and evaluation of progress.”

Duncan says in his blog that “the SDGs were never designed to influence government behaviour” and, certainly if you look at the very light touch official accountability measures currently in place, there may be some truth in that. However, it’s not the case that the SDGs can’t be used to influence government behaviour. The breadth of this new agenda means that there’s more opportunities than ever before for interest groups and citizens to work together to hold governments to account on progress. But first, one of the most important things we need to do is make sure that more people know about them.

Image from The United Nations High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development Goals

We’re not going to change the world with shouty consonants

Part of the challenge is that the SDGs are still often encased in impenetrable language. It’s hard to kickstart a conversation with anyone (and believe me I’ve tried) with the opener, “Did you hear the UK is going to present a VNR at the HLPF next year about the progress it’s making on the SDGs.” We, myself included, need to stop using shouty consonants and start saying, “World leaders promised that by 2030 no one would go hungry but they’re just not doing enough to make sure that happens.”

Civil society has an important role to play here. Hats off to Project Everyone who have done a brilliant job of producing videos about the Goals and their aims. I defy anyone not to be moved by their video of amazing young girls miming to a Beyoncé song. I daresay Kanye’s tweet brought the Goals to the attention of more people than ever before. [Note: Kanye’s tweet is a screenshot of the text from the actual Resolution that was adopted by the General Assembly, not just the pretty SDGs graphic. Kanye has been called a lot of things this year, but I never expected to label him a fellow SDGs policy wonk. Props.] UNICEF have produced ‘The World’s Largest Lesson’, an impressive resource that aims to help teachers introduce their students to the Goals.

Save the Children and the SDGs

Save the Children is a big fan of the Goals, especially their Pledge to Leave No One Behind. For us, that’s the most important part and the one that’s going to have the biggest impact for the world’s most marginalised and deprived children. The Pledge is a promise to put the furthest behind first and is one of the most important differences between the Millennium Development Goals and the SDGs. A report that we launched in July, Still left behind?, highlights the need to tackle inequalities if we’re to achieve the Goals. It includes recommendations on how governments should report on progress being made towards fulfilling the Pledge. In short, we want them to use convergence to report on how far their poorest children have to go to catch up. We’ve even developed a free online tool that uses official data to help them do just that.

If we want to see the Goals have an impact, what better place to start than right here in the UK? Next year, the UK has thrown its hat in the ring and is volunteering to report at the UN on the progress it’s making on the Goals. It’s a chance for the UK to demonstrate that the Goals are having an impact in its work – both domestically and internationally. Perhaps this time next year Duncan will have edged closer to being fully converted to the promise of the SDGs.

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