CMMD Perspectives — The SDGs Are Taking Root

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development was the pivotal event of 2015, a year advertised for its transformational summits – on disaster relief in Sendai, on financing for development in Addis Ababa and on climate change in Paris. One might have assumed that the euphoria of the 2030 Agenda would translate directly into implementation strategies in 2016. While one could argue that it was premature to expect such an immediate shift to the new ways of thinking that the 2030 Agenda called for, 2016 also proved to be the year for catastrophic political events which effectively slowed down any hints of first steps.

Our preoccupations with the shocks to the international order of both Brexit and Trump did distract and immobilize, and they contributed to a malaise, a year of disbelief and then of mourning before any signs of rejuvenation could take hold. Perhaps the 2030 Agenda was not held back because of these shocks, but it is certainly noticeable that the platitudes of how important it is to embrace the 2030 Agenda were slow to penetrate our psyches and to fire us up to map our paths to action. We argue here that we are witnessing a “rooting” process for the SDGs in 2017 that promises to take hold. We are hopeful that we are on the way to new ways of thinking and the cultivation of what our friend David Nabarro has described as “a community of transformers”. In this concluding newsletter for the CMMD Geneva Observer, we focus on the hopeful signs in a number of “SDG schematics” that symbolize the different paths to transformation in sustainable development that are being inspired by this visionary 2030 Agenda.

  • SDG Schematics – FAO

The “schematics” that have captured our attention are illustrative of three different paths. Comparing the schematics that have been developed in different agencies actually reflect their choices about which SDGs to emphasize and how to integrate the others. We start here with an interesting schematic for the “FAO’s Work on #Global Goals” on the front page of the FAO website. What caught our eye was that the colorful schematic shows all 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), as we have become accustomed to seeing, but with different SIZES for each square. The largest square is for SDG 2 on “zero hunger”, which is certainly the base SDG from which the FAO might connect to the rest of the SDGs. But then there are two other SDGs (14 for life below water and 15 for life on land) that are the next level down in size. Three other SDGs (6 on water and sanitation, 5 on gender equality and 1 on ending poverty) share the third tier in size. All the rest (on health, energy, jobs, etc.) share the smallest size.

The visual effect of the schematic is to convey the message that ending hunger and achieving food security, SDG 2, is clearly linked to the SDGs associated with the sources of food security (land and seas) and, to a lesser but still important extent, to clean water and sanitation, women’s economic empowerment, and ending poverty generally. As we subsequently discovered on closer scrutiny, the FAO schematic is structured to connect the reader to all kinds of food security-related initiatives that connect to every one of the other SDGs. We do know that defenders of the 2030 Agenda continue to insist that the SDGs are universal, interconnected, with none more important than any other. Most recently we heard Mr. Michael Møller, the Director-General of the UN Office at Geneva reiterate just that at the Graduate Institute. See his speech here. But we resonate to this implied prioritizing of where collaboration across specific goals and targets can move things along more effectively than with a perspective that all SDGs and targets must be treated equally in every context.

We add a brief note here on partnering, since this is a primary interest of ours – that is, the promotion of multi-stakeholder and multi-sectoral collaboration and dialogue on global social issues. We could delve into a variety of FAO-supported coalitions, but we will limit ourselves here to observing that the Committee on World Food Security (CFS), headquartered with the FAO in Rome, has been a driving force in our reporting on multi-stakeholder collaboration on global social issues. Its annual gatherings in October has a Civil Society Mechanism and a Private Sector Mechanism fully integrated into its deliberations even though not in any formal decision-making role. At the CFS meeting in October 2017, furthermore, the 2030 Agenda was fully embraced in deliberations on how the CFS can support individual countries and provide inputs to the oversight process at the High-Level Political Forums.

  • SDG Schematics – WHO

The second organization we chose to survey was the World Health Organization. This took a bit more digging to find the basic schematic. On the front page, one does find a link to the SDGs, but there are actually two links – one for the central SDG for WHO purposes, SDG 3 “to ensure healthy lives and promote well being for all at all ages” and another link for the rest. Linking to that page for all the rest, one comes up with a headline involving the COSTS of achieving health care for all. Only after some further digging does one find the WHO schematic that portrays SDG 3 at the center of a plate, with all of the other SDGs positioned around the circle of the plate with their colorful logos. The effect of this schematic is that health is seen to be at the center of sustainable development and that the WHO’s work is to deliver the health benefits from that central position to achieve all of the other SDGs. As with the FAO schematic, of course, it shows specific actions bearing on the targets for all these other SDGs, but there is the central SDG 3 and all the rest in a circle around it with no differentiation in size.

Looking more closely at the WHO material, one does come across a certain amount of prioritizing above and beyond SDG 3. The lead item on the front page for the WHO is a year in review of health-related events. Most of them are disease-specific (cancer, polio, malaria, cholera, yellow fever) or otherwise focused on WHO mandates (essential medicines, clinical trials, giving blood), but there is one “event” that specifically mentions the SDGs. Not surprisingly, however, this one refers to the work of the WHO in publishing the estimated costs of achieving the health-related SDGs.

Other developments on the review calendar do touch on targets that are included in the SDGs. The original ones from the Millennium Development Goals are there, of course – on HIV, TB, malaria and hepatitis, as well as reducing maternal deaths and improving the lives of infants and children. But these are not described in the context of the SDGs, at least not in this review article. However, it is true that the main concluding event for the WHO was a Japanese-sponsored UHC Forum (held in Tokyo from 12 to 15 December 2017), fully endorsing SDG 3.8 on universal health coverage in the Tokyo Declaration on Universal Health Coverage. But elsewhere, the references to environmental pollution, obesity, climate change and health, and safe water and sanitation in the 2017 calendar are described without linking them to the SDGs. This suggests that the SDG framework is still sinking in here, but this is nonetheless a sign of forward momentum. Certainly, the emphasis placed by the new Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus on embracing the SDGs in his proposed Global Strategy and Programme of Work is another good sign.

We do need to add one more observation regarding the WHO and its embrace of the partnering commitment of the 2030 Agenda. There is a strong Partnership for Maternal, Newborn and Child Health that came out of the MDG experience, and the Global Coordinating Mechanism for Non-Communicable Diseases is an exemplary effort at a multi-stakeholder partnership in the context of a member-State driven culture. Another WHO partnership of significance is the Global Health Security Agenda, but it is limited to member-States. The chronic challenge for the WHO is how to manage partnering with the private sector, which is recognized as a major source of resource mobilization and expertise in the 2030 Agenda but which is fraught with controversy at the WHO. We note, for example, that the UHC2030, a multi-stakeholder partnership for SDG 3.8, still does not have private sector members. The burdensome Framework of Engagement with Non-State Actors (FENSA) at the WHO that we have criticized in the past still does not have a publicly available guide for staff or handbook for non-State actors, even though both were most recently promised to be publicly available by the end of 2017. See the latest WHO report on FENSA for the 2018 WHO Executive Board here.

  • SDG Schematics – ILO

The ILO focus is on SDG 8 (Decent work and economic growth), which is quite extensive. There are targets for economic growth but also for enterprises, jobs, equal pay, eradicating forced labour and child labour, promoting a safe and secure work environment and ensuring access to domestic financial institutions. Purists would be disturbed by this shortened list, but it is also significant that the ILO promotes jobs, rights, social protection and social dialogue, all of which set the stage for natural linkages to the other SDGs besides SDG 8. The ILO does emphasize SDG 8 in its overview of the 2030 Agenda, but the ILO schematic does not put SDG 8 at the center. It provides links to all of the SDGs without assuming that SDG 8 has to be the starting point. The thoughtfulness that has been put into the linkages for each SDG reflects, therefore, how the ILO sees its mandate as a broad one for “social justice” and not just for jobs or decent work. We see the ILO as leading the pack in Geneva for an interconnected and integrated approach to the 2030 Agenda.

Another aspect of the ILO strategy that builds on its unique history of tripartism is its readiness to initiate partnerships to support the SDGs. We recall that in September 2016, the ILO launched the first of its many SDG-related coalitions at the UN General Assembly, this one called the “SDG Alliance 8.7”. We were there for the launch and appreciated the leading roles of UNICEF and IOM along with the ILO, as well as the host for the event, the Ford Foundation. See the programme here. Subsequent events were held in London and New York in September 2017, as well as several regional consultations and working groups in the course of 2017.

At the end of the year, it was featured at the IV Global Conference on the Sustained Eradication of Child Labour held in Buenos Aires on 14 to 16 November 2017. Reference was made at the 2016 launch event to a coalition of 12 founding members and subsequently to a Global Coordinating Group to focus on the underlying causes of human trafficking. And in Buenos Aires, both the UK and the US increased their financial pledges to a Global Fund to End Modern Slavery. Announcements were made for ILO collaboration with the FAO and IOM on a “Counter-Trafficking Data Collaboration” and for a “Knowledge Platform” to be run by UN University for the scientific study of forced labour, modern slavery, human trafficking and child labour. See a press release of the Buenos Aires commitments here. This might be an important ILO priority regardless of how it fits into the 2030 Agenda, but it is striking how SDG8.7 has been channelled to integrate coalition-building with other institutions.

The ILO has also launched two other coalitions of note for the SDGs. The Equal Pay International Coalition (EPIC) is based on support for SDG 8.5, focusing on the equal pay for work of equal value that is part of that target. As with the Alliance 8.7, this one is committed to reinforcing existing initiatives and organizations rather than creating a new initiative, but it does indeed translate into partnering opportunities through the SDG framework. The ILO is working with UN Women and OECD on this coalition, with active support from the Germans (who pushed this during their 2017 Presidency of the G20). The other is a new “coalition on just transition” that was launched with French support at the One Planet Summit in Paris on 12 December 2017. We assume that this will include ILO collaboration with the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change as well as others – linking the idea of just transition to both environmentally sustainable economies and to the world of work.

  • Climate Change and the SDGs

We’re not entirely sure if the “One Planet Summit” in Paris was a step back or a step forward for integration and inter-connectedness. It was perhaps mostly a stage for French President Emmanuel Macron to appear in the forefront with UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres and World Bank President Jim Kim in support of the two-year anniversary of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. The focus was on mobilizing financing for climate change, and numerous announcements were made on specific commitments. Companies like AXA, BNP Paribus, and Storebrand paired up with UN agencies or programmes; the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation announced yet another pledge; collaborative efforts were launched for a green bonds market and for putting financial pressures on business to improve their transparency and reporting on reducing carbon emissions.

We’re not quite sure how much of an impact on financing that this Summit will actually have. Different lists appear here and here. Some of the pledges were for later on – e.g. the World Bank pledging to halt all financing of upstream oil and gas projects by 2019 or a Norwegian-led launch of a sovereign wealth funds coalition. And how does this relate to mobilizing financing for any of the other SDGs? Perhaps it is a reaffirmation of the need for mobilization around specific SDGs or even targets in spite of the mantra for inter-connectedness. We do note that there is a new “One Planet Coalition” and that Governor Jerry Brown will be hosting a follow-on Global Climate Action Summit in September 2018.

A week later in Berlin, the German Government hosted a spin-off initiative from the UNFCCC, the “Global Landscapes Forum” from 19 to 20 December 2017. We marvel at this breaking away from the confines of climate change on the premise that land use needs to have a climate change focus of its own. See a news commentary on this initiative here. This one is a collaboration of the World Bank, the UN Environment Programme and the Center for International Forestry Research to bring the “disparate” communities of forestry and agricultural experts together. It will have a permanent secretariat in Bonn, and its next meeting will be in Katowice, Poland, just before the UNFCCC’s own annual Conference of the Parties there. So it might be separate but not entirely independent. We add this to our commentary here because it is just another illustration of the challenge for multi-stakeholder collaboration to build coalitions around specific needs and common objectives rather than around the totality of the whole 2030 Agenda.

  • Geneva Coordinating Mechanisms for the SDGs

We conclude this commentary with a few words of encouragement for outreach efforts in Geneva. We are hopeful that the “SDG Lab” that was launched at the UN Office at Geneva earlier this year will start delivering useful information on its mandate to “convene, connect, amplify and innovate”. It is associated with the “Geneva 2030 Ecosystem” that has been hosting planning meetings for interested NGOs and organizing roundtables on specific topics. The next such event on financial inclusion in developing countries is on 8 January at the Graduate Institute. The SDG Lab itself is part of the Geneva Perception Change Project under the leadership of the UNOG Director-General Michael Møller. There is a GVA Data base that attempts to consolidate available materials by type of information, thematic area, hot topics and by organization. It is not dedicated solely to the SDGs, but it is a compilation of Geneva-based information. The SDG Mapping exercise attempts to do the same with type of expertise for each SDG to provide a consolidated information source for who has what kind of expertise in Geneva. These are raw data sources at this stage and would benefit from culling based on agreed criteria. It would seem that an oversight advisory group would come in handy, but we also understand that there is reluctance to opening up the exercise to intergovernmental oversight.

Much interest on SDGs can now be seen in academic settings. For fear of not being comprehensive, we only note that the Graduate Institute has both an “”SDG Portal” for its own collaborative research and a separate collaboration spearheaded by the Global Health Centre with a network called THINK_SDGs on the health-related SDGs. Meanwhile, another research network will be launched in February known as the “SDSN-Switzerland”, an offshoot of the Sustainable Development Solutions Network headquartered at Columbia University in New York. We also see that the UN Library and Archives at Geneva has prepared a Research Guide: Resources for the SDGs.

  • In Conclusion

We know that transformative change in the 2030 Agenda is dependent on national action plans more than anything else. It is a positive sign that the annual High-Level Political Forum that oversees the 2030 Agenda has maxed out in the number of “voluntary national reviews” that it can handle each year. So there is a lot of enthusiasm at this level. And there are respectable regional initiatives as well, we are sure. Our focus here has been on how the global approach can support the 2030 Agenda with the expertise, inspiration and knowledge sharing that global collaboration can facilitate. It is also where multi-stakeholder and multi-sectoral networks can be nurtured for the benefit of national and community-level action. We have yet to see a lot of that, but the signs are there, the roots are taking hold. Let’s look to 2018 as the year for growth – and a flourishing community of transformers!

From the CMMD Geneva Observer 31 December 2017

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