Time to work out how to make sustainable development happen

by Magnus Bengtsson | Institute for Global Environmental Strategies
Friday, 25 September 2015 10:31 GMT

Water bottles are gathered to be recycled near a statue in Martyrs' Square in Beirut, Lebanon, Aug. 25, 2015. Lebanon's cabinet held an emergency meeting after protests over trash collection spilled over into street violence and calls for the feuding government to resign. REUTERS/Jamal Saidi

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There is still very little information - and agreement - on how all the 17 SDGs and 169 targets are to be achieved

After almost three years of intense negotiations, governments across the world are now finally agreeing on a new set of goals and targets to deal with rising inequality, tackle social injustice, and address climate change by 2030.

This list of global objectives, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), is indeed comprehensive and ambitious. It is expected to galvanise political support and guide development efforts for the next 15 years.

But while the adoption of the SDGs is generally good news for the world, there is, however, still very little information - and agreement - on how all of the 17 goals and 169 targets are to be achieved.

This lack of clarity on who should do what and how actual implementation is expected to happen - or the means by which the goals become tangible actions, and hence results - is somewhat concerning.

Perhaps the lack of detail on implementation is for seemingly good reasons. Many of the challenges addressed by the SDGs will require context-specific solutions. For example, the way to promote renewable energy in Fiji is likely to be different in Finland.

And since the SDGs are explicitly universal, intended to be relevant everywhere, the lack of detail may allow room for flexibility.

Being decidedly ambitious, the SDGs also set out to achieve things that have never been done before, including eliminating poverty in all its forms, everywhere.

Hence there will be a need for innovative and adaptive approaches that depart radically from current mainstream practices. Blanket solutions and blueprint planning are unlikely to deliver.

Regardless of this, the risk of having the SDGs remaining only as well-intended goals surely outweighs any reason for not providing more clarity and guidance for implementation.

What this lack of guidance means is that many of the more contentious aspects have in fact been postponed - or in other words, passed on to governments themselves who will be dealing with the actual implementation.

Now would they have the incentives to break away from short-sighted decision-making focused on GDP growth and narrowly defined national interests, as opposed to genuine sustainable development? Not necessarily, but there are some reasons to be hopeful.

The process to develop the SDGs has been very open and inclusive. It involved NGOs, civil society and everyday citizens in a way that no global process had ever done before. As a result, many civil society organizations now feel strong ownership over the new SDGs. High expectations have built up.

These diverse organizations, networks, and movements are not going to sit idly waiting for governments to take action; instead, they will very likely spread awareness and knowledge of the SDGs among the general public and put pressure on governments to undertake reforms and become more responsive.

Strong public demand for change, channeled by civil society organizations, could be one of the most important drivers of SDGs achievement in a post-2015 world.

Achieving those goals, however, will not be smooth sailing. There will be conflicts, both between interests and ideas, and many battles will need to be fought and won along the way. But even if the SDGs are only partly implemented by 2030, their comprehensive nature and inclusive approach could still lead us towards that better future we all want.

Dr. Magnus Bengtsson is principal policy researcher at the Institute for Global Environmental Strategies. He is involved in a research project examining how governments and others can implement the SDGs.