Translating the Global Goals into Action

  • 2015•09•25

    Robert Lindner

    This article is part of UNU’s “17 Days, 17 Goals” series, featuring research and commentary in support of the United Nations Sustainable Development Summit, 25-27 September 2015 in New York City.

    Goal #17: Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development

    Goal #17 is, in many respects, quite different from the other 16 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). For one, it does not address a single development field, but rather serves as a kind of overarching framework that lists different enablers and obstacles to sustainable development.

    While each of the previous SDGs entails issue-specific means of implementation (MOI), goal #17 can best be understood as a toolkit that addresses the underlying problematique related to implementation. In short, it provides ideas concerning how this ambitious global agenda can be realised.

    Another distinguishing feature of goal #17 is the astonishing number of targets encompassing finance and trade, technology transfer, capacity building, multistakeholder partnerships, and monitoring. All these areas are essential to successfully translate the SDGs into action. However, only 3 of the 19 targets contain measurable target values; the others remain rather vague by merely using non-committal terms like “strengthen” or “promote”.

    This is not surprising, given the tense negotiations between developing and developed countries about the MOIs that threatened, a number of times, to derail the new agenda. During the negotiation process, the issue of MOIs, in particular finance and technology transfer, were mainly left to a second strand of deliberations on Financing for Development (FFD).

    The negotiations successfully culminated in July 2015 in the Addis Ababa Action Agenda, which constitutes the foundation for the future implementation of the SDGs. Even though the FFD outcome failed to deliver substantial commitments on finance or trade, it includes a number of new tools for development that could prove to be just as important if implemented effectively.

    One of these tools concerns technology and knowledge transfer, which is increasingly regarded as a crucial component of “sustainable development”. SDG #17 includes a global technology facilitation mechanism comprising three parts: a new UN Interagency Task Team on Science, Technology and Innovation for the SDGs; an online platform for information sharing; and a Multi-stakeholder Forum.

    In addition, a new technology bank specifically tailored for least developed countries is scheduled to go into operation in 2017. It is definitely a huge step forward to consider technology transfer as an integral part of sustainable development, but much depends on the final design of these new mechanisms. They not only need to overcome obstacles like intellectual property rights issues, but also need to avoid the pitfalls of merely being used as another export opportunity by developed countries.

    A connected MOI that features prominently in the new agenda is the concept of global partnerships for sustainable development. The international community has to make sure that this concept will not be reduced to public–private partnerships (PPP) that replace “traditional” forms of development assistance. Even though PPPs have become very popular in recent years, and under certain circumstances can bolster official flows of foreign aid, the nature of the involvement of the private sector must be made more transparent. Private actors would need to adopt rigorous reporting frameworks and wider scope of accountability. 

    Many of the practical aspects of the SDGs and the MOIs have yet to be decided. We will see, in the coming months and years, how (or if) a set of aspirational global goals can be turned into concrete policies and sustainable commitments. With luck, and via principled leadership, this policy development process will evolve into an open deliberative process. It should embody all the best aspects of the process adopted in formulating the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development during these past few years.

    Finally, it is important to keep in mind that the SDGs are voluntary. Their success will largely depend on the active participation and commitment of a multitude of actors. To translate the abstract political language at the UN into meaningful action on the ground, and to make true sustainable development a reality, is not only a challenge for governments, non-governmental organisations, or the private sector. It is a task for all of us.

    Involvement of civil society might be the most important MOI of all. And the new agenda can provide a chance to empower citizens in developing and developed countries alike. For example, communities can engage in the setting of national priorities, or citizens can take action in deploying elements of the SDGs to hold their own politicians accountable.

    But if the agenda fails to engage and activate the wider public, there is a big danger that the SDGs will remain little more than an “aspirational” set of ideas with an abstract acronym. It is up to us all to ensure the SDGs can succeed in delivering the kind of earth stewardship and development that is vital for maintaining a habitable planet into the future. 


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    Translating the Global Goals into Action by Robert Lindner is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.