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Sustainable Development Goals: A revolution begins
sdg, sustainable, development

As negotiations near conclusion on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), countries are honing in on what it will take to implement them. There are currently 17 goals on the table, and by the time the UN summit to launch the goals takes place in September, the much-emphasised “transformative” nature of the goals could gain traction, as could the “revitalised global partnership” called for under Goal 17.

What might prove to be the single most effective instrument for implementing the SDGs is also in the call for “multi-stakeholder partnerships that mobilise and share knowledge”. Countries need knowledge to inform their policy choices. The SDGs make the co-creation of new knowledge among countries, state institutions and non-state actors a must, and indeed for most countries, achieving the goals may well depend on it.

The proposed universality of the SDGs underscores the reality that most countries acknowledge, and this marks something of a departure from the year when the now expiring Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were launched in 2000.

If the Millennium Development Goals were, as one of their architects, Mark Malloch Brown, puts it, about identifying “the pocketbook” issues–health, education, water–which people want money spent on, then perhaps the SDGs could be characterised as putting that money into the pocketbook in the first place. Economics has returned to share the centre stage in the SDG debate.

However, debates over growth have led to broad agreement that what matters is the quality of that growth. Growth needs to take care of people and of the future. Most would admit this is work in progress.

Equity is a key issue. As a consequence of the changing distribution of global economic weight–the so-called “shifting wealth” phenomenon–faster growth among developing countries in the 2000s fostered better livelihoods, a burgeoning middle class and greater optimism among people in middle and low income countries compared with their counterparts in the developed world. While inequality among countries remains a concern, who benefits domestically from growth is increasingly important for policymakers.

This applies not only to developing countries. Many developed economies are also witnessing rising inequality, in incomes and  opportunities, particularly for young people. At the outset of the MDGs, this discussion might have been predominantly about what is fair. Today, it is about both what is fair and what is good for the economy. Compelling evidence shows that countries that promote equal opportunity for all are those that grow and prosper. Addressing high and growing inequality within countries is critical to strong, sustained–and sustainable–growth.

This debate spills over into discussions on education. Literacy received a significant boost due to the laudable progress under the MDGs to get more children, particularly girls, into school. The quality of educational outcomes and their relevance for the economy are now moving to centre stage: are today’s children developing the skills that tomorrow’s workforce will need?

Companies as much as governments have a stake in many of these issues–for their own countries and the foreign markets they wish to enter. In Latin America, companies are 13 times more likely than firms in Asia and the Pacific to cite insufficient workforce skills as a major constraint on their business. Addressing such mismatches is essential for narrowing gaps in living standards, and in the ability of countries to participate in an ever-denser global economy.

Improving evidence on new trade and production trends can help governments and the private sector identify concrete actions to promote development through greater integration into global value chains.

Many suggest that fully empowering women can be the single greatest accelerator for achieving the SDGs. The mixed results of the MDGs serve to push the debate beyond measuring outcomes to examining root causes in institutions and social practices that perpetuate discrimination against women in the public, economic and private spheres of their lives. Few countries, if any, can say “we got it right”.

All this underscores the power of the holistic and universal agenda represented by the SDGs. Countries need to work together to build the practical tools that enable them to embrace a multidimensional approach to their challenges and opportunities. This means targeting multiple policy objectives (sustainability, equity, growth and well-being as a whole, for instance); taking a crosscutting rather than sector-based lens to analyse competing challenges and their drivers; and considering compatibilities and complementarities between different policy options.

Scanning and leveraging existing global experience will help. However, countries also need to co-create a common knowledge base, and forge a new collective wisdom and shared understanding for the road ahead. This would not only improve awareness and dialogue, but draw more international attention to the critical issues where more attention is needed.

Therein may lie a key to Goal 17’s revitalised partnership for sustainable development.

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©OECD Observer July 2015