The Knowledge to Act


Reporting on the Sustainable Development Goals—Challenges for OECD countries (Part I)

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By Mark Halle, April 26, 2016

Switzerland will be one of the first countries to report back to the UN's High-Level Political Forum on progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals. In the first of a series of postings, Mark Halle highlights critical issues for Switzerland—and by extension, other OECD countries—to address in its reporting. 

The heady months following the adoption of the 2030 Agenda with its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), 169 targets and its raft of indicators, are slowly giving way to a more sober assessment of what we have taken on and how we will deliver it. Countries around the world must now come to grips with how to implement this complex and ambitious agenda. Part of the challenge is measuring progress and reporting it to the High-Level Political Forum (HLPF)—the UN platform set up to oversee the implementation of the SDGs.

Switzerland is one of a handful of countries that has volunteered to report to HLPF in the first cycles, and it is important therefore that the Swiss report help set the standard that others might be inspired to follow. At a broad stakeholder meeting in the Swiss capital last week, I was invited to offer advice on how to approach the reporting challenge and was impressed with the serious, open and meticulous way in which Switzerland is preparing to meet its obligations. Its reports will be comprehensive and groundbreaking. Given that Switzerland is—at this early stage—setting the bar for other countries, it is important that the reports cover the ground as thoroughly as possible.

With that in mind I offer four suggestions—at the borders of the existing debate—for critical issues these reports would usefully cover. I set out the first of them here; the remaining three will be addressed in subsequent postings.

1. Alignment and coherence

Given the 2030 Agenda’s transformative ambitions, its success hinges on becoming the “defining agenda” for international cooperation, the framework into which all other agendas must fit. Past sustainable development agendas failed not because they were poorly crafted or lacked international legitimacy, but more often because they were undermined by other, more powerful agendas driving the behaviour of states and other stakeholder groups. Agenda 21, adopted at the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992, offered a perfectly good program, and the world would be a significantly better place had we genuinely tried to implement it. Unfortunately, it was adopted at a time when the present economic paradigm, based on the Washington consensus, took hold and markets were unleashed to pursue development through a singular focus on economic growth based on open competition. We now know that this alone could never guarantee a shift to sustainable forms of development, but the economic growth agenda was clearly dominant and the rest had to adapt to it or fall by the wayside.

If the world is to come anywhere close to achieving the 2030 Agenda, this must be reversed. The 2030 Agenda must be the gold standard, and other agendas—whether relating to trade, investment, taxation, employment, refugee policy or other priorities—should be required to demonstrate their compatibility with the primordial agenda. Similarly, institutions entrusted with advancing these other—especially economic—agendas should be accountable for ensuring that they not undermine progress towards the 2030 Agenda and that, where possible, they actively advance it.

While this is a challenge for all countries, it is especially important for the OECD countries whose influence on international cooperation agendas is particularly powerful. So what does this mean for Switzerland (and by extension for the other OECD countries) and how should it be reflected in their reporting to HLPF?  It means that there must be a major effort to ensure policy alignment among the positions Switzerland takes in these international regimes and organizations. Switzerland’s positions in respect of the World Trade Organization, to take an example, must be crafted and deployed bearing in mind the requirements of the 2030 Agenda. For instance, the rules governing intellectual property rights, or the ban on local content requirements relating to outside investments, might usefully be reviewed to determine whether, in their present form, they advance or undermine the 2030 Agenda. Likewise, the positions taken by the Swiss Executive Director at the World Bank or the African Development Bank—for example in approving a loan for coal-fired power generation—must be taken in light of the transformational imperatives of the 2030 Agenda.

Switzerland should create a space in its regular reporting to chronicle progress on this alignment process. This is a challenge, but it is clear that we will not reach the SDGs without a significant harmonization of policies across these broad economic, social and environmental agendas. Unless we are successful it is likely that the economic agendas that advance the interests of the powerful will, once again, make nonsense of the solemn commitment of our leaders—this time­—to genuinely act to ensure that our future is sustainable.