The Implications of the UN 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda for the OECD

NAECPatrick Paul Walsh, Professor of International Development Studies, University College Dublin, Ireland; Senior Advisor, UN SDSN, Earth Institute, Columbia University New York; UN Major Group for Science and Technology; Chair of the Academic Steering committee of the Global Association of MDPs

OECD countries need to cope better, in terms of household well-being, income equality, and environmental damage, in response to external shocks and risks around migration, financial markets, climate, disease, security, to name a few. The UN’s 2030 Agenda would want the OECD to contribute to global partnerships to address these issues. In addition, the OECD should continue its historical way of dealing with the developing world through the OECD DAC and facilitate the developing world to come to terms with this agenda.

But in addition to supporting the implementation in non-OECD countries, this universal agenda puts pressure on the OECD to take part in global partnerships to address global issues and implement the agenda within the nation states of the OECD themselves. The OECD will need to think about how to finance and allocate resources and capacity across these three horizontal segments of the UN 2030 Agenda.

The agenda gives the responsibility for implementing this agenda to every person, whether in a household, or in a company, or in a government, or in any sphere of life. Multi-stakeholder partnerships got the mandate to implement this agenda, and OECD policy making can only truly engage such partnerships if they are formally part of setting the policy agenda.

Economics, society and the environment are largely dealt with as horizontal issues by policy makers at all levels. The UN 2030 Agenda makes them vertical. The OECD has a great tradition producing reports that link product and labour markets, economic and social issues. How do we bring the three pillars of sustainable development together? How do we integrate equity, efficiency and suitability issues in to all OECD policies? The first challenge is to ensure the economics, social and environmental departments work vertically on policy analysis. This will require institutional reform and an upskilling of researchers, the resourcing of data and technical capacities to integrate economics, social and environmental pillars into their policy formation and advice. Economic policy with a focus on economic growth will have to bring in sustainability and equity issues. Walsh (2015) illustrates how industrial policies can be designed to build in social and sustainable issues. OECD countries attract multi-nationals by allowing access to markets, and must ask in return that multinationals show us how inclusive they are from a societal point of view, not just locally, but also globally, and also that they are not causing undue damages to the environment locally and globally.

Economists in economic planning and finance need to build in social and environmental targets into their economic planning. The problem is, even if we had inclusive and sustainable industrial policies and technologies, can the economies really grow 4 to 5 per cent a year? The targets for economic growth are there in the goals for the developed and developing world. But economic growth is already stretching planetary boundaries. It may happen that OECD members might have to ensure that sustainability is put first, and then allow social and economic transformations and development to work within planetary boundaries. That is going to be politically very difficult. But on the other hand, if you want to avoid the worst effects of climate change we may have to do this. This is why the OECD has to mainstream social and environmental issues into government planning and financing.

Going a little deeper, what does this mean for our statistical offices and the data we use? Policy makers will need integrated data on companies, households, and on natural capital and environment damage. Even though there is a lot of micro data out there, the data sets are not interoperable for use in policy making. If we were truly designing economic policy in a particular region, we need to know the benefit to the society and environment. If we don’t have the data, which would incorporate data on water, land use, energy, climate, we cannot study how that interplays with productivity, or the interplay with social issues. Lots of companies have data for what they do, from an efficiency point of view. But the government tends not to have linked social and environmental data to create policies that create the future we want. And as good as the OECD datasets are, they are not linked up to support truly integrated approaches to sustainable development.

While the 17 SDGs and 169 targets are for every country, the agenda is quite prescriptive at the global level but is rather open and flexible at the regional and national level. Obviously, this has risks. For example, African countries can decide to target SDGs 8 and 9, which are mainly economic in nature and forgot about social and environmental development. But in reality, it is clear that you can design your own agenda, in line with the spirit of the agenda, to achieve as many goals as you can, but it has to be relevant to the country and region.

The Agenda can be led by OECD member states and could take a formal legal approach, where governments would implement their actions and plans and legislate, enforce and make all accountable by law. This top-down approach would need serious buy-in by bureaucratic, parliamentary and judicial systems. The data, knowledge and regulatory ability would be high. Yet, member states and partnerships should be encouraged to implement the Agenda in their own way. For example, different countries have different labour market institutions. Some countries can target equity issues using smart labour market policies and progressive tax systems.

Europe might have a tradition of big state, and we might favour top-down government policies. But in other countries, where the state is not as legitimate and powerful, maybe this type of policy is not the way forward. Financial markets, companies, NGOs, civil organizations can be encouraged to change their governance structure and policies to help a bottom-up movement which is enabled by global government and global institution.

The OECD may have a history of government-led policies, implemented by government, reviewed by government, but why not be an enabler and see how you can incentivize and enable companies, households, NGOs and other stakeholders to be part of this agenda, to reward them, underwrite them? Like the UN Agenda, the plan should be that the OECD enables 24/7 participation and innovation by partnerships at local, national, regional and global levels in Sustainable Development.

Useful links

UN Sustainable Development Knowledge Platform

Patrick Paul Walsh Industrial Policy and Sustainable Development, GSDR 2015 Policy Brief

Food Security and the Sustainable Development Goals

NAECJonathan Brooks, Head of Agro-food Trade and Markets Division, OECD Trade and Agriculture Directorate

The new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) include a significant number of interconnected objectives related to agriculture and food. SDG 2 focuses explicitly on food by seeking to “end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture”, but multiple other goals relate to challenges in the food system. SDG 1 focuses on poverty reduction, where agriculture and food has a key role to play. Sustainable agriculture plays a central role in achieving SDG 6 on water, SDG 12 on sustainable consumption and production, SDG 13 on climate change adaptation and mitigation and SDG 15 on land use and ecosystems.

A majority of the world’s poor lives in rural areas, where farming – predominantly by smallholders – is the central economic activity. Large increases in agricultural investment will be needed both to raise incomes and increase the supply of food sustainably. Most of the investment will need to come from the private sector, but governments have an important role in establishing the framework conditions. Public investment, supported by development aid, can also complement and attract private investment. Policies that support agriculture’s enabling environment, but do not distort incentives or crowd out the private sector, are likely to be more effective in the long term than specific subsidies to the agricultural sector. Priority areas for public spending include research, innovation and rural infrastructure, together with social protection and backstopping to ensure improved nutrition.

Agricultural productivity growth will increase food availability and benefit consumers to the extent that domestic prices are lower than they would otherwise be. Productivity gains imply lower unit costs and also translate into higher incomes for innovating farmers. But the resulting decline in prices dissipates some of these gains. Farmers who fail to innovate will only experience the price decline and thus face adjustment pressure. For that reason, broad-based development is needed to ensure that less competitive farmers are pulled, rather than pushed, out of farming into more remunerative activities.

Trade will have an increasingly important role to play in ensuring global food security. Developed and major emerging economies in particular need to avoid policies that distort world markets, making them a less reliable source of food supplies. Multilateral action to ensure that national policies do not generate a new range of spill-overs that compromise food security in poor countries has been elusive thus far but remains a priority for early action.

Climate change and the degradation of land, water and biodiversity resources are expected to require changes in production systems. Policies at the national level need to be aligned towards sustainable productivity objectives. An essential step is to remove agricultural policy incentives to market-distorting environmentally harmful practices, such as subsidies to energy and agricultural inputs. More efforts are needed in the areas of agricultural R&D, technology development, and skills. Environmental policies are also required to ensure well-defined property rights for natural resources and to tackle economy-wide environmental challenges. Given the local specificity of the challenges, targeted agri-environmental policies have a role to play to effectively redress negative environmental impacts and to ensure a better management of resources.

Fisheries provide jobs and nutrition to hundreds of millions of people worldwide, especially in poor coastal areas. Overfishing threatens the long-term health of fisheries and ultimately harms fishery-dependent communities. The benefits of reform of fisheries policies are clear. Controlling harvest to achieve maximum sustainable yield is estimated to enable the sector to produce an additional USD 50 billion per year or more in profits. Recovering fish stocks can lead to eventually harvesting nearly 20% more fish than is possible at current stock levels.

Useful links


Why a meeting of ministers?

Ministers of Agriculture from OECD countries and partner economies around the world will meet at OECD headquarters in Paris on 7-8 April 2016, to discuss Better Policies to Achieve a Productive, Sustainable and Resilient Global Food System (click on the banner for background reports and other resources). Ministers will explore the new policies needed to achieve this widely shared interest, and will exchange on how to ensure that existing policies begin to shift in these directions more quickly.

Agriculture Ministers last met at the OECD in February 2010, in the midst of volatile world food markets. Six years later, and as requested by Ministers, it is again time to assess whether the policies governments are pursuing are well targeted to address emerging issues and public priorities. Population growth and increasing prosperity are driving and changing demand for agricultural products. The sector will need to adapt to climate change, including to the expected increased frequency of extreme events, and will also have to be part of the mitigation effort. There will be increased competition for limited natural resources, in particular water.

Against this background Ministers will:

  • exchange ideas about which policies would best accompany the sector in responding to these opportunities and challenges and how to manage the transition to a new policy framework
  • cover the entire food chain, with a strong focus on the knowledge and innovation systems needed to achieve sustainable productivity growth
  • discuss how to strengthen global collaboration to that end, including through trade, science and technology, and education and advisory services
  • reflect on how the food system can contribute to the overall well-being of their economies, and on how overall policy settings can be more conducive to achieving sustainable productivity growth in the global food system

This meeting of Agriculture Ministers comes in the wake of several other important high-level events: the G20 Agriculture Ministerial under the Turkish Presidency of the G20 in May 2015, the UN Special Summit on Sustainable Development in September 2015, the COP21 in November-December 2015, the WTO Ministerial Conference in December 2015, and Germany’s Global Forum for Food and Agriculture in January 2016.

Global Food Security: Challenges for the Food and Agricultural System

OECD work on sustainable agriculture

Coordination and Implementation of the SDGs: The Role of the Centres of Government

NAECLuiz de Mello, Deputy Director of the OECD Public Governance and Territorial Development Directorate

A principal issue for governments with respect to the Sustainable Development Goals is how to align policies in practice given the breadth and complexity of the 17 SDGs and their 169 targets, the mixed track record of most governments in working horizontally, and the need to include an unprecedented range of public and private actors in both policy formulation and implementation. The different phases bring with them very specific challenges. For example, adapting global targets to national contexts and setting targets at department level is a delicate, political task that requires careful and sensitive negotiation in order to ensure an inclusive process with real buy-in from key stakeholders both within and beyond government. Implementing the SDGs is a formidable governance challenge that needs to be steered. In recognition of this challenge and as a shift in thinking since the last set of global goals were agreed, the SDGs underscore the importance of building effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels (Goal 16) as a foundation for achieving the desired outcomes from ending poverty, to improving health, and combating climate change and its impacts.

Achieving progress across the SDGs will require governments to work across policy areas and steer the delivery of these ambitious goals. However, this is not an easy task: the obstacles to joined-up government are well known. For example, immediate economic and social pressures often crowd out strategic policy initiatives, particularly where the benefits from the latter span electoral terms. Public budgets and accountability systems are usually aligned with departmental structures and have difficulty tracking progress and valuing outcomes that accrue in multiple policy areas. One of the key institutions that can play a role in steering the delivery of the SDGs by highlighting trade-offs, enabling policies across issue areas to address multiple and sometimes competing objectives is the Centre of Government.

The OECD survey of the role and functions of the Centre of Government confirmed that, for most countries, the number of cross-ministerial initiatives has increased since 2008, but governments are still searching for effective models to deliver policies than span multiple departments. Governments have tried numerous solutions. For example, “super ministers” or “policy tsars” can be effective if they have sufficient drive and authority, but success depends on the status of an individual and might not lead to e integration at the policy level. Similarly, super ministries can help to integrate the policies of multiple departments, but internal silos often remain. Permanent (standing) or ad hoc committees are the most typical mechanism for “routine” coordination, but seem less suited for ambitious initiatives. Finally independent policy units can bring fresh ideas and new expertise but may face challenges in establishing legitimacy across departments. These models all have strengths and weaknesses, but none have shown to be entirely fit for purpose.

Of course, governments already have bodies and agencies to assess how well policies are being implemented – major contracts performance teams, supreme audit institutions, the ministry of finance expenditure tracking teams, and so on. They provide essential information to ensure accountability, track spending and measure outputs, but as each usually has its own benchmarks and reporting requirements, they often lack an overview of performance that would be needed to monitor SDGs.

The centre of government has a number of assets that can help to ensure that agenda-setting leads to an agreed and realistic approach. First, the centre is, technically, policy neutral, in contrast to departments. Second, the centre has convening power borrowed from the head of government and can bring pressure to bear on departments to adjust policies and commit resources. In principle, with respect to the head of government’s priorities, it does not need to rely on achieving consensus through compromise and lowest-common-denominator negotiations. Third, while line ministries, even those with the most relevant technical expertise, might have little experience in driving cross-disciplinary policies, the centre usually has co-ordination expertise allied with political sensitivity.

Often, the crucial ingredients provided by the centre are relatively minor, practical tools to overcome administrative rigidities, such as holding funding pools, designing tailored accountability frameworks or hosting project teams of specialists drawn from different departments or from outside government. Together, these inducements ensure that disruption of departments other operational tasks is minimised and that roles and expectations are clear for all.

There is also a clear role for the Centre to take a more active stance in reviewing and refining policy implementation linked to complex strategies such as the SDGs. The role of the Centre is already evolving in this direction in some countries. This has a number of advantages. First, it creates a more flexible system in which, if necessary, decision makers can take action to remedy problems or change course. Second, the Centre can pinpoint blockages and propose support and problem-solving advice to the agency concerned. Dedicated teams at the Centre of Government have become the preferred tool to ensure this close-to-the-ground monitoring, with countries setting up one or more teams in the three principal areas, strategy, policy and delivery. They are also in charge of building an evidence base of citizen experiences and expectations in the delivery of government priorities. These teams allow for focused attention on chosen priority areas, which are often complex and require management across a number of departments from the design phase to the implementation phase. In essence, Centres of Government can help steer government action from planning to the delivery of the SDGs.

Centres of Government have good practices to share in the design, steering and delivery of complex policies such as the SDGs, built on practical experience of setting, and increasingly leading complex agendas across government. As a way forward, and as the SDGs are a universal agenda – the Centres of Government could envisage:

  • Establishing whether there is an adequate evidence base to support quality decision-making throughout the policy cycle with regards the implementation of the SDGs
  • Maintaining the focus on the goals underpinning the SDGs despite short-term emergencies, shifting political priorities and electoral discontinuities
  • Setting out plans to address potential trade-offs in the agenda of the SDGs and ensuring inclusiveness is at the heart of the implementation plan in order to ‘leave no one behind’.

In all of these areas, the regional or country context will define implementation plans- there will not be a single pathway to delivery. As a result, the Centres of Government could benefit from the sharing of experiences on how countries have addressed complex agendas such as the SDGs that do not fall neatly under departmental or ministry portfolios, and how innovations in this area can support effective and accountable institutions.

Useful links

Network of Senior Officials from Centres of Government

The Sustainable Development Goals and Development Co-operation

NAECErik Solheim, Chair of the OECD Development Assistance Committee

The Sustainable Development Goals which world leaders agreed on in 2015 are focussed on people, peace and planet. Achieving goals requires a transformational, integrated, and universal agenda that is based on effective policies, sufficient pecunia and true partnerships.

Achieving economic growth is not a miracle according to the Commission on Growth and Development (2008). Impressive progress towards the Millennium Development Goals in countries like Botswana, Brazil, China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Oman, Singapore and Thailand highlights that sustainable economic growth was an essential ingredient to raise the income of all, the poor in particular. The growth models of these countries carried some common flavors: the strategic integration with the world economy; the mobility of resources, particularly labor; the high savings and investment rates; and a capable government committed to growth.

The Sustainable Development Goals envision a new growth model, one that is inclusive, sustainable and resilient. In the face of mounting global challenges, a new approach to growth requires consideration of how the benefits of growth are distributed, the impact on the environment and the stability of the global financial and economic system. A growth strategy incorporating all these elements does not involve following a single recipe. This is because no single recipe exists. Timing and circumstance determine how the ingredients should be combined, in what quantities, and in what sequence (Rodrik, 2008). Limited political and financial capital for reform should focus on the most binding constraints to sustainable economic growth and poverty reduction.

More and better public and private resources are needed to promote sustainable development. Official development assistance (ODA) has, until recently, been seen as the main source of funding for development. Increasingly, ODA is only one part of the flows that are targeted to support development. At nearly USD 161 billion in 2013, ODA represented now only 18% of all official and private flows from the 29 member countries of the OECD’s Development Assistance Committee (DAC) and the International Financial Institutions. In addition, better-off developing countries also received USD 190 billion in “Other Official Flows” provided at close to market terms. Private finance such as foreign direct investment and remittances as well as and private grants from philanthropic foundations and non-governmental organisations amounted to almost USD 650 billion in 2013 (OECD, 2014).

While the relative importance of ODA compared to private investments is decreasing in the middle income countries, ODA can continue contributing to their development by mobilising private flows, leveraging private investment and facilitating trade. Southern providers of development co-operation are also increasingly important. China is now a major source of development assistance, particularly in Africa. In addition, it accounts for 20% of all foreign direct investment in developing countries. Based on their own experience, Brazil and Mexico assist Latin American neighbours. Foundations have also become important actors. For instance, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation now donate more to development than many OECD countries.

External Finance flows, 2013

external flows 1

external flows 2

The emerging consensus in the literature is that aid has a positive, if small effect on growth. While aid has eradicated diseases, prevented famines, and done many other good things, its effects on growth is difficult to detect given the limited and noisy data available. Tarp et al (2009) in an extensive review of the aid-growth literature concluded that the bleak pessimism of much of the recent literature is unjustified and the associated policy implications drawn from this literature are often inappropriate and unhelpful. Clemens et al (2012) re-examine three of the most influential published aid-growth papers and found that increases in aid have been followed on average by increases in investment and growth. The most plausible explanation is that aid causes some degree of growth in recipient countries, although the magnitude of this relationship is modest, varies greatly across recipients and diminishes at high levels of aid

The policy environment for development has fundamentally shifted. The Third International Conference on Financing for Development and the UN Conference on Climate Change hold great promise, but they also pose a challenge to the way the international development community does business. In response to the changing nature of the world economy and its rising complexity, new analytical approaches are needed to better understand the trade-offs and complementarities between policy objectives – e.g. between growth promoting policies and equity and environmental concerns. Addressing these concerns requires integrated approaches that breakdown silos between policy communities. Three priorities will be critical in delivering this ambitious global agenda’s: Firstly: collective policy action to address global challenges, secondly; putting people’s well-being at the centre of development efforts, and thirdly; partnerships to deliver results on the ground.

Useful links

OECD work on the Sustainable Development Goals

OECD Development Cooperation Report 2014: Mobilising Resources for Sustainable Development

Arndt, Channing and Jones, Sam and Tarp, Finn, Aid and Growth: Have We Come Full Circle? (2009). Univ. of Copenhagen Dept. of Economics Discussion Paper No. 09-22. Available at SSRN: or

Clemens M., Radelet S., Bhavnani R.and Bazzi S. Counting Chickens when they Hatch: Timing and the Effects of Aid on Growth (2012) , The Economic Journal, Volume 122, Issue 561

Commission on Growth and Development (2008), The Growth Report Strategies for Sustained Growth and Inclusive Development, World Bank Washington DC

Rodrik D (2008) One Economics, Many Recipes: Globalization, Institutions, and Economic Growth. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press

The Importance of a Policy Coherence Lens for Implementing the Sustainable Development Goals

NAECEbba Dohlman, Senior Advisor, Policy Coherence for Development, OECD

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Addis Ababa Action Agenda call upon all countries to “pursue policy coherence and an enabling environment for sustainable development at all levels”. Sustainable Development Goal 17 – on the means of implementation – includes a Target to “enhance policy coherence for sustainable development” (PCSD). The OECD defines PCSD as an approach and policy tool to integrate the economic, social, environmental, and governance dimensions of sustainable development at all stages of domestic and international policy making. PCSD aims to increase governments’ capacities to foster synergies across economic, social and environmental policy areas; identify trade-offs; reconcile domestic policy objectives with internationally agreed objectives; and address the spillovers of domestic policies.

Policy coherence for sustainable development is fundamental to ensure that progress achieved in one SDG contributes to progress in other SDGs, and to avoid the risk of progress in one goal at the expense of another. PCSD is critical to:

  • Consider the economic, social and environmental costs and unintended consequences of policy decisions. For example, the USD 55-90 billion annual support for fossil fuels in OECD countries incentivise further CO2 emitting fossil fuels rather than investment in renewables; contribute to climate change; aggravate pollution and health risks; and waste money that could be reallocated for more targeted spending on the poor while contributing to global climate objectives.
  • Identify effective uses of diverse sources of finance other than ODA. While ODA remains crucial for the least developed countries and most vulnerable populations, it now represents only 20% of the developed world’s financial engagement with developing countries. PCSD can help to make best use of existing resources, including more effective fiscal administrations, higher tax income; remittances; trade and investment; more direct access to capital markets; low interest debt; and addressing illicit flows.
  • Shed light on critical sectoral interactions to achieve SDGs and Targets. PCSD can help to inform how efforts to attain a goal in one sector would affect (or be affected by) efforts in another sector, for example between water (SDG6), food (SDG2), and energy (SDG7). Agriculture is the largest user of water at the global level; energy is needed to produce and distribute both water and food; and the food production and supply chain accounts for almost one third of total global energy consumption. Policy decisions made in these sectors can have significant impacts on each other and tensions may arise from real or perceived trade-offs between various objectives. Improved water and energy services reduce the burden on women and young girls who often spend several hours each day collecting water and gathering biomass for cooking, thus freeing up time for their participation in education and income generation activities. The provision of cleaner water and energy services is also linked to improvements in the health, micro-enterprise activity, and agricultural productivity of women, thereby spurring overall national economic development.
  • Deal with systemic conditions and disablers that hamper sustainable development. Illicit financial flows for example are a major disabler for sustainable development. In many countries of origin, they are a symptom of governance failures, weak institutions, and corruption, but also of other systemic conditions in recipient countries that allow IFFs to thrive, such as tax havens and secrecy jurisdictions. A PCSD lens can inform actions at international level to support a fairer and more transparent global tax system; and curb tax avoidance strategies which in most cases are legal but unfairly take advantage of the interaction between tax rules of different countries. At the national level, success will depend on the quality of domestic regulations, institutions and capabilities to identify, track, and fight tax evasion, money laundering and corruption.

The multi-sectoral and transformative nature of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development will require institutions to be able to work across policy domains (horizontal coherence) and governance levels from local to global (vertical coherence). It requires policies that systematically consider sectoral inter-linkages (synergies and trade-offs) and effects (here and now, elsewhere, and tomorrow). The OECD’s analytical framework can help inform decision-making and support policy-makers and stakeholders to design policies that systematically consider:

  • The roles and responsibilities of different actors as well as the diverse sources of finance – public and private, domestic and international – for achieving sustainable development outcomes.
  • The policy inter-linkages across economic, social and environmental areas, including the identification of synergies, contradictions and trade-offs, as well as the interactions between domestic and international policies.
  • The non-policy drivers, i.e. the enablers (that contribute to) and disablers (that hamper) sustainable development outcomes at the global, national, local and regional levels.
  • The policy effects “here and now”, “elsewhere”, and “later”. This captures ways in which the pursuit of well-being today in one particular country may affect the well-being in other countries or of future generations (the long-term impact of policies at national and global levels).

Analytical Framework for Policy Coherence for Sustainable Development


Against this background, the OECD is developing PCSD Framework, a self-assessment policy toolkit, aimed at providing policy-makers with practical guidance on: (i) setting up institutional mechanisms for coherence, including political commitment and leadership, coordination capacity and monitoring systems; (ii) managing policy interactions at different levels to detect and resolve policy conflicts; (iii) addressing contextual factors that enable or impede coherence for sustainable development; and (iv) anticipating the unintended consequences of policy decisions. It includes thematic modules on Food Security, Illicit Financial Flows and Green Growth.

Useful links

OECD work on policy coherence for development

We need to talk about the SDGs

UNSustainableDevelopmentGoalsViews vary on how much of a difference the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) actually made to the world. But on one thing people seem more or less united: They were a great communications tool. They took the abstract concept of “development” and turned it into a series of mostly concrete goals – fewer poor people, more kids in school, healthier mothers and babies, and so on.

According to Jan Vandemoortele, an independent researcher and UN veteran, the communications power of the MDGs rested on three pillars – the three Cs: they were clear, concise, computable.

So what about the successors to the MDGs, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs): Will the new set of goals adopted at the United Nations in October prove equally effective as a communications tool? You could be forgiven for having doubts. While the MDGs had just eight goals and 18 targets, the SDGs have 17 goals and a whopping 169 targets.

The number of goals is just one issue; there’s also the question of scope. The MDGs were essentially focused on the needs of developing countries. By contrast, the new SDGs are part of a global agenda for the development of the entire planet – they apply to wealthy countries just as much as poorer countries, and they cover a much broader range of issues: Poverty reduction, yes, but also economic sustainability, employment, climate change and much, much more.

“If you apply those three C’s to the SDGs, it’s clear you have a problem,” according to Mr. Vandemoortele.

This “problem” – if that’s what it is – was recently discussed by development communicators at a meeting in Paris of the OECD Development Centre’s DevCom network. The discussions provided fascinating insights into differing approaches on how to communicate around the SDGs.

If you’ve heard of the SDGs at all, it may well be thanks to the Global Goals campaign, brainchild of the British filmmaker Richard Curtis (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Bridget Jones’s Diary). The campaign is operating on many fronts: In September, to coincide with the UN General Assembly, it hosted the Global Citizen festival in New York, featuring performers like Beyoncé and Coldplay; it has produced slick videos featuring famous names like Malala Yousafzai, Stephen Hawking and Meryl Streep; it has created a set of logos that rebrand the SDGs as “The Global Goals” and simplify their messages; and it has helped deliver a classroom lesson on the SDGs to half a billion children worldwide in 160 countries.

“We’re campaigning to make the Global Goals famous,” Piers Bradford of the Global Goals campaign said at the DevCom session. “We set out to tell seven billion people in seven days – patently ridiculous,” he admitted, “but it got people’s attention.” The actual estimated impact of the campaign is still impressive – in the region of three billion worldwide.

But the Global Goals campaign hasn’t pleased everybody. Among a number of complaints, some civil society groups have objected to the language of the campaign. They argue that it is oversimplified and fails to mention some key concepts – most notably the “sustainable development” part of the goals. Some of these criticisms were voiced at the DevCom meeting by Leo Williams of the Beyond2015 Campaign.

“Awareness should not be focused on some edited highlights of the SDGs, renamed as Global Goals and shown in films, adverts and music videos,” Mr. Williams said. “It should be about recognizing the change dynamics of the universal agenda, real meaningful participation, meaningful understanding, not just information.”

One concern of some civil society activists is that the focus on the 17 goals, and on certain goals in particular, risks obscuring the fact that they are actually part of a much broader agenda that has much to say on implementation and accountability. “There needs to be the recognition that this is an indivisible agenda,” according to Mr. Williams.

But is such a sweeping agenda really “communicable” (as they say in development circles)? Comments from a number of other speakers and delegates seemed to support the idea that it’s OK to pick and choose from the SDGs.

“I don’t think that at the local level, everybody in a country is going to associate with all the goals,” said Edith Jibunoh, who works on civil society relations at the World Bank: “I completely buy into the idea that in some countries the focus will be on certain areas, and I think that as development communicators we should be really comfortable with that.”

That view was echoed by Mr. Vandemoortele. “We have 169 targets in the SDGs – which is good – but you cannot have it all as a priority. If you have that many priorities then you have no priorities.” He argued that communication of the SDGs needs to happen at two levels, the local and the global, and that at both levels it needs to convey a strong sense of what’s happening in the real world.

“We have to go beyond global statistics, and coloured maps,” he said. Instead, he said, we need to hear more about the on-the-ground experience of the SDGs – Viet Nam’s successful “VDGs,” for example, or Cambodia’s inclusion of mine-clearing in its development goals. “Have you ever heard about these?,” asked Mr. Vandemoortele. “No, because we only hear about global statistics. Let us avoid the trap.”

Useful links

Informal Network of DAC Development Communicators (DevCom)

OECD Development Centre

OECD and the Sustainable Development Goals

OECD Insights: From Aid to Development

Sustainable development goals: much more than just a group picture

SDG Christian KrollChristian Kroll, expert on sustainability at the Bertelsmann Stiftung and the Sustainable Governance Indicators (SGI) project manager

When world leaders from all UN member countries meet today in New York for the largest ever gathering of heads of state, it will be about so much more than a unique photo opportunity. Beyond the grand gestures and speeches, we are going to have to ask our leaders if they have done their homework. Seventeen new goals will be adopted at the summit in order to guide public policy over the next fifteen years: the Sustainable Development Goals. They follow on from the Millennium Development Goals, which have helped to halve child mortality, as well as fight hunger and disease since 2000. The key difference is that these new goals will be universal and include the high-income nations of this world – not just as donor countries for development assistance. The Sustainable Development Goals will demand fundamental policy changes in the rich countries themselves. These goals have the power to question the way we live, how we structure our economies, the way we produce, the way we consume. They can highlight the particular responsibilities of the rich nations for sustainable development and spark much-needed reform debates.

A first systematic assessment of how the rich nations perform with regard to all of the seventeen new goals reveals that most OECD nations are currently on track to fail the targets that they are about to set for themselves. The analysis was published by the Bertelsmann Stiftung with the support of the Sustainable Development Solutions Network just ahead of the historic summit. In his foreword, Kofi Annan, who was the driving force behind the Millennium Development Goals, writes: “This study will hopefully spark reform debates on sustainability and social justice in many high-income countries. We owe it to our planet and its people”.

In fact, the rich nations must take immediate policy steps to make their economic and social model more sustainable and inclusive. But we are not starting from zero: We can and must learn from each other. Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Finland perform best across the 17 new UN goals. These countries show that a strong economy with employment-to-population rates in the case of Sweden of 75 percent (ranked 4th of 34 OECD countries) can go together with sound social policies and an environmentally friendly infrastructure (the share of renewable energy in Sweden is 47 percent, ranked 3rd). By the way, these are also among the world’s happiest countries, thereby deconstructing the myth that a sustainable lifestyle is one where you will have to forsake all those precious things that make you happy.

Most high-income nations, however, are on the wrong track with economic systems that widen the gap between rich and poor, and their highly un-sustainable consumption and production patterns. In 23 OECD countries, the wealthiest 10 percent of the population now earns at least as much as the poorest 40 percent. The earnings of the richest 10 percent in the USA are even 1.7 times as great as those of the poorest 40 percent. Countries such as the United States and Denmark generate 725 and 751 kg, respectively, of municipal waste per person every year. The United Kingdom and Estonia overexploit 24 and 22 percent, respectively, of their fish stocks.

When the ink has dried on the outcome document of the New York summit, the work to implement the SDGs should start immediately. In the next fifteen years, let us learn from best practices on the seventeen goals. As the goals are merely political and not legally binding, civil society will have to hold governments to their pledges at the UN summit and accelerate the change over the next fifteen years. That is you, me, and everyone who is not going to be in that historic picture dated 25 September 2015. It is in our hands.

Useful links

Sustainable Development Goals: Are the rich countries ready? Christian Kroll, Bertelsmann Stiftung, SGI Network, 2015

OECD and the Sustainable Development Goals