UN Sustainable Development Goals fail to ramp up political, social change - paper

By Sam Ursu

UN Sustainable Development Goals fail to ramp up political, social change - paper

A new paper published in the British weekly academic journal Nature has revealed that the effectiveness of the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as a political framework has been quite minimal and largely relegated to the realm of discussion and debate.

The paper, authored by a team of 61 scientists from the Netherlands, Sweden, Germany, Canada, Britain, Ecuador, Nigeria, and Australia, was a meta-analysis of more than 3,000 published studies on the UN Sustainable Development Goals between 2016 and 2021. The authors discovered that the primary result of adopting the SDGs as a political framework have been discursive whereas more substantive changes like legislative action and budgetary commitments to implement the SDGs remain quite rare.

“Overall, our assessment indicates that although there are some limited effects of the SDGs, they are not yet a transformative force in and of themselves.”

In 2015, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which includes 17 core goals divided into 169 specific targets, collectively known as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). By analyzing all of the available published evidence of the efficacy of implementing SDGs, the authors sought to determine what impact the adoption of the SDGs had on both national and global governance.

The authors also reviewed the limited number of quantitative datasets that track the political impact of SDGs.

The paper’s authors measured the political effectiveness of using the SDGs as a framework along three categories: discursive, normative, and institutional changes. Discursive effects were defined as changes in the way governments and stakeholders frame issues during debates and discussions. Normative effects were defined as changes in legislation and regulations in order to implement the SDGs. Institutional effects were defined as actions such as creating new programs, offices, committees, ministries, or departments that are specially linked to the implementation of the SDGs.

According to the paper’s authors, most far-reaching and widespread impact of the adaptation of the SDGs was discursive in nature, referring to the way that governments, organizations, and even private companies have begun to adopt language and terminology directly related to the SDGs. Thus, while it can be safely asserted that the adoption of the SDGs in 2015 has created a noticeable shift in the way people around the world now discuss and debate solutions to existing developmental and sustainability challenges, very little has changed across the world in terms of new legislation or institutional changes in order to take concrete steps to implement the SDGs.

The paper also noted that the UN High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development, designed to be an “effective orchestrator” to implement the SDGs, has largely been ineffective and unused. The forum was designed to be a clearing house or meeting place for governments and stakeholders to review and assess the progress towards meeting the SDGs but has largely been ineffective in that role as most countries have preferred a unilateral, domestic approach.

The paper also revealed that there is very little evidence at all to show that national governments around the world have specifically allocated funds to implement the SDGs. The authors noted that public budgets and departmental spending have not been committed to the implementation of the SDGs at the national level in most countries, although some local governments (primarily on the city level) and NGOs have been more progressive on implementing the SDGs.

Perhaps most interestingly, the paper revealed that the discursive effects of the adoption of the SDGs has now also spread to the private sector. Banks, investors, and public companies are increasingly using the language of sustainability to describe their activities, which some experts have labeled “SDG Washing” or disguising standard business practices under the camouflage of SDG-related rhetoric.

The authors of the paper concluded by saying that the political impact of the SDGs across the 176 signatory nations has been primarily discursive in nature but that this increase in debate that uses the language, terms, and goals of the SDGs may be the first step towards actually achieving far-reaching transformational changes, including the full implementation of the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.