Positioning the SDGs within the politics of national development

Reconciling diverse visions of sustainable development will be key to SDG progress.

Women from Paraguay's Ita Guasu indigenous community discuss their community development plan. Civil debate and value-based decision making will be key to implementing the SDGs (Photo: USAID, Creative Commons via Flickr)

The world has entered a possibly unprecedented period of environmental, political, social and economic change. Governments are considering what they need to do, individually and collectively, to respond to rapid change as it happens and prepare for an uncertain future.  

We are facing major systemic disruptions, from climate change to the 2008 global financial crash, public health emergencies resulting from air and water pollution and the current refugee crisis. 

These disruptions are difficult or impossible to predict and manage because they have multiple, interacting, but often invisible causes – although nearly all stem ultimately from failures of existing economic development models. 

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, encompassing the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), is an important part of the international response to these challenges.

The SDGs provide a useful framework for responding to changes that can be anticipated and managed with existing knowledge. But they offer little guidance for dealing with changes that require trade-offs between desired outcomes or volatile systemic changes that demand both technical and policy responses.  

This is the realm of politics writ large – defined as the processes and principles through which people, governments, communities and organisations make policies and rules to live by. Such politics play out in many arenas, including civil society in all its guises, and business big and small, as well as the different branches of government, and orthodox party politics. 

A sustainable development tipping point?

International events, from the 1972 UN Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm to the Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development 40 years later, have focused on the links between the environment, human development and economic growth. But they have not yet mobilised the leadership or shaped the institutions needed for fundamental change. 

The SDGs are the latest milestone on this path to sustainable development. Far more than previous frameworks, they recognise the inter-relationships between human development and the environmental, economic, social and political context in which it occurs. 

Their principles of universality, equity, inclusion, integration and the imperative to 'leave no one behind' signal the kinds of systemic, policy and institutional changes required. If it builds on real, grassroots momentum for action on global issues, from climate change to increasing inequality, this new global agenda could be the tipping point for that change. 

The risk is that the SDGs' complex structure and daunting number of targets, could too easily mean they join the rubble of previous efforts that have shown promise and then fizzled out.

Shifting from a technical to a political focus

What will make the difference is firmly embedding the SDGs in real-world processes of development.

These processes are messy because they involve hard-to-predict, complex and often volatile interactions between different drivers and interests. They need to be informed by an understanding, from both political and technical perspectives, of the costs of inaction and the opportunities for progress.  

Yet the growing mountain of guidance on SDG implementation does not recognise this need. The guidance is not only apolitical but also largely detached from the real world of private enterprise, communities and social institutions. 

History has shown that if the SDGs are treated as a discrete technocratic agenda driven by intergovermental institutions – with its own strategy, targets, indicators and monitoring protocols – the effort will collapse under its own (considerable) weight. Better to treat the SDGs as a useful frame of reference for countries to set short-term priorities in the context of longer-term aims, trends, threats and opportunities.

The spaces where politics are critical

There are contested visions of what sustainable development is, varying between countries, social groups and economic actors. And there are many pathways to achieving each SDG and the related targets. 

There is no one 'right' vision or approach. Achieving the SDGs, in spirit or in letter, is only possible through societal debate, interdisciplinary research and value-based decision making.

Inclusion, integration and universality are SDG watchwords. But above all they are political words, and even the most technocratic planner will ultimately interpret the goals in the political context.

Governance of the SDG agenda also has political dimensions – who is included, how the actors are connected and empowered, what resources they have, and how and by whom transparency and accountability are ensured. It will be virtually impossible to achieve the deeply political aspiration of 'leaving no one behind' without renegotiating how the benefits and costs of development are allocated, and confronting politically sanctioned social barriers and cultural norms that result in discrimination.

Finally, we need to approach the science informing SDG implementation in a new way. Most research and knowledge behind development decision-making remains uni-disciplinary and focused on single problems, such as air pollution, deforestation or housing quality.

To 'implement the SDGs' demands interdisciplinary science and economics, shared knowledge bases, and integrated institutions. How diverse knowledge is generated and shared, and who controls the research agenda, are political as much as technical questions.

Deepening our understanding of the political dimension

IIED has recently begun research to better understand how political factors and processes affect progress towards sustainable development, with national SDG implementation as the focus.

Over the next few months, we will interview a range of people with a deep understanding of the political contexts in which these processes are occurring. We will explore through case studies how these processes are playing out on the ground with stakeholders in a few countries.

The research aims to identify the political pathways through which progress towards sustainable development is possible, and to understand how the SDGs can facilitate such progress.

IIED will be working with partners such as the Independent Research Forum and the Least Developed Countries Independent Expert Group to share the learning with national stakeholders. 

Tighe Geoghegan (tigheg@gmail.com) is a consultant at Green Park Consultants GPC Ltd. Steve Bass (steve.bass@iied.org) is a senior associate in IIED's Shaping Sustainable Markets research group