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UN Sustainable Development Goals: Who Really Believes in Them?

An assessment of the framework for the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) before the High Level Political Forum

"La Voce di New York" asked several UN Members States if the 2030 Agenda is just another project for unrealistic ideals or if it is capable to enact change. We surveyed by e-mail and by phone 20 countries, but just 9 of their Missions at the United Nations gave us a followed-up or statement. 

In an effort to build momentum for the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), an adopted set of goals to end poverty and protect the planet, a UN central platform known as the High-Level Political Forum started this week to review the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The 17 Sustainable Development Goals and 169 targets comprise this universal Agenda that seeks to build on the Millennium Development Goals and complete what it did not achieve.

Opening the political forum, Frederick Musiiwa Makamure Shava, the President of Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), noted that this year’s discussions will focus on eliminating poverty and hunger, achieving gender equality, building resilient infrastructure, implementing partnerships, and building on progress achieved at The Ocean Conference to conserve and sustainably use our oceans. All collaborating countries and stakeholders will be held accountable for implementing the Agenda’s primary focuses.  

However, La Voce di New York wanted to know if the 2030 Agenda is just another neatly developed front in order to push for unrealistic, yet humanist ideals or if this Agenda is going to be an instrument that will enact change.

During the daily press briefing with the Spokesperson for the UN Secretary-General, La Voce di New York asked Stéphane Dujarric which goal the SG Antonio Guterres felt the most concerned about and, alternatively, which goal he felt the most optimistic about. “I think we have to wait for the forum to finish” answered Dujarric. “Wu Hongbo gave a very extensive briefing on Monday 10th, let’s wait to see how the forum goes and where the conclusions are so that countries could provide their own progress. Obviously, we would like to see progress across the board.”

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Wu Hongbo, Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs, spoke positively about how far countries have come towards reaching the development goals; yet, he also expressed that there is still much more that needs to be done to reach such goals. The UNSG Spokesman left out the SG’s recent report on Re-positioning the UN Development System to Deliver the 2030 Agenda. This strategic shift went underway while President Trump told the State Department to reduce US funding to UN programs by more than 50% as well as slashing State and US AID budgets by 37%. It has been estimated that it will require $5-$7 trillion to deliver the SDGs and the report recognizes that there is a need to “reorient available public and private sources of finance in addition to official development assistance (ODA) to ensure global inclusive growth and shared prosperity. Making effective use of diverse financing sources will entail an alignment of private financial flows with the 2030 Agenda, which in turn will require Governments and markets to join in new partnerships that build awareness and trust, align regulations and enable innovative instruments to foster risk sharing and accountability.” It underlines, by inference, the ideas behind the Brookings Report for last year’s PGA, which outlined some ideas on what those regulations might be.

With Trump backing out of UN funding, there is growing skepticism about the completion of the SDGs realistically. La Voce di New York wanted to know how Member States feel about the progress of the SDG’s thus far. We surveyed, by e-mail and by phone, twenty countries from all the continents (the U.S., China, Russia, Australia, India, Iran, Brazil, Colombia, Messico, Chile, Nigeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Qatar, Canada, South Africa, Sweden, Italy, Fiji, Turkey), but just nine countries gave us a follow-up or statement. 

Between the nine countries that gave us a response, the U.S., German, and Australian Missions stated that they were not given enough time to answer the questions. We sent an email with the questions on Monday evening with the first deadline being Thursday. We extended the final deadline until Friday afternoon. China seemed very intrigued about our questions, but did not disclose any new information to us. The press officer, Yang Zhang, stated that they were “sorry for not being able to offer straight answers to your questions, as we can’t disclose the contents of our Ambassador Jieyi Liu’s statement for the HLPF.” China provided us with links (1 2 3 4) to previously recorded statements on China’s National Plan to implement the 2030 Agenda.

Fortunately, five countries, India, Italy, Sweden, Ethiopia, and the smallest country in the world, Nauru, provided us with their answers to our questions.  

For our first question, we asked the countries if they feel confident about the progress made on SDGs over the past 2 years and if they were optimistic about the future. Below are their responses.

INDIA:  India is effectively committed and confident of achieving the SDGs. India with is size and the vibrancy of a billion plus population is determined to achieve the SDGs within its national development agenda. To fast track the implementation, the Government of India has recently released a draft Three-Year Action Agenda covering years 2017-18 to 2019-20. For implementing the SDG agenda, the Government of India has launched several ambitious programmes. A noteworthy example of a cross cutting initiative is the Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana (PMJDY) which is the world’s largest financial inclusion programme. By leveraging PMJDY, Aadhaar (biometric identity system) and mobile telephony, the Government has disbursed a cumulative amount of INR 1.62 trillion (USD 25 billion) to 329 million beneficiaries through Direct Benefit Transfers.

ITALY: The Three-year Strategic and Planning Document of the Italian Development Cooperation (for the 2016-2018 period ) has already adopted both the contents and the structure of the 2030 Agenda. This Document has served as the basis for Italy’s active commitment to the sustainable development goals. I believe we have every reason to be optimistic: in the next five years, Italy will focus on decreasing poverty, inequality, discrimination, unemployment (particularly among young people and women), ensuring environmentally-sustainable economic development, increasing opportunities for training, education and social progress, and restoring the competitiveness of Italian companies through a “fourth industrial revolution” based on innovative sustainable technologies.

SWEDEN: Yes, absolutely. I think we have seen a great engagement by Member States, civil society, the business community, the academia and other stakeholders. All these actors were also part of formulating the Agenda, which was a precondition for its success. We are also seeing results on the ground. Countries are integrating the Agenda into their national processes and institutions. The UN and other multilateral institutions are carrying out reforms and are integrating the Agenda 2030 in their programmes. For Sweden the 2030 Agenda constitutes the framework for our national and foreign policy. This year at HLPF it is time for Member States to show results and many of us have assigned our statistical offices to assess where we stand in the implementation. The continued work to develop the indicators for the monitoring of the Agenda is crucial. I think it is important to recall that Agenda 2030 is an ambitious agenda, that requires involvement by the whole society. The results does not and should not come overnight,-ownership and involvement of all actors are key and it takes time. Opportunism and populism are strong forces in today’s world. We need this Agenda more than ever I think.

ETHIOPIA: In order to address the question in a realistic manner it would be useful to refer to one or two issues that are very much pertinent to any discussion on the SDGs and the 2030 agenda. In this regard, the most important matter has to do with fact that, though only two years stand between the two, the world of 2017 is very different from that of two years ago. The SDG were greeted with a lot of hope and exuberance two years ago. Most of that appears very close to have dissipated. Look at where the climate change agreement is. The UN is not fairing well either. Thus the context has changed and to say context is everything is to state the obvious. But at the end of the day, countries have to exercise ownership of their affairs and development. Leaving no one behind and eradicating extreme poverty is the central mission of the 2030 agenda, and Ethiopia has been doing well in that regard. It’s national vision, even prior to the SDGs, has been driven by the overriding government development objective of eradicating poverty in all its forms. Before, the SDGs, the Ethiopian economy had registered a double digit economic growth for 13 consecutive years, resulting in halving poverty and making the country one of the fastest growing economy in the world. Since integrating SDGs in its national development plan, Ethiopia has registered an average real GDP growth rate of 8 percent in 2015/16 (agriculture 2.3%, industry 20.6% and services (8.7%). This is despite facing one of the worst climate-induced droughts in 2015/2016. This is an indication that economic resilience has been developing in Ethiopia. The Ethiopian economy has been progressing well, and the implementation progress of all SDGs that Ethiopia has integrated is on the right track. According to World Bank Report, Ethiopia will be the fastest growing economy in the world in 2017. Its GDP is forecasted to grow by 8.3% in 2017. By contrast, global growth is projected to be 2.7%. Let me say here, despite the difficult global context that I referred to earlier, south-south cooperation has continued to be robust and very helpful for countries such as Ethiopia.

NAURU: The negotiation of the SDGs was a landmark accomplishment, signaling that there will need to transform the way we operate in order to meet this ambitious, transformative set of goals. The SDG agenda is extremely broad and integrated, which means that the institutions that are responsible for their implementation need to transform in order to ensure that they are met by 2030. We are seeing those transformations take place, with the United Nations Development system working to reform itself in order to operate as a cohesive and coherent whole. Implementation will largely take place at the national level, and national institutions are working to respond to the ambitious and transformative agenda. But for many of our islands in the Pacific, support from partners and the UN Development System will be critical. While some steps have been taken, we need to see that support accelerate for us to feel confident about the achievement of the SDGs.


For our second question, we asked each country which SDGs they believe has the highest chance of being achieved and the lowest chance of being achieved. Below are their responses.

INDIA: Interconnections across the 17 SDGs are so strong that the pursuit of the goals necessarily involves the promotion of other goals as well. To share the experiences and lessons learnt, India is presenting its Voluntary National Review on 19 July 2017. Additionally, we are also organizing a special interactive event on 17 July 2017 on the special efforts and crosscutting policy initiatives taken by Government of India.

ITALY: The Sustainable Development Goals are not divisible because of their interlinkages and integrated nature, so we cannot think in terms of achieving only some of the goals. We pledged to leave no one behind, which is the real strength of this innovative agenda. It is a plan of action for people and prosperity in a sustainable environment, our planet. This is the key. We have only this planet and this is the plan. As the former Secretary-General put it, we do not have a plan B because there is not a planet B.

SWEDEN: All goals are equally important, interlinked and interdependent. Member States undertake to implement the Agenda in its entirety and should not engage in either “cherry picking” or silo thinking. Sweden has taken the lead in several areas which we believe are crucial for the fulfilment of the Agenda. We have committed to be the first fossil free welfare nation in the world. We co-hosted the Ocean Conference in June on implementing SDG 14 to conserve and sustainably use the oceans and marine resources together with Fiji. Our Prime Minister has initiated the partnership Global Deal to promote decent work in Sweden, but also in EU and globally. We have a feminist government pushing gender equality and we work to promote peaceful societies. We strongly support the UN Secretary General´s reform of the UN development system.

ETHIOPIA: All SDGs are interrelated and the progress of one affects the other. Therefore, they should be seen as being very much interrelated and mutually reinforcing. They are best looked at in an integrated manner. They are indivisible. Multidimensional poverty (SDG1) could not be reduced without addressing food security (SDG 2) health (SDG 3) or education (SDG 4) or gender equality (SDG 5). Accelerating industrialization and infrastructure (SDG 9) will have positive impact on job creation (SDG7). Therefore; the point is we are committed to implement all SDGs that we integrated into our national plan according to our contexts in an integrated approach. Even, before, SDGs, Ethiopia has a good experience of implementing comprehensive development strategies that complement each other. We are hopeful we could meet them on time. However, having said this, climate change (SDGs 13) poses a major challenge that could undermine development gains and could impede future endeavors to meet SDGs.

NAURU: One key feature of the SDG Agenda is that it is integrated. This means that to achieve any one goal, significant progress needs to be made on many others. For example, in the Pacific, we cannot imagine eradicating poverty, ensuring food security or making strides in public health if the health of our oceans continues to decline while climate change accelerates. The SDG agenda is also highly ambitious. In order to accomplish our goals, we will need to move away from “business as usual.” This is an important effort that governments, civil society, the private sector, and all stakeholders will need to take together.


For our third and final question, we asked the countries if any recent international events may have favored or hindered SDGs. Below are their responses.

INDIA: Enhancing development cooperation with neighboring and other countries of the global South brings India’s innovation and expertise to the service of these countries. India-UN Development Partnership Fund established on June 8, 2017 will support Southern-owned and led, demand-driven, and transformational sustainable development projects across the developing world. Focusing on Least Developed Countries (LDCs) and Small Island Developing States (SIDS), United Nations agencies will implement the Fund’s projects in close collaboration with partnering governments, in the spirit of global partnership for implementation of SDGs as envisaged in Goal 17.

ITALY: Achieving the SDGs depends on the active engagement of all stakeholders–namely, Governments, Institutions and Civil Society–than to “events” happening in our world. The plan is bold, but people need to know about it, since we tend not to care about something we do not know. The agenda has to be implemented at the global, regional and national levels. This is why Italy has been actively promoting Agenda 2030 and its SDGs at the global level also in the context of its current G7 Presidency. At the same time Italy is working with the European Union on a common framework for addressing the challenges of the 2030 Agenda. Finally, while building our national strategy , we are bringing the Agenda not only into our policy planning at all levels, but also into our society, starting with our schools, because  we will be successful only if our community shares and cares about the global goals.

SWEDEN: We need effective and inclusive multi-stakeholder partnerships, at all levels, inside countries and across borders for the implementation of the Agenda. Various international fora play an important role in this regard. The High Level Political Forum (HLPF) itself is very important for peer-learning and science-based and effective follow-up of SDG-progress. This year the forum is more dynamic and interactive than last year. The multi-stakeholder contribution and participation is strong. The Oceans Conference in an example of how we can accelerate the implementation of the Agenda 2030 and one specific goal (SDG 14).  The conference resulted in an ambitious intergovernmental ”Call for Action” and over 1,300 voluntary commitments providing global momentum for the implementation of the crucial SDG 14. Sweden made major voluntary commitments regarding for example the fight against illegal and irregular fisheries and the protection of marine ecosystems in developing countries. The Financing for Development Forum , that is held annually, to follow-up on the Addis Ababa Action Agenda on the financing of Agenda 2030 and the SDGs is another meeting that help to advance the Agenda.

ETHIOPIA: One may be encouraged when member states of the UN agreed an outcome to reaffirm the implementation of the Addis Agenda in May this year at the Second FFD Forum held in New York. One could also be discouraged when some development partners could not agree on means of implementation of the SDGs. Instead of one event or another, what is gravely worrying is SDGs could not be fully implemented, particularly in LDCs with the current global economic trajectory. There are many gaps in implementation of SDGs globally and multilateralism is questioned and international commitments are not fulfilled. The international environment is not as conducive as it should be for inclusive and sustainable development. The world continues to face political, economic, social and environmental challenges that impede the realization of SDGs. This trajectory must change and this requires renewed global partnership to meet the SDGs in all countries. While national actions are important, developed countries should meet their development pledges (SDG 17) to implement the universal SDGs. The promise made in 2015 when the 2030 agenda was endorsed in 2015 was to embark on a transformative agenda and to leave no one behind. One fears all that might remain a pipe dream. One hopes not.

NAURU: There is a recent international event that really stands out as an answer to this question. The United Nations Oceans Conference which just took place in June of this year was actually tailor made to advance implementation of SDG-14 : to conserve and sustainably use our oceans and seas. And the conference showcased the way that implementation will be able to happen. World leaders acknowledged the critical challenges facing the health of our ocean, and committed to actions to reverse the decline. At the same time, hundreds of voluntary commitments were made by governments, the private sector and civil society to take concrete actions to address serious challenges. These concrete steps, taken at all levels, will be the cornerstone to successful implementation of the SDGs, and we look forward to follow-up UN Oceans Conferences in order to ensure that we are making progress.



Journalist and scholar, Felix Dodds, Ireland’s Ambassador to the UN, David Donoghue, and Guatemala’s diplomat, Jimena Leiva Roesch, authors of the book, Negotiating the Sustainable Development Goals: A Transformational Agenda for an Insecure World, participated at a panel discussion on Friday in the UN Headquarters bookstore.  Jimena Leiva Roesch served as a Counselor at the Permanent Mission of Guatemala from 2009-2015, but left her post to be a key negotiator for creating the framework for the SDGs. During the discussion on how the rise of populism and the decline of global trade might lead to the disenchantment of the SDGs, Roesch answered our question saying, “there’s glimmers of hope everywhere. The 2030 Agenda applies to everyone like for instance  asylum seekers, refugees, and migrants. We want to use the agenda to press and shift the dynamics on issues like unaccompanied children.” She also compared the SDGs to a mirror saying, “countries from all continents can see themselves reflected in the Goals because it is like a story. There is a target designed almost for everyone.”

Hopefully as the Ministerial Segment approaches, delegations can provide some more clarity as to how these universal SDGs will be implemented in public policy and perhaps craft better policies to achieve the UN’s 2030 Agenda. 

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