Three years into the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and how are we doing?

The good news: Child deaths continue to decline, more people have access to electricity, and we achieved SDG 17.8 to launch a technology bank that will help countries in poverty better leverage science and technology.

The not so good news: After years of decline, global hunger is on the rise, driven by conflict and climate change. (You can learn more here.) No country has reached gender equality, and extreme poverty persists in vulnerable communities.

Of course, this is an overly simplistic summary of complicated and connected issues. But it’s essential to know how we’re doing. If we want to end poverty, reduce inequality, tackle climate change, and more by 2030, we need to track current progress so we can figure out how to do better, faster.

The United Nations has a review process for the SDGs: It’s called the High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF), and it takes place in July. To get a better understanding of the issues and the goals under discussion at the forum and why they matter, we talked to Minh-Thu Pham, the UN Foundation’s Executive Director for Policy. Here are highlights from that conversation:

HLPF includes representatives from government, civil society, and business. What does this cross-sector group mean for the SDGs?

MTP: To achieve these ambitious goals, it can’t just be governments. The SDGs are about everyone, everywhere; for everyone, everywhere; and they need to be by everyone, everywhere.

Everyone needs to be on board and everyone needs to feel ownership. Civil society groups are there to not only hold governments accountable but also to implement and take on some of the responsibilities themselves.

The private sector has a huge role to play not just as a corporate social responsibility or philanthropic endeavor but in terms of integrating the SDGs into their core business.

Everyone has to be involved and having them come to the UN is an important moment for building a cohesive mission and community, as well as mobilizing people for what they’ll need to do next when they leave the conference.

As we head into the forum, what are some of the key things we’ve learned so far about making progress on the SDGs?

MTP: We know there is a higher likelihood of achieving the SDGs if you reach the furthest behind first.

With the MDGs, we cut extreme poverty in half and that was great, but the SDGs are mostly about getting to zero poverty, so we need to target those in the marginalized communities and vulnerable groups. And that means there is a whole set of policies, political attention, and shifts that have to happen.

Second, we need data, data, data! This includes quantitative data: Are we collecting the right information? Are we counting people? Are we disaggregating? But we also need qualitative data: What is it that people who are the furthest behind say they want and need?

Third, financing. People talk about billions to trillions because it is going to cost $5 trillion – $6 trillion a year to achieve the SDGs, and, currently, official development assistance is right around $140 billion a year. That’s a huge gap, so meeting that demand and getting us up to that amount of money means that everyone has to be on board, which includes using the precious resources of official development assistance to leverage and attract investors and other sources of funding, particularly from the private sector.

Fourth – and it’s a unique element that is actually quite hard about the SDGs – we’re trying to achieve social and economic ends, as well as environmental ones. There are trade-offs. If you try to build and build to cut poverty and elevate people’s lives, you need to find a way to do that without negatively impacting the climate and environment. And that means a shift to things like sustainable and low-carbon infrastructure, energy systems, and transport systems. We know this will create dividends, but it means that you have to plan well ahead of time.

And lastly, gender: really focusing on empowering women and girls. Evidence – time and again – shows that if you do this in all aspects of every issue, you’re going to make more progress and you’re going to make it faster. 

What are you most looking forward to at the forum?

MTP: I’m most excited to see the progress on Voluntary National Reviews (VNRs),which are country-level and country-driven progress reports on the SDGs.

In a lot of cases, countries only start to implement the SDGs when they do their VNRs. They go into their governments and collect data on what’s been going on and pull together plans about what they’ve done to change from the MDGs era to the SDGs era.

This year, 47 countries have volunteered to review their SDG progress and will be submitting and presenting VNRs. And for the first time, New York City will be the first city to share a voluntary review on SDG status at the local level. They’re calling it a Voluntary Local Review, or VLR. New York is one of many cities around the world that are aligning their own plans with the SDGs.

The other part I’m looking forward to – which is the whole reason for the HLPF – is to know how well we’re doing on the SDGs. That’s a little hard, of course, because we’re only just starting to implement the agenda.

I think in 2018 – three years in – we’re really trying to get a sense of how we’re doing. And the Secretary-General’s SDG Progress Report helps there. There are also some individual reports that are starting to come out about where we’re making progress and where we’re falling behind, so that we can focus efforts and bend the curve.

Lastly, I’m excited to see what innovative ways people have come up with for achieving the SDGs. A significant chunk of the community that works on the SDGs will be at the HLPF. It’s a great platform to learn from one another about some of these innovative approaches that government, civil society, and the private sector are doing to meet the SDGs, to measure progress, and to double down on what we need to do.

In terms of achieving the SDGs, what happens after the forum?

MTP: The hope is that governments come to the HLPF, report on progress, and really learn about how they can address some of the common challenges they’re having. Then, they take those lessons and experiences back to their countries with a renewed sense of mission.

Next year, 2019, is what I call the “Olympic moment” for the SDGs. All the heads of state are coming back to the UN General Assembly to reinforce their support for SDGs – the first time they’ve gathered on the SDGs at that level since they were adopted in 2015.

Next year is also going to be about a third of the way through the SDGs, so we want to make sure that governments and others have taken the first big steps to getting us on the right trajectory for achieving the SDGs. In some places that’s happened and in other cases it hasn’t. So we really need to focus on what we need to do to make this transformation.

How do we help countries take risks? The SDGs are a transformative agenda, and if you haven’t failed or taken big, bold moves, then maybe you haven’t been transformative enough. Over the next year, we want to create an atmosphere that encourages countries to make these big bets and really bend the curve, so that in 2019 we have the momentum we need to succeed by 2030.

[Photo: UN Photo]