Bringing the SDGs Down-to-Earth

6a0120a608aa53970c01bb085b704d970d-120wiAndrew Wainer, Director of Policy Research

Milagros Lechleiter, PPA Intern

April 15, 2016

The United Nations General Assembly approved the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in September 2015 with massive fanfare: Pope Francis and President Obama were just two of the luminaries on hand to usher in the 17 goals and 169 targets covering everything from climate change to governance to poverty eradication.

But even as the SDGs overflow with ambition and goodwill, the lack of mechanisms to operationalize them means that the lofty goals risk being unfulfilled.

Last month, Save the Children gathered a group of NGO representatives and policymakers from USAID at InterAction to discuss how to make the SDGs work – and specifically work through U.S. foreign assistance. The centerpiece of the discussion is Save the Children’s new report: “From Words to Actions: USAID’s Integration of the Sustainable Development Goals.”

President Barack Obama delivers remarks at the Closing Session: Post-2015 Development Agenda, in General Assembly Hall at the United Nations in New York, N.Y. Sept. 27, 2015. (Official White House Photo/ Pete Souza)

The report indicates that while USAID played a major role leading U.S government input into the United Nations (U.N.) SDG creation process – spearheadedby USAID’s Policy, Planning and Learning (PPL) bureau – there is less certainty on how to take the goals forward. “It will take a while to figure it out,” one USAID official interviewed for the report said. The report also reveals that USAID is in the early stages of aligning its workaday operations with the imperatives of the SDGs and it will take continued effort – similar to that needed to shape the creation of the SDGs at the U.N. – to operationalize them at the agency.

This is no easy task and our report identifies several concrete recommendations on how the world’s bilateral largest foreign assistance agency can advance the process. These report recommendations include:

• The appointment of a SDG coordinator to monitor and manage progress on SDG integration across the U.S. government and to ensure momentum for the SDG agenda into the next administration.

• Consistent with SDG 10 on reducing inequality, USAID should set clear benchmarks to ensure that the poorest and most marginalized people, particularly those living in conflict-affected and fragile states, are making progress to achieve SDG targets.

• Make ambitious financing commitments to support the SDGs at key moments including at the Nutrition for Growth Summit and the next G7 and G20 Summits

Interviews with USAID policy staff for the report show that given the copious amount of U.S. government input into the SDGs during their creation, much of the USAID’s work already aligns with the goals.

President Barack Obama addresses attendees during a plenary meeting of the United Nations Sustainable Development Summit at the U.N.’s headquarters in New York, Sept. 27, 2015. (Reuters/Mike Segar)

It was clear from the research that the previous Washington and U.N.-focused work which fed into shaping the SDGs is now shifting to the field with a focus on implementation. USAID headquarters has started a dialogue with its missions – simultaneously socializing the SDG concept with agency field staff and querying missions to assess how they can tailor their in-country work to align with the goals.

Given the scope of the goals, USAID will be challenged to integrate the SDGs into its operations; but given the momentum generated by its successful work on them at the United Nations, the SDGs don’t have to remain merely an ambition – they can be integrated into the daily work of governments, civil society organizations, and foreign assistance agencies like USAID.

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