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SDGs for 2030: watch this space

How are countries doing since the U.N. adopted its Sustainable Development Goals for 2030 on 25 September 2015? A meeting in New York on 11-20 July received reports from 22 countries on the 17 SDGs and the website put together a compilation from the High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development.

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By Peter Hulm

"No one left behind" was the unfortunate motto for both the New York meeting and the Agenda approved by the General Assembly, with its echo of George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind Act of empty promises and now replaced with Every Student Succeeds.

Maybe it's best for now to leave a question mark over this ambition. But for those who want to disentangle some of the issues countries need to tackle, the 2016 Global Sustainable Development Report from the U.N.'s Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA) has a chapter trying to pull together what some 240 scientists in U.N. agencies say about the implications.

Not surprisingly, the scientists conclude policies may need to be redesigned with better understanding of the dynamics of poverty, marginalization, discrimination and vulnerability. Marginalized groups will also need to be given more of a voice in policy discussions and decision-making, and "there will be a need to review, and possibly update, ways in which strategies are executed" (p17).

'Not impossible'

At the highest levels of government, decision-makers will need to balance this goal against objectives such as "short-term economic efficiency". Perhaps surprisingly, the report suggests "factoring in the imperative to leave no one behind in sustainable development interventions may not present insurmountable difficulties" (ibid). The International Labour Organization's World Social Protection Report 2014/2015 estimated more than 90% of people in low-income countries have no rights to health coverage, and globally some 39%. Only 27% of the world population have comprehensive social security (12).

Similarly, a World Bank review in 2005 found electricity and water subsidies -- key to improving living conditions in many places -- were regressive. They reached mainly high- and middle-income groups, since the poor had lower connection rates, lower take-up of when they had access, and lower consumption (19).

Targeting is not enough

As a companion briefing paper from UNDESA points out: "Targeting, in and by itself, is not sufficient in order to leave no one behind – development interventions, even if properly targeted, can result in at best partial solutions to deprivations and, as a result, only address part of the problem. In addition, strategies to identify beneficiaries may impose costs on the recipients such as transportation costs or may cause social stigma."

Enough bad news. The Sustainable Development Goals website features 17 stories of actions on the ground to move towards 2030 with some achievements. You might be skeptical about some reports, such as Venezuela's declaration that it is allocating 26% of its 2016 budget to social investment in view of its current crisis.

Moving towards the goals

But the apparently strange highlighting of a $4.3m U.N. Development Programme effort to reduce rural poverty in George's Ajara region under Goal 1 ("No Poverty") has an explanation. UNDP can point to nearly 20 achievements in the past three years, including increases in incomes of 60-100% for small farmers who joined the 77 new farmers cooperatives.

The project turns out to funded by the European Union, and UNDP's activities remain tantalizingly vague in the usual bureaucratic U.N. jargon, except for creation of a business incubator and a regional trade promotion centre.

Still, it's not nothing, and the jargon ("assist in developing a strategy") can often be describing real work that needs to be carried out and funded.

Renewable energy, gender equality, educational aid

In all, the 17 stories provide an insight into what countries are proud of: Estonia was the first European Union country to meet its 2020 renewable energy targets, Samoa appointed its first woman deputy prime minister, and Norway is funding schools in Syria and neighbouring countries.

The U.N. stories may just highlight small projects on the ground, but some are certifiable achievements. With an NGO partner, UNICEF helped bring drinking water to a school in Sierra Leone for the first time in 10 years, enabling the children to stay in class longer.

Such stories raise the immediate question: what is the U.N. doing with micro-projects, unless they are demonstration programmes with a proven record of replication? And doesn't the E in UNICEF stand for emergency not development?

Self-promotion through narrow media agendas

Stories like this smack of self-promotion through media-simple narratives on the lines that one person killed is a front-page tragedy, 20,000 killed is a statistic.

In fact, UNICEF is supporting the rehabilitation of water supply systems in 170 schools and 84 health facilities in eight districts in Sierra Leone as part of its support to the Government’s post-Ebola recovery programme. Only 23% of Sierra Leone's schools currently have a functioning water supply, says UNICEF. #

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