School of fish

Implementing the Sustainable Development Goals: Where to start?

The SDGs – an agenda for change

The Sustainable Development Goals are an integrated and indivisible package of goals and targets that should be delivered for all people in all countries. Never before has a global agreement been so encompassing and had such potential to drive change. But with 17 interlinked goals and 169 targets, knowing where to start is a challenge!

We’ve outlined some risks and recommendations on the prickly issues of prioritising, phasing and indivisibility. It summarises a paper that goes into more detail here.

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5 Risks:

  1. Cherry picking: In prioritising some SDGs over others, there is a risk that governments, private sector companies and other stakeholders adopt a ‘pick and choose’ approach where they pick easy wins and choose to avoid more controversial aspects of the agenda.
  2. ‘SDGs washing’ by the private sector: Private sector companies may fund social or environmental projects while stopping short of changes to their business practices. This could lead to a situation where businesses report on delivering some SDGs while other aspects of their business practices could undermine other goal areas. For example, a company that funds small-scale community health projects while contributing to major environmental damage in its everyday business.
  3. Raising the bar: We should be mindful of developed countries prioritising issues which are easier to achieve and overstating their accomplishments, while avoiding goal areas that are more challenging in their context (e.g. energy and sustainable production and consumption). It is important to remember the SDGs and their targets are a floor and not a ceiling.
  4. ‘Siloed’ approach: The format of the goals risks creating a ‘siloed’ response, but in reality the progress on one goal often depends on progress in another area. Many important issues, such as gender equality, violence, health, climate change, and sustainable consumption and production, cut across different goals and targets.
  5. Policy coherence for sustainable development gets missed: Focusing on certain goals may have unintended consequences and undermine progress in other areas – whether domestically or globally. Only by approaching the SDGs in an integrated way will these policy coherence and domestic-global issues be identified and addressed.

5 Recommendations:

  1. Informed prioritisation: For prioritisation to be meaningful, it should be backed by clear rationale and evidence, countries should first assess their status in relation to goals and targets. Analysing the linkages between goals and targets and taking an integrated approach should always be a starting point.
  2. Start with the most transformational goals and targets: Where a phased approach is needed, countries should start with the goals and targets which require urgent action and have the potential to be most transformative given their national context. This looks different for different countries.
  3. Leave no one behind: To achieve the goals, it will not be enough to prioritise the majority of people, while failing to deliver for those who are socially excluded. Governments should ensure progress against the SDGs is made for all people, particularly marginalised groups, even if it is more difficult or expensive.
  4. National plan and consultation: Governments should set out national plans for SDGs implementation, with an explicit rationale for tackling the most transformative goals. National implementation plans should be developed openly and transparently in collaboration with civil society and the private sector and be informed by public and parliamentary consultation.
  5. Working with partners to address the goals: While the SDGs need to be implemented as a whole, not every stakeholder needs to address every goal and target. Working strategically with partners, including through new multi-stakeholder partnerships, could ensure that gaps are covered and the linkages between goals understood. This would help ensure the goals are addressed comprehensively but with different organisations retaining their specialisms and expertise.

Integration is key

The SDGs are the most ambitious and comprehensive global agenda ever to have been agreed. If implemented in their entirety they stand to transform our world to be safer, fairer and healthier. Approaches to implementation need to be pragmatic but the principles of integration and indivisibility must be upheld in any process of prioritisation and phasing goals and targets.


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