Building the SDG economy: Needs, spending, and financing for universal achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals

A man carries an umbrella as he crosses a bamboo made bridge near a tannery at Hazaribagh along the polluted Buriganga river in Dhaka June 5, 2014. Bangladesh's Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina warned the tannery owners at Hazaribag of serious consequence if they failed to relocate their tanneries in Savar within the stipulated time, during a World Environment Day observance program, local media reported. According to the United Nations Environment Programme website, World Environment Day is celebrated annually on June 5 to raise global awareness and motivate action for environmental protection. REUTERS/Andrew Biraj (BANGLADESH - Tags: ENVIRONMENT) - GM1EA651RI801

Pouring several colors of paint into a single bucket produces a gray pool of muck, not a shiny rainbow. Similarly, when it comes to discussions of financing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), jumbling too many issues into the same debate leads to policy muddiness rather than practical breakthroughs. For example, the common “billions to trillions” refrain on SDG financing falls into this trap. While originally a useful device for calling attention to the need for a paradigm shift in financing, including from private sources, the meme’s emphasis on mega-aggregates is now a distraction from operational considerations.

The purpose of SDG financing is to ensure the right mix of resources are available in the right places at the right time to solve specific real-world problems. These include challenges like deprivation of basic human needs, obesity-induced non-communicable disease, species loss from land and oceans, and greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere. The SDGs will only be properly financed and achieved when there is clarity on each of the underlying problems to be solved, on the respective mechanisms needed to address them, and on the appropriate mix and volume of resources needed for implementation. In this paper, we stress the need to think beyond financing aggregates to a more granular description of specific types of resource gaps in specific countries. We “zoom out” on the big picture issues in order to encourage “zooming in” on the practical ones.

Our starting point is to ask what it will take to build a new global economy that is consistent with the SDGs, including the imperative to address climate change. We think of an “SDG economy” as one where the aspirations of two foundational agreements on sustainable development are met. One is embedded in the third paragraph of the 2015 United Nations resolution (70/1) that gave us the SDGs, entitled “Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for sustainable development.” It offers a concise description of the overall ambition:

We resolve, between now and 2030, to end poverty and hunger everywhere; to combat inequalities within and among countries; to build peaceful, just and inclusive societies; to protect human rights and promote gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls; and to ensure the lasting protection of the planet and its natural resources. We resolve also to create conditions for sustainable, inclusive and sustained economic growth, shared prosperity and decent work for all, taking into account different levels of national development and capacities.

The second foundational agreement is embedded in paragraph 12 of the U.N.’s 2015 Addis Ababa Action Agenda on financing for development. It makes a commitment for a new “social compact,” one that delivers social protection and essential public services for all:

To end poverty in all its forms everywhere and finish the unfinished business of the Millennium Development Goals, we commit to a new social compact. In this effort, we will provide fiscally sustainable and nationally appropriate social protection systems and measures for all, including floors, with a focus on those furthest below the poverty line and the vulnerable, persons with disabilities, indigenous persons, children, youth and older persons. We also encourage countries to consider setting nationally appropriate spending targets for quality investments in essential public services for all, including health, education, energy, water and sanitation, consistent with national sustainable development strategies.

Within this Addis pledge, the emphasis on nationally appropriate spending targets is crucial. Addis did not envisage a single point estimate of spending needs for all, but instead allowed for country differentiation. Hence each country has a unique fiscal path to developing its own SDG economy.

Ultimately, SDG economies require building public services and societal systems that do three things: ensure essential public services are available to every human being; build fast-growing cities and industries that succeed on environmental and social terms too; and retrofit currently “advanced” cities and industries that are still not delivering on a range of SDG outcomes, such as the global food system and its adverse effects on health and the environment. In moving towards this vision, all segments of society must contribute. The private sector is crucial for many tasks, but the public sector is dominant for tackling market and coordination failures that cause SDG challenges to persist.

In this paper, we concentrate on what governments themselves must do through public spending, not because it is the only form of spending relevant for the SDGs – far from it – but because it is the form of spending most directly under the purview of policymakers. In doing this, we are able to clarify order-of-magnitude-type assessments of the nature of public spending volumes required for the SDGs. Presuming private dollars are complements to public dollars, the estimates in this paper can be considered as rough lower bounds for SDG spending and financing requirements.


October 23: The paper has been updated with revised Figures 2A and 2B, along with slightly revised text describing the slope of the graph.