Why we need to think about implementing the Sustainable Development Goals

Enormous amounts of time and effort are going into getting agreement on a strategy for sustainable development this September. The Open Working Group outcome document and the secretary-general’s synthesis report are just the start of an intense process of negotiations on goals and targets that are well underway. But as reported in various business school studies, 60 percent to 90 percent of corporations fail at strategy execution. This suggests it is time to get serious about how to implement the sustainable development goals (SDGs), the topic of the U.N.’s conference on finance for development at Addis Ababa in July this year.

There are lots of steps to strategy implementation. A thoughtful corporation might develop a detailed action plan with specific work assignments, ask whether there is a dedicated implementation team or process, assess human capabilities and assignments, and monitor outcomes and results to fine-tune everything over time. What it will also do is fund the program, first by calculating ballpark figures, then by refining those into more detailed costing commitments that can be expressed in budgets and business plans.

In yesterday’s post, my co-editor of this blog, Shanta Devarajan, wondered whether it was right to try and cost the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), and concluded he was wrong to have attempted it. I think he is being too hard on himself. It is vital to have a financing plan to accompany any strategy. The problem that he ran into is that his global “ballpark” figures were not deconstructed into detailed budgets and business plans at the country level, where implementation actually occurs.

For the SDGs, it is important not to repeat this mistake. There are already several efforts to arrive at “ballpark” numbers for selected goals, summarized in the Sustainable Development Solutions Network paper and the report by the intergovernmental committee of experts on sustainable development finance. What is missing is the detail that would translate this overview into budgets at the country level.

Of course business plans and budgets are only one element of a strategy implementation process. As I suggest above, countries should have specific action plans outlining policies, organization, capacity development, and monitoring and fine-tuning. So Shanta is undoubtedly correct when he says that “how much would it cost to achieve the MDGs?” is the wrong question. It can’t be answered in the absence of a structured implementation plan. Equally, it is not possible to have an implementation plan without also addressing financing issues. “How much does it cost?” is one part of the answer to the full question, which is “what it would it take to achieve the SDGs?”

Implementing the SDGs means more than money

It is important not to forget about the non-financial dimensions of implementation too. Money does not solve all ills nor address all problems. Countries and their development partners must think about technological and organizational change for effective delivery of goods and services. It is interesting that the research quoted by Shanta shows that the impact of government spending on health and education is very different across the world and not systematically related to the outcomes or goals that were highlighted in the MDGs. A far more rigorous approach to the effectiveness of public spending will be required for the SDGs, and many countries will have to think about how to improve cost-effectiveness to good-practice levels before they get overly concerned with preparing detailed cost estimates.

Properly structured country implementation plans and country financing plans have the potential to have far-reaching impact. More and more countries are putting together sector plans in education, health, and agriculture, for example. Global funds in health and agriculture also have technical steering committees to vet country plans and ensure that there is a sizeable “bang-for-the-buck.” And it is not just developing countries that do this. The G-20 countries have also been preparing national growth strategies that include sections on how to address infrastructural bottlenecks to growth. Such country-level planning should become accepted practice for all goals.

A well-structured policy and financing implementation plan at the country level would open the door for more effective monitoring and accountability processes. They provide a transparent benchmark of who is expected to do what, on what time frame and with what results. It is this kind of public accountability that could disrupt the “low-level political equilibrium” that has stymied progress in some countries. In such cases, the debate has to shift from “how can aid provide a solution?” to a partnership where governments have full responsibility for their own development programs and make every effort to use their own resources to invest in their futures. But those governments must also be able to count on the international community to leverage their efforts to end poverty by providing at least a certain minimum set of basic needs in health, nutrition, education, water, and energy.

But money matters too

Once one accepts the idea of providing minimum basic services, the role of finance (domestic and external) becomes clearer. According to the International Comparison Project, there were 38 governments spending less than PPP$300 per person on all poverty-related goods and services. These countries cannot be expected to fund basic needs completely from their own resources. Consider a country with a GDP per capita of $1,000, the top end of the low-income threshold. Assume the government collects 20 percent of GDP in taxes, or $200 per person. Assume that it spends half of this on basic services for the SDGs and the other half on defense, administration, and other public goods. Is it sensible to think that poverty—in all its dimensions—could be ended with this level of public spending? The best analyses from the health sector and other disciplines suggest the answer is a clear no. This is essential to understanding why increased official development assistance is essential to achieving the SDGs in low-income countries. It is also why my colleague John McArthur and I have called for a commitment by governments to a minimum per capita spending level on basic services, drawing from tax revenues, aid and other resources.

We now expect governments to raise their ambition to end poverty for everyone, to leave no one behind, as they set about implementing the SDGs. More rather than less country-level analysis is essential to understanding what might be required. Governments should develop their own detailed implementation strategies, with financing included, so that they can continue to discuss and refine them in consultation with development partners and other stakeholders.