Titled “Promises, promises – fulfilling the new development agenda”, the first session of the SEI Science Forum 2015 aimed to, in the words of moderator Åsa Persson, shift the post-2015 framing from “a post-2015 discussion agenda to a pre-2030 action agenda”.

Insights from SEI research

The session opened with three presentations of SEI research linked to the centrepiece of the post-2015 agenda, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). SEI Research Director Måns Nilsson introduced some of the history and thinking behind the SDGs and how they are currently shaping up. He said the framework of 17 goals and 169 targets proposed by the United Nations Open Working Group (OWG) last year has met with widely varying responses, characterizing them as anything from a miracle to evidence that the international community has “lost the plot”. However, he argued that some of the aspects of the framework that have been criticized may actually turn out to be strengths: “if these targets and goals are meant to have meaning, not only for all countries in the world but also for all the actors who are supposed to act upon them . . . it might not be so bad that they are vague and a bit utopian. Perhaps it’s a way for us to take ownership.” He noted that the newly released “zero draft” for the negotiations retains the proposd goals and targets intact.

SEI Research Associate Nina Weitz presented two recent SEI projects that looked at implementation of the proposed SDGs from the country level, in Zambia and Sweden (watch presentation). While the SDGs were always meant to be adapted and differentiated according to country context, she said, this process has been largely ignored, both at national level and in the intergovernmental process: “We can spend endless energy on perfecting the global vision, but we need to think concretely about what changes countries can make towards achieving the fundamental aim of the post-2015 agenda.”

Weitz noted that SEI’s research had highlighted the very political dimensions of national interpretation, and the limitations of the proposed global indicators for national monitoring. This suggests strongly that countries will need parallel national monitoring systems to reflect national priorities and make it easier for civil society to hold governments and other actors to account. (Watch the presentation.)

Chris West talking on business engagement with the SDGs
SEI’s Chris West talking on business engagement in SDGs implementation

Chris West, also an SEI Research Associate, then gave a short presentation on the potential role of the business sector in SDG implementation, and particularly in monitoring progress.

An agenda for all

In the second part of the session, the core questions were taken up in a panel discussion between Kajsa Olofsgård, Sweden’s Post-2015 Ambassador; Christina Båge-Friborg, Head of Sustainable Business at Sandvik AB, and Philip Osano of SEI’s Africa Centre.

Commenting on the relevance and usefulness of the overall SDG framework, Olofsgård noted the broad engagement in the SDGs, and the fact that some countries are already starting to prepare for implementation – for example by improving coordination within governments, the internal coherence of policies, and cooperation between central governments and municipalities and regions.

Båge-Friborg said that there was big interest in the SDGs in the private sector. “Business has been looking for relevant goals for a long time, so when the invitation came from Sida to take part in the Swedish Leadership for Sustainable Development (a network of 20 leading Swedish companies coordinated by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, Sida), the idea that we would be able to take part in developing the goals was one of the success factors.”

Responding to West’s presentation on the potential role of business in SDGs monitoring, Båge-Friborg said, “I realized we have been reporting on a majority of these goals for a long time. . . .  We measure them, we report on them, and we see business. Why should business care (about the SDGs)? Because it drives good business.”

Transformative potential

Persson then raised the question of whether a high-level intergovernmental process like the SDGs can really meet  the ambition of being “transformative”. Osano noted that four countries that had regularly met the target of 10% GDP investment in the agricultural sector set by the Comprehensive African Agricultural Development Programme in 2003 – Rwanda, Ethiopia, Burkina Faso and Malawi – had made huge strides in agricultural development and poverty reduction. He concluded that: “Broad visions, if interpreted smartly and implemented by the technocrats in a well-articulated way, can inspire transformative change.”

Olofsgård suggested that the role of governments and intergovernmental processes in transformations was often misinterpreted: “We like to see ourselves as leaders of such processes, but to a large extent we are servants of a process that is going on anyway. There is a broad push for change coming from within society.” However, she also argued that the process of governments coming together to discuss sustainable development, in New York and even more in bilateral and regional meetings, is itself transformative.

Priorities for implementation

Asked to identify one top priority for SDG implementation, Båge-Friborg chose governance: “If we are to expand in the countries where employment and other social benefits are needed, we need better governance, less corruption, giving us the basis for good business.” Olofsgård argued for finding ways to meet all SDG challenges simultaneously, and finding the right balance between aims and means of implementation. Finally, Osano said, “The targets on reducing poverty remains as valid as ever”, but noted that inequality needed to be addressed at the same time.

Read more about SEI’s work related to the post-2015 agenda.

Read more about the SEI Science Forum 2015.

Watch footage of this and other sessions of the SEI Science Forum 2015.