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14 years to go: Q&A with Åsa Persson on Agenda 2030 implementation

A year after the new sustainable development agenda came on stream, countries are still grappling with how to turn it into national policy.

Caspar Trimmer / Published on 22 November 2016

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Åsa Persson
Åsa Persson

Research Director and Deputy Director

SEI Headquarters

A big leaf full of water drops
Photo: Flickr / EyeofJ

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the broader 2030 Agenda may now be the accepted guides for global sustainable development, but they are far from simple to turn into clear national policies. In the run-up to this week’s Earth System Governance Conference in Nairobi, SEI’s Åsa Persson reflects on the state of play in implementation processes.

Q: Last week SEI and Gaia Consultancy of Finland organized a multi-stakeholder meeting in Helsinki to gather ideas for what a future Nordic programme could add to Agenda 2030 implementation in and by the Nordic countries. What were your impressions?

There was a positive energy at this meeting and it was clear that many actors in the Nordic region are impatient and ready to go with implementation. A lot of the discussion focused on topics like sustainable consumption and production and climate and energy, but people also highlighted issues like protecting freedom of speech. Many actors also expressed a need to engage the public, and for Agenda 2030 to become widely known in society, not just a concern for governments and public bodies.

Q: In October you attended a meeting of Senior Officials from the Centre of Government of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) on implementing the SDGs. At the meeting, representatives of several countries – both OECD members and partners – discussed progress and challenges they had encountered.  What was the overall impression you got from the national progress reports presented at the OECD meeting? Did any patterns emerge?

ÅP: The meeting was held under Chatham House rules, so I can’t be too specific, but several countries reported that they had carried out national gap analyses, as well as setting up institutional structures within government, and doing structured stakeholder engagement. Some countries had pre-existing national strategies for sustainable development, while others have to invent new institutional responses.

A number of governments said they were trying to create positive incentives for sectoral policy proposals to be linked to expected SDG performance, whereas others are focusing on tapping into the power of good examples.

Looking at the important issue of universality in the Agenda, it was good to see interest in developing ways to measure how a country’s domestic policies affect the pursuit of the SDGs in other countries and at the global level.

It was suggested that the UN High-level Political Forum (where groups of countries report back on their SDG implementation every year) was a good way of encouraging “healthy competition” among countries, and that such opportunities for peer review were important.

Q: You delivered an opening presentation at the OECD meeting. What did you talk about?

ÅP: My main message was that in order to truly achieve Agenda 2030, countries need to think beyond “Agenda 2030 implementation” – as in a largely technocratic process of analyzing gaps, taking some measures, and then monitoring progress and reporting back to the global level. At least as important is that the Agenda also needs to be internalized, making it meaningful in a domestic political context and building genuine domestic ownership. Often this will mean building on pre-existing domestic initiatives and narratives, for example relating to issues like a welfare state model, green export opportunities, or a vibrant IT sector.

Q: Where do you see the national Agenda 2030 implementation process heading?

ÅP: In the coming years we can expect to see many more events, organized not just by governments but also by a range of other actors, on how the SDGs can be interpreted in national contexts and actively pursued. For example, next week we are co-organizing a workshop with Nordic countries and the Nordic Council of Ministers on how a Nordic Agenda 2030 programme might look. Also important will be transfer of knowledge from developing to developed countries, and vice versa. The Independent Research Forum, of which SEI is a founder member, aims at facilitating this kind of knowledge exchange.

In Sweden, the government-appointed Delegation for Agenda 2030 is expected to deliver a first action plan for Agenda 2030 implementation in May next year. That will be interesting to see. The European Commission will also make public its plans for responding to Agenda 2030 before the end of the year.

However, another point I made at the OECD meeting last month is that 2030 is only 14 years away, and that is not long to effect the kind of transformative change the 2030 Agenda calls for. We need much more discussion about what we can realistically achieve in the time, and in what order we need to start doing things.

And in planning, we should also factor in the pace and dynamics of things like the growth of income inequality, the inertia in some international negotiations, the emergence of technologies like self-driving cars, and changing social norms on meat consumption. This demands more nuanced, creative, better-informed scenario building.

Learn more about our work on the 2030 Agenda »

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