SDG Accountability: Two Years On, Where Are We Headed?

By Tri Radhakrishnan

It’s been two years since the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development was adopted unanimously, by all heads of state, at the UN General Assembly. With an ambitious plan, an inclusive, people-driven agenda and a holistic understanding of development, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) have the potential to address the most crucial, diverse, yet interconnected, issues that plague the world.

However, the euphoria around it already seems to be fading. The experience of the past two High-Level Political Forums (HLPF), for the review and follow-up of the SDGs, has raised a question mark over the level of commitment of the states towards achieving the goals.

This was amply clear from the past two cycles of Voluntary National Reviews (VNRs) at the HLPFs, where member states review progress at national and sub-national levels, and share their experiences. While 34 out of 65 countries, that have so far volunteered for review, brought all 17 goals for discussion, the rest arbitrarily cherry-picked goals to discuss. By doing so, they went against the grain of the fundamental aspect of the SDGs—all goals are interlinked and therefore indivisible. Indeed, to build sustainable cities and communities (SDG 11), responsible consumption and production policies (SDG 12) have to be implemented, and access to clean and affordable energy sources (SDG 7) must be ensured; and poverty can only be eradicated (SDG 1) when people receive quality education (SDG 4), good health and well-being (SDG 3), decent work (SDG 8) and access to justice (SDG 16).

At the 2017 HLPF, India presented its VNR. Its report focused only on 7 of the 17 goals—poverty eradication (SDG 1), hunger and nutrition (SDG 2), health and well-being (SDG 3), gender equality and women’s empowerment (SDG 5), industries and infrastructure (SDG 9), life below water (SDG 14) and global partnerships (SDG 17). Government of India’s justification for selective reporting was that these specific goals were the focus of this year’s thematic discussions at the HLPF. Every year a certain number of goals are discussed thematically in order to cover all 17 goals over a cycle of 3 years. However that comprises only one part of the HLPF. The other, and equally important part are the country VNRs. Global thematic discussions on specific goals do not have any bearings on a country’s reporting during the VNRs. To further obfuscate this matter, civil society was not given an opportunity to respond to its government’s VNR, neither to congratulate nor to question.

In its dismembered report, the Government of India, disappointingly, chose to bypass any mention of Goal 16 on peace, justice and accountability— that which is not only a goal but also the means to achieve all the other goals. Without peace, there is no scope for development; and without justice and accountability, all are not able to equally access benefits which are rightfully theirs. Much like global partnerships, Goal 16 is also the means of realizing the 2030 Agenda with cross-cutting efficacy.

Thus, when discussions begin on the next Quadrennial Comprehensive Policy Review (QCPR), to assess the effectiveness, efficiency, coherence and impact of the UN system towards supporting the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the voice of reform must be heard and heeded. To break away from the business-as-usual model, accountability mechanisms of the HLPF need to be strengthened: Member states must present their national reviews periodically; these reviews must report on all the goals, with the requisite data; and civil society’s participation must be ensured in order to facilitate constructive and critical discussions on issues of implementation. It is also recommended that, in addition to SDG 17 on global partnerships, SDG 16, too, should become a thematic focus discussed and debated annually at the HLPF.

We are at a cusp. Unless efforts are made for greater accountability to the stated commitments, we run the risk that the 2030 Agenda and SDGs will hobble along until they succumb to quiet death. Read More