By  Nikhil Seth, UNITAR Executive Director

Almost twenty months after the historic adoption of the goals and targets contained in the 2030 Agenda, the time has come to identify the bottlenecks which will impact their realization. I focus only on the promise to reach the furthest first while leaving no one behind. The UN membership of 193 has almost half of its membership which are either severely conflict distressed and/or severely development distressed. The question is how are we going to reach these countries to make the promises of the 2030 Agenda a reality in the lives of the citizens of these member states—in UN jargon “the countries in special situations”, including countries in Africa, least developed countries (LDCs), land locked developing countries, small island developing states and conflict stressed countries. These are not exclusive categories but together account for the bulk of UN membership.

Sustainable Development Goals logosLet me first put aside the argument that it will depend on transfer of resources and technology alone. Transfers in the form of aid, or concessional lending or more efficient remittances or better trade deals or greater investment flows. Yes, these are important but what is most urgently needed is smart policy with better planning, smarter resource allocations and robust engagement of a myriad of actors, national and foreign, which are often well intentioned but do not engage in a coordinated and coherent way. Let me, therefore, put resource and technology issues aside and focus instead on the capacity dimension of the problems faced and one of the real bottlenecks which is the limited capacity in most of these countries to use the tools, the data and the modeling, to reboot policy away from the baggage and inertia of history, into the new “transformational” era defined by the 2030 Agenda.

UNITAR, the organization I head in Geneva, trains 55,000 public policy officials and others annually. Training includes pre-deployment training for African military and police, climate change learning, de-centralized training of local authorities, training in chemicals and waste management, diplomatic training, analysis of satellite imagery and other training which covers the pillars of the Agenda 2030—people, peace, planet, prosperity—and we do this in partnership with governments, the UN system, academia and the business sector. What has been most striking is how remote the great agendas of 2015, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), climate change, disaster management, and financing are from the root and branch delivery of services at the national and local levels. The great halls of the General Assembly in New York and Geneva are churning out significant outcomes which are often stuck at the level of diplomatic discourse. Here is the nub of the problem. Can the international system get together to build capacities in the countries furthest behind and what are the most immediate tasks?

Let me briefly highlight the four major tasks ahead.

In our interactions with LDCs in Africa and the small island states, the first issue we face is the incorporation of SDGs into national planning frameworks and the issues of aligning and harmonizing them with multiple national, regional and international agreements e.g. Africa 2063 and the SAMOA pathway as well as the nationally determined commitments (NDCs) for implementing the Paris climate change agreement. For smaller planning ministries, the task is truly daunting. The international agreements are in harmony to a general degree, but weaving them into one national plan is a task for which support is required. The UN system is stepping up to the task but the specialized agencies with expertise, including on health, environment, sustainable agriculture and education, need to co-jointly work with country teams in these 90+ countries, to help Governments generate harmonized and aligned plans to guide programming and resource allocation for the achievement of the SDGs. This work at the national level would need to trickle down to provinces, cities and rural communities. Strengthening capacities at the local level will be as critical.

The second major task is helping these countries, one by one, to better understand the deep network of connections between the goals and targets. How do the goals on sustainable agriculture interface with the goals on water, energy, poverty, hunger and climate change? Are scarce resources best spent on drip irrigation or larger irrigation infrastructures? What are the co-benefits of sectoral investments and what should be the planning and policy priorities? Should quality girls’ primary education be a better investment over early childhood education? There are some of the hard policy and planning decisions. Countries need help with data, statistical analysis and modelling in light of the new integrated focus on “ending poverty in all its forms everywhere” along a sustainable pathway, without trading off present prosperity with future needs. Training is needed in most planning and line ministries to look at issues afresh — to understand better the interconnection of goals and targets, quantify social benefits like equality, gender empowerment, social inclusion, climate change and the creation of peaceful and just societies.

The third, linked and immediate task, is building the capacity for modern data gathering, data analysis including through better household surveys, improved censuses and strengthened data collection and use.  Policy to reach the most vulnerable must be able to identify who they are, where they live and how to improve their lives. This includes categories like the disabled (including mentally disabled), the elderly, indigenous peoples, migrants and others. This is no easy task but modern technologies including mobile telephony can facilitate crowdsourcing of problems and solutions. Satellite and drone applications have a broad potential for enhancing analysis. They are low cost, cutting edge and easily replicable. The real challenge is creating a critical mass of national data producers and analysts from Samoa to Burkina Faso to Haiti who can help in guiding policy makers to the right decisions. Developing capacities for data collection and use is not sufficient, however. Data needs to be analyzed and key questions need to be asked from an evaluation logic in order for us to ascertain what real differences our investments are making and how we can learn and improve policies, programmes and other undertakings for the betterment of society.

The fourth is the training needs of the business sector and civil society to understand their role and engagement in the implementation of the SDGs and the NDCs. Penetration is needed beyond the FORTUNE 500 companies, to the millions of medium and small industries in the countries in special situations. What do the SDGs mean for their activities? How can the goals, targets and indicators percolate down into the language and actions of their modest business models? Where should the focus of advocacy and civil society vigilance be directed in the implementation of the 2030 Agenda? A strong and concerted effort needs to take place in building the capacities of these crucial non-governmental actors. Vital to this task is the creation of meaningful multi-stakeholder spaces, meaningful and not purely cosmetic, for regular interaction with governments. Governments themselves require capacities to engage effectively with these actors, while ensuring underserved constituencies are well represented. Beyond simply informing the critical stakeholders, Governments can promote a real collaboration through innovative institutional mechanisms and ensure there is shared ownership around localized SDGs.  

The training needs, in just these four larger conceptual areas, are huge. When we add the sectoral needs—in education, health, energy, water, security sector reforms, agriculture and infrastructure—it requires a truly gargantuan effort. We have become accustomed to a world where lip service is paid to education and training, but where the resources and efforts are marginal in comparison to the needs.

The deep transition we need for peaceful and just societies, with an end to poverty along a sustainable growth trajectory, firstly needs a mindset change in millions of decision makers’ minds. Education and modern training are the best guarantee of this shift but when this will happen is a question mark. We cannot wait until 2030.

* Nikhil Seth is the Executive Director of UNITAR, the training arm of the United Nations.

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