Emerging themes on the 2030 Agenda in fragile states

11 December 2015 Thomas Wheeler

Thomas Wheeler reports from a g7+ technical meeting in Nairobi on the challenges ahead for implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals.

This week I am in Nairobi, where the World Bank hosted the g7+ technical meeting on implementation of the 2030 Agenda and its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The meeting provided a snapshot of progress since the agenda was formally adopted in September, and challenges that may define whether the transformative potential of the new framework can be realised.

The g7+ is a platform that brings together 20 governments from self-defined ‘fragile states’ in order to facilitate learning and collective advocacy around more effective support from donors, particularly through the New Deal and its five Peacebuilding and Statebuilding Goals (a list of the g7+ countries is below). This was the largest gathering of g7+ countries to date, with not only Ministries of Finance and Planning represented, but also national statistics offices (NSOs).

The 2030 Agenda has set its sights on the elimination of extreme poverty. The data on extreme poverty tells us that making any progress towards this goal in the next 15 years will mean focusing on fragile states:

The proportion of people living in extreme poverty will increasingly be concentrated in conflict-affected and fragile states.

In the SDG negotiations, g7+ countries were at the forefront of arguing that there can be no development without peace and so there was significant optimism around the inclusion of Goal 16 on peaceful, just and inclusive societies. When it came to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), “we were spectators” stressed one official, arguing that conflict has been a huge obstacle for g7+ countries in meeting the world’s last set of development goals.

At the same time, it is clear that implementation of the SDGs will be no less a daunting task: how to approach 17 SDGs and 169 targets when eight MDGs and 21 targets proved challenging enough?

Some of the 17 g7+ countries present at the meeting have sought to demonstrate strong political buy-in to the SDGs. In Timor-Leste, for example, the parliament has legislated on their prioritisation for the next 15 years, regardless of which government is in power.

The majority of g7+ countries have also started to think about which institutional structures will be responsible for coordination and delivery of SDG implementation. In Afghanistan, for example, the Ministry of Economy will lead, but with SDG focal points proposed to sit across Ministries.

Aligning or ‘localising’ the SDGs with existing national development plans has been the next step. Officials from g7+ countries were clear on the importance of “not reinventing the wheel”. Indeed, the 2030 Agenda states that governments will “decide how these aspirational and global targets should be incorporated in national planning processes, policies and strategies.” Even South Sudan, where a peace agreement has only just been signed, committed to aligning a national development plan with the SDGs.

Linked to this alignment are efforts by nearly all the g7+ countries to prioritise specific goals. While the SDGs are universal, this is reasonable: even developed countries are unlikely to commit to all 17 goals, and no government anywhere will realistically give each goal equal attention. Most of the g7+ are focusing on four or five, notably the goals on social development that were already included in the MDGs. Nonetheless, all of those listing priority goals stressed that Goal 16 would be one of them.

The g7+ countries are already showing some political commitment by identifying implementation structures, thinking about alignment with national development strategies, and prioritising goals. Nonetheless, several challenges loom:

  • Sufficient political buy-in: g7+ countries were represented at the meeting by officials tasked with engagement on development frameworks. While some mentioned that the SDGs are being addressed at cabinet level, it is not clear how wide political buy-in is to the new agenda and whether it reaches the highest levels of government. As the experience of the New Deal has shown, this will be key for progress on tricky political issues in Goal 16, and essential for the whole-of-government approach that is required.
  • One-directional alignment: a few g7+ countries mentioned that they had not yet aligned the SDGs into national development plans as they were only halfway through existing ones. More pressing, however, is the question of whether the existence of the global framework has any influence on the content of national development plans. Will it push governments to reconsider whether they are focused on all the key issues? If all alignment is in one direction, one might ask why member states bothered to agree on a global framework in the first place.
  • Prioritisation of the wrong things: the Peacebuilding and Statebuilding Goals were all about ensuring that legitimate politics, security and justice were focused on within development planning. While it is welcome that Goal 16 appears to be a priority for g7+ countries, there is still a risk that it is quietly dropped when it becomes politically challenging or becomes an orphan goal with no natural ministry to home it. Furthermore, it is not clear how decisions around prioritisation have been made, and who has had a say on this. Evidence from the New Deal pilot countries suggests that the meaningful participation of civil society and citizens in these decisions helps ensure that the right things are prioritised.
  • Effective monitoring: goals and targets are pretty meaningless if we can’t measure progress towards them. But the NSOs present made clear that their capacity to gather data for the 48 MDG indicators has been severely restrained (for a number of fascinating reasons that go well beyond financing). Getting data for the 224 proposed global SDG indicators will prove even more difficult; serious political, financial and technical investments will be needed over the next 15 years. Again, the g7+ decided to prioritise: they used the meeting to identify one priority indicator per goal, though with three for Goal 16. One also sensibly noted that they “must use all means necessary to get the data”, including through forming partnerships between NSOs and non-official data producers.

Finally, the discussions were a reminder of what ‘fragility’ really feels like. So many of those present rued how, at the end of the day, armed conflicts, coups, popular uprisings, or Ebola had recently knocked them off development progress: national development plans were put on hold, economic growth stalled, social services collapsed, and political priorities shifted radically.

But the fundamental work of building resilience to shocks and crises within societies and states does not yet seem to me to be at the forefront of efforts to end extreme poverty. Once the guns are silenced and the ink on peace deals dries, donors as well as governments seem to return to ‘development-business-as–usual’. While we now have a 15-year commitment to peaceful, just and inclusive societies on paper, many questions over what this will look like in practice remain to be answered.

The membership of the g7+

Afghanistan, Burundi, Central African Republic, Chad, Comoros, Côte d' Ivoire, Democratic Republic of Congo, Guinea, Guinea -Bissau, Haiti, Liberia, Papua New Guinea, Sao Tome and Principe, Sierra Leone, Solomon Islands, Somalia, South Sudan, Timor-Leste, Togo and Yemen.

Thomas Wheeler is Conflict and Security Adviser at Saferworld.

“The fundamental work of building resilience to shocks and crises within societies and states does not yet seem to me to be at the forefront of efforts to end extreme poverty.”

Thomas Wheeler