The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals: Tackling the Challenges of Implementation

Roughly three years ago, the United Nations (UN) General Assembly adopted the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – a protracted process that aimed at evolving the previously touted Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The General Assembly made a unifying commitment to 17 goals (with 169 targets) that broadly aim to reduce poverty. “Eradicating poverty in all its forms and dimensions is the greatest global challenge” UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed remarked. In developing the SDGs, the UN embarked on a multi-year engagement process with stakeholders across the globe, aiming to undergo a more inclusive process to the one that was undergone in developing the MDGs. “We will need all partners to make this a success,” UN top-boss Ban Ki-Moon claimed. But as history suggests, partnership is a relatively rosy affair at the planning stage but often grows fractious as the time for implantation looms. We explore three distinct challenges that accompany the implementation of the SDGs.

Proactive Governance

One could argue that the biggest driver to realising the UN SDGs targets is governance. In simple terms, governance means the manner in which a collective conceives decisions and actions. In the case of the SDGs, there is a complex web of stakeholder dependencies that underpin the process of reaching each goal and target. Governance and coordination becomes critical to ensuring a harmonious collective action between stakeholders across different jurisdictions and time-zones. For example, consider Goal 9 “build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialisation and foster innovation”. How do global governments, industry-experts and community groups interact and determine the right kind of infrastructure, the expenditure required and who is “included” in realising this goal. Furthermore, how does context matter? Does Burundi have the same capacity as Brazil to undergo resilient, inclusive industrialisation. Governance and coordination becomes crucial in navigating the politics of difference and unequal means.  Therefore, proactive governance, and specifically a proactive culture of cross-communication, needs to be a key focus in the engine that carries the implementation of the SDGs.

Highlighting the shared-value case

The role of big business in achieving the SDGs is receiving an increasing amount of attention. In many cases, the targets conceived for the SDGs directly affect the operations and profit-generating strategies that sustain big industries. This means that big business has 0ften found it cumbersome, and in some cases unnecessary, to act and develop policies that support the SDGs. Consider goal 14, “conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development”. While oceans make human life possible, big business may ask what the causal effect is on the South African fishing industry’s ability to bring in more than R3,4b [1] in foreign exchange income yearly, Or Australia’s R10b fisheries and aquaculture industry [2]. However, as the horizon of discussion becomes ever more distant, and the dawn of implementation approaches, big business must realise that sustainability, and the pursuit of the SDGs, has a long-term revenue-generating business case that supersedes the short-termist rhetoric of profit loss. The distinct “winners” and “losers” mentality that big business often has should evolve to accommodate for the potential shared value that can be created if operations and practices are aligned to the targets of the SDGs.

Trading-off SDGs

Somewhat of an implicit challenge to achieving the SDGs is engaging with its economics. The overriding logic of the SDGs is the collective benefit that is accrued by chieving each goal. For example, providing decent work acts as a mechanism for eradicating poverty (outcomes intended for goal 8 and 1 respectively), clean water creates an environment conducive to the conservation of fish stocks (outcomes intended for goal 6 and 14 respectively). However, there are unintended trade-offs that occur between SDGs. Decent economic growth may increase inequalities or result in the “jobless growth” phenomenon, a case of goal 8 having unintended adverse effects on goal 10. While the overriding logic of the individual SDGs is clear, the relationship between each goal is often overlooked. Like how organisations must manage their capital trade-offs when conducting their operations, the global community at large must start inserting the language of trade-offs into its collective vocabulary, and act with a firm cognisance of the relationships that each goals share, minimising trade-offs where possible.

The UN SDGs are an encouraging sign that leaders across the world are realising the importance of having a unified, cooperative approach to tackling the globe’s biggest challenges. However, the time for heart-warming discussions is long over. Now, the politics of implementation become critical. The world’s stakeholders must embody a certain pop-culture idiom; “don’t talk about it, be about it”. 




[1] –

[2] –