The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) provide an unprecedented and invaluable opportunity in the direction of global transformative change of societies and the environment for the good. This paper sheds light on this transformative power of the SDG agenda. It shows the opportunities that are available to assure coherence and the precedence of people and the planet in the realisation of the SDGs, not least via the transformative solutions that grassroots organisations, communities, and civic movements from around the world put forward. And it presents six concrete recommendations that could help governments to implement policies and practices to realise the SDGs as such that they fulfill their potential: “peace and prosperity for people and the planet, now and into the future”.
The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) provide an unprecedented and invaluable opportunity in the direction of global transformative change. The SDGs provide guidance -through the 169 targets also at local levels- to systemically change societies and the environment for the good. Such change is possible if the SDGs are applied in coherence.
The SDG framework came about through intensive international cooperation. It is impressive that the international community was able to develop and successfully promote such an integral, coherent, and progressive agenda. Continued international cooperation remains essential: it is needed for an effective translation of the huge goals into targets that are specified for local realities, and in turn to be able to review the results of work on these targets on a global scale.
Dutch policymakers are embracing the SDGs for national and foreign policy. This is praiseworthy and hugely important, not only because as such they acknowledge the value of such a transformative agenda, but also because it will in practice help them to develop policies and practices that work for people and the planet. For the Dutch government to understand how its foreign policy works out on the ground, embassies and diplomatic networks can provide part of the answer. However, it is the grassroots organisations, the communities, the civic movements, which can provide evidence of the actual effectiveness of the Dutch realisation of the SDGs at the local level.
This paper sheds light on the transformative power of the SDG agenda. It shows the opportunities that are available to assure coherence and the precedence of people and the planet in the realisation of the SDGs, not least via the transformative solutions that grassroots organisations, communities, and civic movements from around the world put forward. And it presents six concrete recommendations that could help governments to implement policies and practices to realise the SDGs as such that they fulfill their potential:
“peace and prosperity for people and the planet, now and into the future”.
2. The SDGs: a systemic framework
Comprising 169 specific targets, the 17 SDGs operationalise the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda for Development. Taken together, they constitute a systemic approach that addresses the complexity of how the world works:
“The 17 SDGs are integrated—that is, they recognize that action in one area will affect outcomes in others, and that development must balance social, economic and environmental sustainability.”
The SDGs can be roughly categorised as concerning environmental justice, social justice, and economic justice. History has shown that environmental crises –ranging from the climate crisis to pollution of land and water and biodiversity loss- severely affect people’s livelihoods. Especially those living in poverty, conflict, and under repression suffer from such environmental crises, as well as those that face their unequal position vis-à-vis others: women, indigenous peoples, people of colour, people with disabilities, LGBTQI+ people, and many others.
Assuring that human action respects planetary boundaries and safeguarding social justice and resilience of particularly the most vulnerable within societies worldwide –leaving no-one behind- should be governments’ and civil society actors’ key priorities. Only if these are guaranteed, there is room for economic development. Acknowledging the coherence of the SDG framework, this economic development must serve the environment and social justice. It requires a move away from thinking in terms of economic growth, towards a shared mind-set that values the wellbeing and welfare of all.
Image 1. Source: Stockholm Resilience Centre 2016.
This picture shows how the SDGs that are primarily related to environmental justice are a prerequisite for those related to social justice. Both ‘rings’ are in turn necessary conditions for the third ring, consisting of the economic justice related SDGs. SDG 17 is the linking pin in this regard: inclusive local and global cooperation between rights holders and duty bearers, between government, civil society, and private sector will lead to environmental, social, and economic justice. Inclusive cooperation entails participatory decision-making, which is in a way a goal in itself, and a necessary condition when aiming to realise all SDGs: in the implementation of policies and practices to realise the SDGs, the voices of all people (thus including women, minorities, vulnerable groups) should be heard and heeded; a strong civil society is essential for amplifying those voices and for playing their much-needed watchdog role; and civic space is indispensable for these people and civic actors to be heard at all.
3. Fostering policy coherence through the SDGs
Realisation of the SDGs in practice entails the development and implementation of national, foreign, and international policy that coherently contributes to the SDGs and underlying targets. The SDG framework can be used as a yardstick for all existing and new policy to assure such coherency. This is what the Dutch government has tried to achieve by adding an ‘SDG test’ to the already compulsory ‘Integral Assessment Framework for policy and regulation’. This SDG test in practice concerns a number of questions that have been added to the yet existing assessment framework against which all policy and regulation needs to be assessed. The questions added, concern the impacts of new policy and regulation on gender equality (SDG 5) and on developing countries.
This SDG test, in combination with questions on the environmental and societal impacts of policies and regulations that were already earlier included in the assessment framework, should help to comprehensively assess the impacts of new policy and regulation on the SDGs. Because: when applied consistently, work on one SDG sets in motion positive effects on other SDGs. Unfortunately, success in one area can also mask negative impacts on another. When realising the SDGs through government policy, it is, therefore, vital to assess and assure that positive ambitions on specific SDGs also contribute to –and thus do not hamper- the realisation of the other SDGs and safeguard the general principle to “leave no one behind”.
Adverse effects of a ‘zero poverty’ policy: An example from Indonesia
In trade negotiations, Indonesia is ‘selling’ liberalisation of the trade in palm oil as vital for the realisation of the country’s ambitions towards SDG 1: no poverty. As palm oil is a primary export commodity for Indonesia, if this is taken at face value, it seems to make perfect sense. It might even lead one to conclude that the EU would do well to prioritise liberalisation of the palm oil trade in its trade negotiations with Indonesia. However, delving slightly below the surface, there is a myriad of problems with this frame. In terms of ‘biosphere protection’ as the first sphere of the SDGs: expansion of palm oil is associated with widespread deforestation and biodegradation. As such, there is a direct conflict with SDGs 13 (climate action) and 15 (life on land). Through the use of pesticides in the cultivation of oil palm, there are also impacts on water quality (SDG 6) and aquatic life (SDG 14). Pesticide use also threatens people’s health and wellbeing (SDG 3). People are driven off their land to make way for oil palm plantations. If they are lucky, these people may be able to get a job as a worker on an oil palm plantation. However, here they are likely to fall victim to serious violations of their worker rights: the FGG report ‘Palming off Responsibility’ showcases examples of the many serious malpractices in the sector, including workers being forced to work unpaid overtime in order to reach unrealistic production targets, which frequently motivate workers to bring their wives and children to work, thus giving rise to child labour; workers never receiving employment contracts and being paid inadequate wages, giving rise to precarisation; and inadequate protection against occupational hazards. This violates SDG 8 (decent work). Palm oil exacerbates inequalities (and hence, conflicts with SDG 10) when smallholders and local communities are pushed out as multinational companies muscle in, reaping the lion’s share of the profits of an expanding palm oil trade. Palm oil is at odds with SDG 12 (responsible production and consumption) and, as such, at odds with SDG 1 (zero poverty), Indonesia’s professed objective for expansion of the trade.
Notably, by using the SDG framework as a yardstick to assure coherency, also a fragmented approach towards the SDGs can be largely avoided. Civic actors worldwide signal that governments and companies approach the SDGs still too often in a piece-meal and fragmented fashion. The annual reports of companies often show an exclusive focus on the specific SDG(s) that is logically connected to their business model, losing sight of the SDGs’ interconnectedness, whilst they continue to undercut other SDGs through their operations (and thus ultimately also the SDGs they claim to be working on). When governments assess all their own policy, as well as that of private sector actors they support, against all SDGs, they can avoid instances where certain SDGs are prioritised over others, where cherry-picking specific SDGs conceals negative impacts on others, and where fragmentation of SDGs is counterproductive in realising positive change. Even though SDGs in themselves may seem to logically reinforce each other, research by the International Science Council shows that coherency should actually be achieved at the SDG target-level: measures taken to realise particular SDG targets may constrain, counteract or even cancel successes on other targets. The research proves that the targets are inherently interconnected, and efforts need to be made to ensure that they enable, reinforce, or even be indivisible from each other.
Linking access to energy to ending poverty: An example of target interconnectedness
SDG 7: Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable, and modern energy for all Target 7.2: By 2030, increase substantially the share of renewable energy in the global energy mix SDG 1: End poverty in all its forms everywhere Target 1.4: By 2030, ensure that all men and women, in particular the poor and the vulnerable, have equal rights to economic resources, as well as access to basic services, ownership and control over land and other forms of 13 property, inheritance, natural resources, appropriate new technology and financial services, including micro-finance. Ensuring all people’s access to energy seems to align perfectly with the first goal of ending poverty. Goal 7 as such even directly contributes to limiting energy poverty. But when looking more closely at the targets, notably 7.2 and 1.4, measures taken to increase the share of renewables could actually increase poverty, if these renewables turn out to be more expensive than fossils. Only when assuring affordable alternatives to fossil fuel, also people living in poverty will in fact benefit from the energy transition. FGG considers inclusivity elementary in the Just Energy Transition it pursues.
4. Prioritising people and the planet in policy development
Inclusiveness is key to not only the SDG 16 on Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions and SDG17 Partnerships for the Goals, but also the implementation of policies and practices to realise the SDGs. Inclusion does not equal multi-stakeholder initiatives: it is not so much about all stakeholders being able to put forward their interests and negotiate from their own perspectives. Instead, it is about putting rights first: rights-holders must always have the determining say in any multi-stakeholder construction about their lives, their societies, and the environment.
In practice, this precedence of rights over interests provides an opportunity to avoid a risk of corporate capture of the SDG agenda and creeping prioritisation of corporate interests. While the efforts of powerful economic actors to express support for and structure their actions and operations in line with the SDG objectives are laudable, expanding corporate power in the name of sustainable development must be treated with caution. Safeguards must be taken to ensure that the interests of (economic) powerful corporations do not overshadow the voices of rights-holders. In the current balance of power, in many multi-stakeholder initiatives, rights-holders and civil society actors representing them are at best one of the many stakeholders vying for attention to their rights - rights which, as practice shows, in many decision-making processes tend to count for much less than the commercial interests of corporations.
In the context of sustainable development and the protection of human rights, governments are the duty-bearers, and it is their responsibility to ensure that dominant actors –like certain private sector actors- are held to the internationally agreed human rights obligations. As duty-bearers for the protection of human rights, governments cannot be a neutral arbiter in multi-stakeholder settings, but active defenders of human rights. A business focus on one or more individual SDGs cannot be allowed to detract from businesses’ overarching obligation to adhere to comprehensive corporate social responsibility frameworks such as the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) and the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Corporations.
When committing to environmental, social, and economic justice, governments may find opportunities in meaningful engagement with rights-holders. In line with image 1, governments may seek to define the preconditions for any new policy in close consultation with rights-holders. Only when their rights are guaranteed, and when environmental and social justice are assured –also through corporates’ compliance with the UNGPs and OECD guidelines- a broader dialogue with private and public sector and civil society actors can be fruitful to further specify the details of any new policy.
5. Civil society’s role in SDG realisation
Strong leadership in the realisation of the SDGs is essential – shown by the Dutch Minister for Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation, which initiated the process of mainstreaming this SDG throughout all development and foreign trade policies and has made it a structural element of the integral assessment framework for civil servants in all ministries. But governments do not have to –and cannot- realise the SDGs without support. Civil society organisations have an important role to play in amplifying the voices of rights-holders, as a watchdog to signal incoherencies and incidents of human rights and/or environmental violations, and to develop and bring to the fore promising transformative solutions.
5.1. Amplifying people’s voices
Many civil society organisations either belong to and directly represent rights-holders or legitimately support the struggles and aspirations of rights-holders. They are often rooted in communities, which makes them best placed to amplify the voices of rights-holders who are practicing, claiming or defending their rights, or whose rights are ignored or violated. As such, civil society organisations can support governments, including the Dutch, to improve current and develop new policy that passes the test ‘on the ground’. In other words: when governments allow civil society organisations to be a constructive-critical counterpart to governments and other actors in realising the SDGs, policies and policy implementation will develop more coherently and respect human rights.
Assuring civic space is crucial in this regard, as a goal within the SDG framework in itself (as the pivotal element of SDG16) and as a means towards achieving all SDGs. Expanding civic space goes beyond improving the safety of human rights defenders and advocating progressive CSO laws, it is about creating a:
“political, legal, social and economic environment that not only enables but encourages civil society actors to exercise their rights, access information, voice their views, organise, engage in and meaningfully influence their world.”
Civic space is constricted in many places. The valuable open dialogue between the Dutch government and civil society organisations, therefore, opens up a dialogue space for Dutch CSOs and their partners to engage in decision-making around Dutch policy that affects them, as well as Dutch involvement in international policymaking spaces. This provides civil society organisations with an entry to the policymaking domain despite the constrained civic space in their own countries.
5.2. A necessary watchdog
Even with the best intentions, notably even when they’re aimed at contributing to the SDGs, policies can prove incoherent in practice. By fulfilling a watchdog role, CSOs can proactively flag potential negative knock-on effects of specific policies on other SDGs, and signal flaws in the actual implementation on the ground.
Through the signals they receive from their global networks, but also through their own research and close ties with policymakers, CSOs are often well-positioned to scrutinise existing and new government policy. As such, they can –in dialogue and dissent- engage with their governments to shed light on ways forward that do respect the fundamental principle of coherence in SDG realisation.
5.3. Transformative solutions
Global problems call for global solutions, but also smaller-scale transformative practices can provide guidance for effective implementation of policies and practices to realise the SDGs. Promising and vibrant solutions –from local initiatives to nation-wide practices- emerge across the globe in response to current systemic failures and show that another, better world is possible. These transformative solutions have the potential to trigger creative thinking and inform new policies through which the SDGs are being put in practice.
While it is not uncommon that such transformative solutions are developed and implemented in communities, their replication and upscaling are often fostered through close networks of CSOs. Global civil society networks offer a necessary breeding ground for joint learning, joint exploring, and jointly advocating for these solutions to be taken seriously in policymaking spaces. These solutions can pave the way for governments to develop policies and practices that actually work towards a transformative change as promoted through the SDGs.
Agroecology as an alternative to current food systems: An example of a transformative practice
Whereas current dominant agricultural models -large-scale, capital-intensive and resource-depleting, are generally at odds with the SDGs (particularly 1, 2, 3, 6, 12, 13, 14, 15 ), agroecology*
In this article you can read more about the 10 elements of agroecology and watch the youtube video: https://fairgreenglobal.org/topicality/agroecology/
offers an alternative that connects many of the SDGs in a comprehensive approach. ‘Agroecology’ –a concept gaining traction- describes a transformational approach to food systems to feed people in a sustainable way. It combines traditional/local/indigenous knowledge and scientific insights to strengthen an ecological form of agriculture that works with, rather than against nature. It focuses on local ownership, short supply chains and the development of local markets, and raises nutrient production and stimulates biodiversity. The FAO argues that:
“Agroecology contributes directly to multiple SDGs through integrated practices that cut across many areas. Along with the SDGs, agroecology can also contribute to realising the aims of the Paris Climate Agreement, the Convention on Biological Diversity and the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification.”
6. When pursuing the SDGs, we shouldn’t forget…
The SDGs offer a comprehensive framework for transformative change, on the precondition that in this transformation, global power relations are thoroughly reconfigured. Real transformation does not call for already powerful actors to ‘do good’ on the SDGs; it implies a leading role for rights-holders, not only in the implementation of policies and practices contributing to the SDGs, but in any kind of decision-making, whether on tax justice, international trade relations, or to counter corporate capture of the SDG agenda.
Governments worldwide have taken an enormously important step by developing and acknowledging the value of the SDG framework. Dutch policymakers have gone even further by embracing the SDGs as guidance for their policy development. By doing so, they have created the chance to speak with a common language, each from their own perspectives and responsibilities, and to jointly work towards a more socially just, inclusive, and environmentally sustainable future.
For the SDGs to fulfill their potential, six recommendations can be drawn from this paper:
1. It is all about people: As the SDG framework is ultimately and in essence meant as a framework to improve the wellbeing of all people, make sure to always hear and heed the voices of people and especially marginalised people, in any dialogue or policy discussion, about the SDGs and beyond. Allow for and facilitate a true reconfiguration of power, putting democratic control in the hands of rights-holders.
2. Prioritise environmental & social justice: For all policy development, first determine the necessary frameworks and prerequisites to ensure that environmental and social justice take precedence over economic growth. Put differently: assure that environmental and social justice are in place as ‘preconditions’ for sustainable and inclusive economic growth. Do so by always prioritising the rights of people over the interests of others.
3. The SDGs as a yardstick: Use the SDG framework as a yardstick to assess whether and assure that existing and new policy is coherent and contributes to the positive change that the SDGs promote. When applied consistently and with the necessary expertise, the Ministry’s ‘SDG test’ could provide an excellent tool for this.
4. Civil society engagement is key: Acknowledge and strengthen the role of civil society organisations, as they are the ones that can amplify the voices of rights-holders and provide necessary guidance to governments through their watchdog role, not least to contribute their part to expanding civic space.
5. Corporate accountability: Hold corporations accountable for their conduct, both corporate activity geared towards contributing to particular SDGs (if this hampers the achievement of others) and conduct that goes against the SDGs. Assure that people can take the lead in pursuing the SDGs, with private sector actors focusing on doing no harm.
6. Transformative solutions do exist: Build policy around the transformative solutions that are being developed and promoted across the world or are being defended against powerful economic interests. These solutions are an inspiration and a foundation upon which coherent, progressive policy can be developed, which truly contributes to the realisation of ‘peace and prosperity for all, now and into the future’.