Decade of Action (Plans)?

2020 kicked off with the launch of a new Decade of Action for the SDGs. Five years ago in 2015, 194 governments agreed to achieve 17 sustainable development goals and their 169 targets. These include ambitious targets such as ending preventable deaths, and mobilizing US$100 billion per year for developing countries for climate change mitigation.

Many countries have developed national SDG Action Plans, and sub-plans for individual goals and targets.

What is clear from a number of SDG progress reports is that most countries are far off track from achieving targets by 2030, the deadline for the SDGs.

A decade of action is direly needed. The question is: How can countries take action, and accelerate this action? A quick spoiler answer is: Not by starting a longwinded process of developing further Action Plans.

Plans that define goals and a path to get there are important, both so that all stakeholders know what is expected, and to define strategies and a division of labor. Plans are also important as investment cases to advocate for funds. And most importantly, plans help hold those who have developed them accountable. Are decision-makers or those responsible doing what they claimed they would do?

Unfortunately, implementing plans – and achieving the agreed outcomes – is much more complicated than developing and committing to a plan. Who is expected to provide the inputs (including funding)? Who is responsible for ensuring that all stakeholders that influence an outcome work towards this same outcome? Who is tracking that the inputs (policies, funds) are translating into concrete action (or outputs), and that these outputs are translating into the agreed outcomes?

For example, from the health SDGs: who is actually responsible for ending preventable deaths of newborns? The national government? Multinational companies (including pharma, those who’s business results in externalities such as pollutants)? The health workforce? Parents? Local governments or communities? Development agencies? Richer countries? All of the above?

Most would answer that the national government is ultimately responsible. And national governments were also the actors who signed up to the SDGs. Through policy-making, budgetary, and regulatory powers, national governments should work towards ending preventable deaths (or any other SDG target or goal).

All other stakeholder groups then play a complementary role. The government can outsource functions (e.g. to NGOs, or the private sector), and can request support from external stakeholders (e.g. development partners). And governments ensure that all individual SDGs slot into a full national development plan like pieces of a puzzle, and help orchestrate all stakeholders to work in a coherent way towards this goal.

Governments, however, unfortunately do not just work to achieve the SDGs. There are many other goals – and also external shocks or crises – that are beyond the scope of the SDGs. And one of government’s key aims – to secure or retain power – is not included. In reality, several of the SDGs may not be popular with political parties’ key constituencies. Or lobbyists. Or even the general public. And there is a huge amount of disagreement on what out of 17 very broad goals should be prioritized – even within sub-goals or sub-targets.

Building on the MDGs, the SDGs were developed in part as an external accountability framework for governments. Each year, the world community – as well as individual citizens – would track their government’s progress and efforts to achieving the SDGs and individual goals and targets.

But it seems that the external accountability framework has been taken a step too far when all stakeholders involved are only involved in planning more sub-plans, coordination plans, costing plans, implementation plans, and results and accountability plans. With so much planning going on, have we forgotten about action?

Instead of investing funds into rapid implementation, it feels like we have created an entire industry of SDG planners, advisors and coordinators. And each plan is being broken down into sub-plans, and more plans.

If we are serious about a Decade of Action, each country should have two plans – the 2015 SDGs, and this broken down into national SDG Action Plans. All stakeholders at the global and country levels should be working with these plans, not developing new ones.

Looking at the Decade of Action website and messaging, it seems that the SDGs is increasingly being conflated with UN reform. The latter which is necessary and critically important, but not what the SDGs are about (primarily).

All of us working on the SDGs should take a step back in 2020, and take a very critical look at how many different plans we are planning…and ask how much we are actually actioning.

If we continue this way with the SDGs, we will fail miserably. And we will fail those people we have claimed we will serve: those left furthest behind.

No more plans. Action.

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