Process matters when it comes to implementing the SDGs

24 May 2019
SERIES Think tanks contributing towards the health-related Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) 8 items

[This article was originally published on the author’s personal blog.]

As countries work towards implementing the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, they must monitor and evaluate not only the outcomes (ie, the targets and indicators), but also the processes through which these outcomes will be achieved. Of notable importance is the degree of inclusiveness of these processes.

Over the past 7 months, I have been following the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in Afghanistan as part of a regional study to understand country adoption of health-related SDGs in south Asia. Unfortunately, what I have found is that, despite strong government commitment towards achievement of the 2030 agenda, a narrow interpretation of the SDGs means that non-state stakeholders are being unintentionally excluded from the process, and that different sectors are being looked at in isolation.

Challenges with the SDGs in Afghanistan

In Afghanistan, the government has initiated a three-phase process that includes nationalisation, alignment, and implementation (also known as Afghanistan-SDG). The first phase, which is near completion, involves interpreting and redefining targets and indicators to suit the national context. In the alignment phase, which is in progress, the nationalised targets and indicators are being integrated into national development strategies and policies across all sectors. Finally, the implementation phase, which is planned to begin in 2018, focuses on monitoring and reporting on the indicators.

That the government has taken ownership of the SDG framework is explicitly mentioned in the voluntary national review, and is implicitly conspicuous in the process. The Minister’s Council is the steering committee of Afghanistan-SDG, ministries are interpreting and defining national indicators, and government budgetary bodies are being assigned to monitor and evaluate specific goals, targets, and indicators.

Unfortunately, the involvement of non-state institutions and actors, including civil society, policy and research organisations, academia, and the public has to date been somewhat symbolic. Consultative workshops and seminars with non-governmental organisations (NGOs) aimed at meaningful engagement appear to serve more as awareness-raising campaigns than forums intended to seek inputs and participation. At the same time, coverage of the SDGs in the Afghan media generally takes the form of one-sided information sharing, with very little debate taking place. As a result, a whole range of non-state actors is being left behind.

I believe one of the reasons for this exclusion is a narrow interpretation of the 2030 agenda for development. Despite the intersectoral and aspirational nature of the 2030 agenda, the Afghanistan-SDG process appears to be placing an emphasis on merely reporting on indicators, by sector. Under the current approach, interventions remain siloed by sector, and that approach is being replicated at provincial, district, and community levels. At the same time, decision-making is centralised, with the President required to approve local governance decisions, even at the district level. Even if Afghanistan meets its own set of nationalised SDG indicators, the narrow understanding of the global agenda means we will fail to achieve significant and comprehensive changes in the country. By its nature, the global agenda takes a holistic approach to sustainable development, recognising that “the challenges and commitments… are interrelated and call for integrated solutions. To address them effectively, a new approach is needed.” Something which the Afghan government appears to have failed to understand.

The way forward

Despite these challenges, all is not bleak. We are still in the early stages of SDG implementation and the government, along with its international donors, has a continuous opportunity to alter the process to achieve the desired outcomes. Here, policy, research, academic, and civil society institutions have a role to play, namely by becoming the glue that holds the process together.

To correct this course, the Afghan government must first ensure that the Afghanistan-SDG becomes a framework which, throughout every phase, embraces all stakeholders, including non-governmental organisations, civil society, policy and research institutions, academia, the media, and the public. Among other means, this can be achieved through the setting-up of all-inclusive Afghanistan-SDG committees, as well as through explicitly defining the roles and responsibilities of policy, research, and academic institutions in providing knowledge on best practices, policy options, and independent evaluation of SDGs processes.

From there, the government should revise the framework to move beyond the idea of reporting on indicators, to focusing on the means by which these indicators are being reached. Here, they should favour an intersectoral, whole-of-government approach to improving health, and build an inclusive and sustainable system that will allow us to achieve those indicators.

To support these efforts by the Afghan government, international donors should in turn provide sufficient technical and financial resources for the Afghanistan-SDG programme, as well as support capacity building for policy, research, academic, and civil society institutions to enable their participation in SDG implementation process.

The global agenda is not just about achieving the outcome, as important as it is. More importantly, it is about an inclusive process and comprehensive outcomes.