An Uphill Climb for the SDGs

An Uphill Climb for the SDGs

02.11.2017
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[This article has been published in Spanish in '3.500 millones-El País']

I was invited to take part in the World Health Summit 2017, one of the most interesting international forums for the exchange of ideas in the field of global health

Last week, I was invited to Berlin to take part in the World Health Summit 2017, one of the most interesting international forums for the exchange of ideas in the field of global health. The event, which is the annual conference of the M8 Alliance of Academic Health Centres, Universities and National Academies, brings together an interesting mix of political decision-makers and academic, civil society and private sector actors.

The invitation was extended by the Think Tank SDGs Initiative, a network in which ISGlobal is an active participant. It turned out to be a fascinating session. I was one of five speakers from different parts of the world (Pakistan, Chile, Brazil, Tanzania and Spain) given an opportunity to explain our vision of the content and current state of the health-related Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The following is a brief summary of some of the impressions I took away from this meeting.

  • Few national governments are as far behind schedule as Spain in planning related to these SDGs, but progress on the definition of priorities is very uneven everywhere. Only 20 of the 44 European countries submitted plans to the UN in the first 2 years of the term specified, and 9 more expect to do so in 2018. Given the short time frame for reaching the targets set by the 2030 agenda, these delays seriously threaten the achievement of the more ambitious goals, such as universal health coverage.
  • Despite setbacks, the SDG agenda is already demonstrating its value as a driver of change and reform in some areas. I presented examples from Barcelona and Madrid related to urban health goals. In Barcelona, the SDGs are speeding up the implementation of decisions already taken by the city related to mobility, pollution and housing. In Madrid, the global obligation imposed by the agenda has become a useful tool for overcoming political obstacles to change. And for this reason, it is essential to bring the goals into the mainstream public consciousness as soon as possible.
  • Talking about cities, much of the content presented at the session referred to the mobilising role of non-state actors, such as cities, regions and private companies. Once again, Spain offers a number of interesting examples: the SDG revolution in certain Autonomous Communities (Valencia, for example), and the cutting-edge leadership of the Spanish companies that have integrated the SDGs into their corporate strategy. Some months ago in these pages, Carlos Mataix (Itd-UPM) and Julio Eisman (Acciona) described a fascinating project in the field of renewable energies.
  • Data quality and availability continue to present serious obstacles for the application of the 2030 Agenda and the design of evidence-based policies. The problem takes three forms: information gaps (the need for novel indicators and data disaggregated by origin or socioeconomic level, for example); information organisation and management (the most accessible sources are still those provided by para-official initiatives, such as the Sustainable Development Solutions Network); and accountability mechanisms (the lack of national plans and statistical systems capable of providing reliable evidence of results make it difficult to demand government accountability).

These are all serious problems for the people mired in the task of defining and implementing the agenda in different countries

These are all serious problems for the people mired in the task of defining and implementing the agenda in different countries. Nevertheless, among the participants at my session, I observed a paradoxical feeling that we were looking at a fascinating plan of action which, from an economic and ideological standpoint, had arrived at the worst possible moment. The environment in Europe today is much more hostile to the sort of policies proposed by the SDGs than it was when the goals were adopted only a few years ago. The priorities have been totally disrupted by the inward-looking and nationalist identity politics spreading across Europe like an oil slick, giving rise to electoral process after electoral process. Starting with Spain, where raising this issue today might seem almost frivolous. But it is certainly not, so let us all work together to remember that.