Three years ago 193 member states of the United Nations adopted the world's most ambitious set of development goals yet. The 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) cover everything from eradicating poverty to protecting biodiversity, building resilient infrastructure and fostering responsive institutions.
The commitment on the part of both developed and developing countries to meet the goals isn't in question. But many are struggling to make sure the 2030 targets are met.
Some of the biggest barriers to implementation are policy incoherence and ensuring that policy making is informed by evidence.
In addition, the SDGs require governments to stop developing policy in silos and to start working across departments. This a challenge for most, if not all.
South Africa too has been relatively slow in implementing the ambitious SDGs. There are a number of reasons for the slow start.
Like many middle-income countries, it too struggles to coordinate policy initiatives. Also, national priorities' emphases differ from those of the SDGs. This shouldn't be surprising. Many of the country's developmental challenges are the result of a particular part of history, notably the legacy of apartheid.
In a recent publication by the South African SDG Hub, a national facility aimed at fostering evidence-informed policy making, experts from government, academia and development partners highlight further constraints to progress. This includes the poor state of the government's research and analytical capacity, policy uncertainty, and the fact that the country doesn't invest enough in science, technology and innovation.
Yet, despite the relatively slow start, South Africa has the capacity to speed up implementing the goals. A practical motivation for doing so is that it's due to present its first voluntary national review next year. This is basically a report card on progress on the implementation of the SDGs.
Picking up speed
The three most important items on the country's to do list are to:
finalise a national SDG coordination mechanism
build on existing momentum in the public, private and civil society sectors, and
capitalise on the expertise at universities.
National SDG coordination mechanism: Effective coordination is a must-have for any country interested in realising the SDGs.
A recent report by the South African SDG Hub collected and synthesised good practices from around the globe. It also identified features needed to build an effective national coordination mechanism.
Arguably the most important one is political buy-in at the highest level. In countries with the expressed support from their heads of state, progress is quicker. Without such high level support, such a mechanism will struggle to drive the implementation of the SDGs.
Experiences in other countries have shown that inclusivity is also important. This means that academia, civil society and the private sector should be represented. They must also be able to make a substantive contribution to national implementation of the SDGs.
Additionally, the participation of non-state actors will assist with awareness-raising across layers of society. Bringing together this wealth of expertise and experience will enable reliable recommendations.
Existing momentum: Simply put, the growing number of activities aimed at realising the SDGs need to be connected.
In many ways the South African government is already addressing the SDGs, albeit indirectly. This includes initiatives aimed at using technology to improve maternal healthas well as quality of education to improving food security. On a technical level, Statistics South Africa has launched a baseline indicator report on the SDGs.
Civil society and the private sector are also increasingly focusing on the SDGs. Many initiatives can be cited, notably innovative programmes aimed at addressing youth unemployment, and promoting youth entrepreneurship.
Unfortunately, many of these and other SDG initiatives remain disconnected. Creating synergies shouldn't be difficult though. The trick lies in mapping, connecting and supporting what's already out there.
University expertise: Universities have the expertise and, more often than not, the motivation to support the realisation of the SDGs.
According to a report by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network, the premier academic network that supports the SDGs, universities can equip students with the knowledge and skills to implement complex development agendas. In their research, they have the opportunity to experiment with innovative and multidisciplinary solutions. And, as relatively neutral convening spaces, universities can initiate and facilitate cross-sectoral dialogue.
Despite its weaknesses, the 2030 Agenda has the potential to improve the lives of South Africa's most vulnerable groups and individuals. This is especially so in the current environment, wherein resources are constrained. But in order to do so, society needs to coordinate and support existing activities and expertise better.