How can the Sustainable Development Goals be transformative?

Published on 12 July 2018

Nathan Oxley

Impact Communications and Engagement Officer

The theme of this year’s High-level Political Forum on sustainable development is “Transformation towards sustainable and resilient societies.” Given the huge political and practical challenges involved, how can this transformation be achieved?

The HLPF meets every year to review progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals. This year’s event runs from 9-18 July, with a ministerial meeting on 16-18 July.

Global Goals logo

The Sustainable Development Goals aim to be transformative: they focus on deep, systemic, interconnected problems. For example, water, energy, cities and consumption are linked. But how can they be transformed, what do different people want or need, and who decides?

Beyond the goals and their many targets, the SDGs could create political spaces for action. But for these to be transformative, they need to include different forms of knowledge, be sensitive to local differences, and take account of power.

The resources below draw on work carried out jointly between IDS and the Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU) by the ESRC STEPS Centre, to suggest how these transformations could be shaped in ways that benefit poor and marginalised people around the world.

Three areas for transformation

Context matters

Although the SDGs are global goals, they play out very differently in different places. For example, tackling climate change involves transforming energy systems. Centralised grids might work best for some places, but in remote regions, decentralised systems may work better. Technology and finance from outside may help, but local innovation systems should be nurtured too.

Values matter

‘Resilience’ and ‘sustainability’ are complex, contested terms. Exploring the values behind them, and different people’s perspectives and visions of the future, can result in better-informed decisions. As climate change and other agendas become more urgent, the pressure to close down to scalable, managerial and measurable ‘solutions’ will be more intense. Learning from people living with uncertainty, such as pastoralists or coastal communities, can help to design better approaches to resilience.

Choices matter

How the SDGs are pursued is a matter of political choice: who decides, what alternatives are suggested, and what knowledge is brought to bear. Power shapes all of these factors, so it’s important to support efforts to open up policy processes to make them more inclusive and transparent. In many countries, political spaces are shrinking, so agents of change need to connect in new ways to build solidarity and exchange ideas.

Find out more

Feature: How can the Sustainable Development Goals be transformative? (ESRC STEPS Centre)

News story: Leading sustainability experts call for more efficient approach to deliver UN goals (Sussex Sustainability Research Programme)

The views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IDS.

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