« Back to News

Why we must change strategy on SDG Implementation


A Banner outside the UN General Assembly Building-July 2016

A Banner outside the UN General Assembly Building-July 2016

 (Overheard during the Development Cooperation Forum, and High Level Political Forum)

“The mindset that ‘these are poor people, vulnerable people’, who need help, is what is destroying development. It feeds our emotion,(it feeds our feelings of guilt, it feeds sense of power over some poor people). We need to shift this mindset if indeed we want to move forward with developmentShahidul Haque,Foreign Secretary, Government of Bangladesh, and  Chair-in-office, Global Forum on Migration and Development (GFMD). 


We need to ask very hard questions here about how we work and whether the system we have can deliver on our agenda. Every system delivers a product of what it is set to deliver. And today the systems we have are not set to deliver on the Sustainable Development Agenda. It’s too fragmented.” “The United Nations  agencies  are caught up in a competition for brand profile and among themselves. The consequence is that we dismember that which we should remember-people! We stake peoples stomach and send it off to WFP, their educational needs and send it off to UNESCO; we put elements of child and maternal mortality and send it off elsewhere. Very rarely do we gather the person WHOLE, integrated and remembered, with voice and their climate at the centre. In the end we have forgotten that which matters most and who should be at the centre-people! And we have lost the most valuable and renewable resource on our planet-People”Kate Gilmore, Deputy Head of OHCHR


“There is a lot of talk during these past days about “Vulnerable”. Just what does “Vulnerable” mean? We speak of children, women, youth, HIV infected, Older Persons, Indigenous Peoples, refugees, migrants, displaced persons, conflict affected persons, terrorism…..and we keep adding to the list everyday to justify why we should continue to work with “vulnerable people!” What we need is non-discrimination, not vulnerabilityKate Gilmore, Deputy Head of OHCHR


“While it’s great that we are concerned about those left behind, we also need to ask whether those who are ahead are walking in the right direction”-Rita Schwarzelühr-Sutter, a member of the German Bundestag and Parliamentary State Secretary


“Some of us have overspent our shares. In the three weeks that we will be here, we will have used our entire year’s share of energy that the Planet can bear. Rita Schwarzelühr-Sutter, a member of the German Bundestag and Parliamentary State Secretary


The Just concluded High Level Political Forum (HLPF 2016-July 10-22) had more drama than we had bargained for.

Not only was there drama in what was said and done, but in what was not said, and what was left undone.

And despite the General Assembly Resolution on how to manage future High Level Political Forums, and the somewhat empty Ministerial Declaration adopted on 20th July, The High Level Political Forum stands out more as a missed opportunity than a landmark event that it was intended to be. That opportunity was missed not just by design, but by the actions and inaction of stakeholders, among them Civil Society.

So in reviewing what happened, it may be helpful to also draw out some lessons that can help us salvage the Implementation of the Transformation Agenda for Sustainable Development by 2030, or SDG Agenda as we have come to call.

Credit where it is due.

No country made an elaborate and  clear strategic direction for implementing the SDGs like Slovenia. While it was not part of the 22 Voluntary countries, the Slovenia-OECD event on case studies for National Implementation showed that the country may become a role model and template for countries around the world.  It’s complex, tedious and highly time consuming. But it’s integrated nature and political support at all levels, coupled with the technical assistance of the OECD, is unrivaled. The process with which it has managed to integrate the SDGs into the Slovenia 2050 National Strategic Vision is worth emulating by all governments and is also a lesson to the many CSOs still struggling with the MDG-style fragmentation that is still characteristic of our work.(To get a copy of the Presentation and contacts of Slovenia, please send an email to info@africaplatform.org or call +254-20-2055003)

Why we must change strategy on SGD Implementation-Lessons from HLPF 2016

First, the side shows, since the UN tends to have too many of them

In the two months leading to the High Level Political Forum, The Business Coalition for 2030 Agenda(B2030), under strong support of the US Government and the American Chamber of Commerce, had been calling the current Major Groups arrangement of the United Nations “a relic of Agenda 21 from twenty years ago and no longer adequately reflects the diversity and involvement of…business entities in the UN’s approach to sustainable development. And so one would have expected a strong justification for their demand for a new outfit specifically tailored for Business engagement with the UN-what they call High Level Political Forum Business Coordination Mechanism. But when they were given the stage at the HLPF, they spent it talking about one thing and one thing only- Water, Water, Water!

  1. They spoke of other things such as their love for Save The Children  Fund and UNICEF, and how blended Finance should ensure their risks are protected and their role in Big Data guaranteed. But that was during their own event, away from the main plenary.

Not to be left behind, China introduced us to their latest title in the development world.

“We are the largest developing country in the world today!”

Whatever that means!

They went on to describe their engagement with a nonexistent actor in their country

“China attaches great importance to the participation of Civil Society. Rights of NGOs should not be overlooked. 215 NGOs have been invited to the C20 to engage with governments”

China? Really?

Kenya’s Devolution and Planning Minister  read out a section of the country’s constitution, claiming its their implementation tool for the SDGs!

(Former UK Prime Minister) David Cameron may have left Downing Street, but the legacy of his interpretation of Leave No One Behind almost cost the HLPF 2016 its strategic focus. While all UN Documents, including Chapter 2 of the High Level Panel Report that he Co-Chaired, defines the concept of  Leave No One Behind  as incorporating Root Causes of Poverty, Exclusion, Inequality and Social Justice, The UK, through its Aid Agency DFID, and several of its Funding recipients, decided that it was going to promote and push for a very narrow concept of  Leave No One behind- addressing symptoms of poverty in the South (read Africa). And when the UK representative took the floor during the  HLPF Plenary session, one would have thought we are back to AID 101, and that Britain is this  philanthropic giant that wants to help poor people with running noses somewhere in remote Africa end their misery. Nowhere did they mention how they are going to implement the SDGs in the UK, or even supporting the rest of Europe. Neither did they mention how they will deal with the UK Tax havens (Virgin Islands and London) that are killing the very poor people they are throwing AID money at.


Statements by the G77 (and China)-a group of 133 of mainly developing and middle income countries-have become almost predictable since the SDG discussions begun 3 years ago. Every three sentences must have the phrase “we insist and emphasize the Principle of Common But Differentiated Responsibilities-CBDR-and that developed countries must commit to their promise of 0.7%. of AID to developing countries.” That statement has never been left behind!

And after over 50 years of accusations that it is not meeting its AID commitments, the OECD came up with a new invention to measure Development Assistance for its members. In order to help its members quickly reach the 0.7% target of AID contribution, they tossed away the old model of measuring and separating direct AID from other forms of support that are profit driven, and came up with a new formula to measure AID flows- TOSSD (Total Support Official Support for Sustainable Development)

If previous measurement of AID was confusing (for example by including money given to  OECD corporations as AID), then  TOSSD may have just tossed out the entire definition of AID. According to TOSSD, blended finance (as defined by OECD, not recipient country), risk financing to protect corporations,  contribution of peace keeping forces and a host of other “incentives” are now going to count towards the total AID figures. Other than the  dubious possibility of making every country in the world a Donor, the OECD TOSSD has one frightening Goal-to become the official measurement of ODA by everyone, including the United Nations!

There were too many other side shows, like the public fight for recognition between Finland’s Business umbrella and their Trade Union over who should be the Official representative. But in the end the main HLPF, and the subsequent  Development Cooperation Forum that took place long after over 1500  CSOs that attended the HLPF taken their return flights, took centre stage for what it delivered, and what we can learn from the presentations and the activities.

Here are some of the Lessons

  1. Global Reviews are of No use with No National Reviews

It was hoped that the core of the HLPF would be the Presentations by the 22 countries that had voluntarily offered to be reviewed. As it turned out despite a set of very good proposals developed by the UN on how to make the HLPF successful, the HLPF was not a review. It was a standard UN presentation where member states took turns speaking to each other and patting each other in the back. Not only were the 22 countries given very little time (out of the two weeks, only three were dedicated to actual reviews), but not even a single member state questioned or sought some clarification on presentations by the 22 countries. It was left to “Major Groups and Others” to try and find  a single space and ask questions, most of which went off record!

Instead of focusing on the 22 countries, the usual UN Blocs- EU, G77, SID, LDCS- took turns making lengthy statements that had nothing to do with the presentations before them.

The secretary General, in his Report on Follow Up and Review, had suggested that  “the format should be interactive and information could be grouped around findings, good practices, challenges, lessons learned, areas that need support and shared experiences” But no one followed this suggestion, Not even the Secretary General himself! His monologue 15 minute address was lacking in any reflections of the Reports of the 22 countries.

The result was a set of countries presenting rosy pictures that no one could verify.

And this is the danger of Civil Society relying on Formal UN processes to monitor national actions.

It will collapse the SDG Implementation.

Hardly any of the 22 countries ( with the exception of Finland and Mexico) gave any indication that these reviews were preceded by actual National Reviews at country level, and that the reports were developed as a collaborative effort with other stakeholders.

 And so the first lesson for Civil society is:- The SDG agenda will collapse if  CSOs let HLPF become the primary annual points of review.

 As Asst Sec General Thomas Gass proposed during the 43rd Development Cooperation Forum IVth session (Video) on 22nd July , there must be National HLPF’s preceding the Global HLPFs, otherwise the reviews will be meaningless and the SDG agenda reduced to a wish list rather than a social contract

  1. The HLPF should be a Political space, not a technical learning space

The first week of the HLPF had all the wrong actors taking centre stage.

One would have been mistaken for thinking that we were negotiating the SDGs all over again. For some reason, the co-facilitators had decided that the first week would be devoted to expert presentations. This was in addition to the many technical “How to” side events that sought to educate anyone who cared on the best way to understand, and perhaps implement, the SDGs.

Nothing wrong with the learning.

The only problem is that the people who should have benefited, The Ministers and Governments from the Capital, were in Nairobi for UNCTAD Summit, or in Kigali for the AU Summit-and only came in for the three days of the actual political forum, leaving the learning to mainly New York NGOs who really didn’t know how they were going to apply the lessons.

The presentations during the first week were overly technical, perhaps too theoretical for what was expected to be an exciting set of sessions covering case studies and lessons from the field. The reason it was called Political Forum was because it was intended to be a space for governments to share with their peers, with technical experts feeding into the learning.

It is not clear what  value the many expert presentations added to the HLPF, considering that hardly any of the presentations were rooted in any practical experience of SDG implementation; neither did any of them make reference to the 22 National Voluntary Reports that were  already posted on the SDG website.

And here lies the second lesson.

Many CSOs, as well as the UN Agencies, still consider the SDGs a technical and policy process, not a political tool for development. In fact it was clear from a Report

 by the UN System on the progress of SDG Implementation across selected 16 countries, and by the many input and presentation by CSOs, that we still have no realization that Development is Political ,and policies and technical processes are only Tools to achieving political agreements. The SDGs, like all development strategies, are a social contract between society and the state, not a set of policies to be supported by some technical input. This is also the danger and weakness of the UNDG MAPS  Strategy.

If we confuse policies processes for development, and technical support for implementation, the SDG will collapse at worst, or at best be reduced to some MDG-type implementation that characterized the past 15 years of development.

Far too many stakeholders are putting emphasis on “advocating for policies” and “holding the governments to account on policy implementation.” It has become the new phrase and catchword for any NGO that wants to show its political engagement.  But policies, however good, are only as effective as the politics of the country and the nature of state-society relations. That is why too many policies in the UK with no social contract triggered an exit from the EU and a collapse of the Cameron-led government. It is also the reason why despite Sierra Leone having mainstreamed All the SDGs into the 2016 National Plan, not a single policy could move the country forward due to a lack of a sustaining political environment that places people at the centre of the politics.

  1. We cannot achieve the SDGs if we do not change other supportive policies

While the HLPF was going on in New York, the EU was busy marshaling its MPs in Nairobi to scuttle any attempts by developing countries to make UNCTAD stronger than it is today, and to take on a more progressive trade and tax engagement.

The message was very clear-Give them Aid, but kill their Trade!

And just a few days to the HLPF, the EU  descended to Nairobi and forced a small group of hurriedly convened D-NGOs (Donor Loving NGOs) to support a Declaration on the proposed signing and Implementation of a trade partnership that will not only weaken Africa’s economies and the Regional Blocs, but kill all small scale trade that accounts for 80% of Africa’s economies. The Economic Partnership Agreements (EPA), described as historic for partnerships by ODI have faced strong resistance from several governments across Africa. Beyond that it has led to bad blood between the EU and some CSOs following numerous threats to de-fund NGOs in Africa that attempted to campaign against  EPA over the past 12 years.

The signing and implementation was only stopped by the withdrawal of two East Africa Community Countries- Uganda and Tanzania.

And while this was going on the Development Cooperation Survey Report  on Monitoring and Accountability (See Summary here ) launched in New York on 21st July 2016 show that all  Development Partners under the OECD-DAC have never shifted any of their policies on supporting national  development priorities and strategies since the AID effectiveness discussions begun in Paris over a decade ago.

And the new DFID AID Strategy for development support places emphasis on the same symptoms of poverty and agenda areas that the rest of the world discarded years ago. It goes further to allocate a massive 2.035 Billion Pound investment in trade and investment that is intended to benefit British corporations. And they are calling all these AID!

Closer home The Africa Development Bank  (AfDB) is working nonstop to push up Africa’s Debt through two programs- Program for Infrastructure Development in Africa (PIDA) and the Power Africa Initiative.

So far so Good.

Except that there are two issues.

First it is doing this at a very high cost to Africa-raising Africa’s debt to dangerous levels, or even over the cliff-deliberately. The AfBD has targeted a massive $360B fundraising to build Africa’s infrastructure over the next 25 years. In addition a Partnership with The US Government will see another $3B put into energy and lighting over three years. This is going to add to the debt that has already reached delicate levels for most of Africa.

But there is another area of concern.

The Bulk of infrastructure and Energy investment by AfDB are not going to the people or communities that need them. During the HLPF, Cameroon complained that most roads and rails lead to mining centres, oil fields and major trade routes, while most of the energy investments are in areas where corporations have investments.

If you combine this with a skewed tax regime (Kenya has a record 10 year tax holiday for foreign corporations while the Netherlands has a tax agreement with Sierra Leone that has literally given free tax to its corporations) then you see why this is bad for Africa. We are not only losing out by increasing our debt, but the resultant investment is going to support corporations  owned by the governments giving the loans!

And every year the G20 wipes any gains it makes in AID by its own rules  that makes trade impossible for developing countries.

And so here lies the third lesson

The Review of the SDGs must look at the holistic agenda for development.

We cannot succeed in implementing the SDGs while ignoring the policies that are undercutting its implementation at various levels.

That is why some member states protested at the  HLPF Resolution   by ECOSOC to have a piecemeal review of selected Goals. Mexico protested that  the selective review of the Goals could hinder the  could hinder the indivisibility of the 2030 Agenda because it fragmented the follow-up process and gave de facto priority to implementation of some Goals over others

By implementing the SDG agenda in isolation, and ignoring other key policies needed to make them come alive (as the UN reminded us) we face a fall even before we begin to crawl.

The HLPF review made very little reference to the FFD agenda, with the only reference to the Addis Ababa Action Agenda being the work of a tax body formed and led by the countries that also house the highest number of tax havens.

The SDG agenda is an ambitious target for all of us.

It’s a social contract that requires stronger political dialogue and accountability between state and society at all levels.

But we will not make It’s implementation easier by ignoring some of the three foundational lessons that we just learnt during HLPF 2016.

As they always say

Pay Now, Play Later

Play Now, Pay Later.

We have the choice now-to play or to pay.