Where to start with the SDGs?

By Simon Scott, Counsellor, Statistics Directorate, OECD; Jeff Leitner, Fellow, New America and Managing Director, GreenHouse; and William Hynes, Co-ordinator, New Approaches to Economic Challenges programme, OECD

“The SDGs as a network of targets,” from David Le Blanc, “Towards integration at last?”, DESA Working Paper No. 141 ST/ESA/2015/DWP/141

The upside to the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), signed off at a UN Leaders’ Summit in September 2015, was their inclusiveness. An Open Working Group of 30 nations worked for two and a half years to develop the Goals, meeting 13 times, sometimes for a week, and organising countless national and thematic consultations, stakeholder forums, and on-line and door-to-door surveys. Almost everyone who wanted a say in the SDGs could have one, and more often than not, their voices were heard.

This led to the downside of the Goals – their sheer breadth and volume. The Economist satirised the litany of SDG targets as “the 169 Commandments” – a line perhaps inspired by Bill Gates’ comment that the SDGs resembled the Bible, and that he would prefer to start with something simpler, “like the Ten Commandments.”

Two years later, the world has moved on to implementation. The UN, national governments and international organisations are all retooling to help the world achieve the SDGs. And the available resources, while not limitless, are very substantial. Official development assistance from OECD countries alone now exceeds USD 140 billion a year, and private philanthropy from NGOs and foundations is also increasing. Trillions of dollars are held by sovereign wealth funds, pension funds and private endowments with an interest in long-term stability and sustainable development.

Yet the sheer scale of the SDG challenge remains. It has been estimated that it will cost upwards of USD 45 trillion over 15 years to fulfil all the SDG targets. And their complexity means that funding – and the efforts it enables – will be much more effective if directed in the most logical sequence: Step 1 facilitates Step 2; Step 2 facilitates Step 3; etc. Taking steps in the right order should be a key feature of national and international SDG policies and of large-scale, long-term investment strategies.

Trying to work out how to get started in tackling the SDGs was the aim of a recent collaboration between New America, GreenHouse (a Chicago social innovation group) and the OECD. We wanted to put the SDGs in order – finding the best, most logical sequence in which to address them.

To do this, we surveyed 85 experts from think tanks, government and private institutions, the World Bank, the OECD, universities, and foundations and civil society organisations. Before we could begin, however, we had to make sense of the SDG targets themselves. Some of these clearly bear the scars of a long process of consultation and amendment and are almost comically convoluted. To obtain clear judgments from our respondents, we realised we had to break the SDG targets down to their essentials.

This was a delicate process, but not as hard as we first expected. We started by excluding targets that were really policies or other “means of implementation” and focusing only on true objectives. We next extracted the core aim of each target, leaving out “frills” such as who should be involved and how and by when it should be done.

In the end, we arrived at 117 clear and straightforward targets that could be put in order. Respondents were then asked a simple question: Which 20 of these 117 should be tackled as part of a multi-year effort to fulfil all of the SDGs? We also asked the experts what criteria they used to arrive at their conclusions.

Frankly, the answers to both questions surprised us. Here are the experts’ top suggestions on where to start (for a complete list of the targets in order, see here):

Top 20 SDG Options in Sequence

Rank Option Experts’ score
1 Promote rule of law and access to justice 8.9
2 Eliminate the most extreme poverty 8.4
3 Ensure access to safe, effective and affordable health care, medicine and vaccines 6.6
4 Ensure women’s rights to economic opportunity, property ownership and inheritance 6.5
5 Ensure government accountability and transparency 6.5
6 Ensure all children graduate from primary and secondary schools 5.6
7 End discrimination against women and girls 5.3
8 Expand access to safe drinking water 5.3
9 Promote social, economic and political inclusion 5.2
10 End corruption and bribery 4.9
11 Expand access to affordable, reliable, modern energy 4.6
12 End preventable deaths of infants and children under 5 years of age 4.3
13 Ensure literacy and numeracy for youth and adults 4.2
14 Ensure equal opportunity in economic and public life 4.2
15 Ensure equal access to legal rights, economic rights and natural resources 4.0
16 Reduce all poverty by half 4.0
17 End violence against women and girls 3.9
18 Ensure safe, accessible sanitation and hygiene 3.8
19 End human trafficking, harsh labor, forced marriage and genital mutilation 3.6
20 Improve domestic capacity for tax and revenue collection 3.6

Of the first five, note that three – numbers 1, 4 and 5 – are about rights and governance, and the other two are about people’s basic conditions of life. The same pattern is repeated in the next five: three concern rights and governance (ending discrimination against women and girls, promoting inclusion, and ending corruption) and two address living conditions (access to schooling and to safe water).

Notice what’s missing? Here’s a clue. At the end of our list came combatting alien species, and between 6 and 8 of the bottom 10 could be considered environmental targets.

We are still pondering why the rights and development agendas appear to have squeezed out environmental concerns. One factor might be weaknesses in the environment-related SDGs. The targets in the climate goal, for example, were deliberately kept non-controversial to avoid interfering with the final stages of negotiating the Paris Agreement, while the biodiversity and marine life Goals may have seemed less pressing because of their long-term nature. Our results also correspond with surveys reported in the 2016 African Economic Outlook indicating that people throughout that continent likewise give priority to rights and development issues.

The reasons our experts gave for their choices were also intriguing. As their responses were free-form, we classified them along two continua – individualistic vs. institutional and urgent action vs. long-term processes. Since the SDGs are a collective, global undertaking to reach targets by 2030, we expected our experts to favour a long-term, institutional approach. Yet, in fact, their reasoning favoured focusing on individuals (47%) over institutions (29%), while giving somewhat more weight to urgency (35%) over long-term process (29%).

It is difficult to compare our results with those of others, because as far as we know this is the first survey of its kind. True, public opinion surveys have asked about the SDGs, but they have focused on the general public’s awareness of the SDGs rather than on experts’ views of priorities.

Perhaps the closest approach to ours has been the Copenhagen Consensus project, which had experts rank nearly 40 investment proposals to meet global challenges across a variety of fields. That exercise focused on the cost-benefit of specific interventions rather than on putting targets in order or establishing conducive environments. Allowing for those big differences, however, the Consensus’s results do somewhat resemble ours in prioritising action on health, poverty and education concerns.

We are still studying our results and would be interested in your comments. Send them via e-mail to Jeff Leitner at sdgs@ghouse.org.

But for the moment, we conclude that development experts believe the best way to start working towards the SDGs is to expand people’s opportunities to reach their own goals, with governments guaranteeing the rule of law, social stability and minimum conditions of life for all.