Assessing baselines and coordinating actions for the SDGs Decade of Action

By David Horan


A new tool can support implementation of a single SDG in a coordinated manner.

The tool combines indicators from different SDG targets and categorizes them into three components to express potential causal interrelations with the primary Goal and the country’s capacities to manage these relations.

In Ireland, challenges facing SDG 14 lead to a suggestion that the lead department on marine issues cooperate with nine other government departments to address challenges on 15 policy issues.

Despite no country currently being on track to achieve the 17 SDGs and an ongoing global pandemic, the 2030 Agenda remains a vital blueprint for a more sustainable inclusive future and a framework to “build back better, together.” The UN has called for a Decade of Action on the SDGs that will ultimately combat poverty and hunger, fight climate change, achieve gender equality, and other priorities of sustainable development.

Achieving any of these priorities will require a fundamental shift from siloed to cross-sectoral approaches to implementation. Take SDG 14 (life below water), for example, an important priority for many small island developing States (SIDS). This Global Goal interacts with poverty reduction, food security and nutrition, economic growth, urban development, sustainable consumption and production, and climate action, among others. Thus, to achieve SDG 14, coordinated actions across multiple sectors are needed that account for the interconnections with marine performance.

This article describes a new tool to support policymakers and stakeholders with implementing a single SDG in a coordinated manner.

Crossing Multiple Sectors with Country Baselines

Country baselines measure the current performance of a country on an SDG. In order to assess baselines for implementing a given SDG in an integrated way, I have set out to develop a new indicator-based tool for policymakers and other stakeholders.

The tool combines indicators of progress on the targets associated with a given SDG with the indicators for other SDGs – those that are most highly interlinked with the primary Goal. How are these interlinkages identified? To ensure an evidenced-based framework, the tool uses a 2017 study from sustainability science. Then, the best available relevant indicators are selected from SDSN’s global indicator set. The selected indicators are divided into three components: pressure, impact and response (i.e. capacity), to express potential causal interrelations with the primary Goal and the country’s capacities to manage these relations.

In our SDG 14 example, the four marine indicators selected for the study measure ocean health, fish stock status, protected area and fisheries revenue. Alongside these, 29 “linkage” indicators were selected consisting of:

10 pressures (e.g. poverty rate, nitrogen use in agriculture, wastewater treatment),

11 impacts (e.g. poverty rate, prevalence of obesity, subjective well-being) and

8 capacities (e.g. educational attainment, journal articles published, corruption).

Packaging Indicators for Strengths and Challenges

By “packaging” interrelated indicators in this manner, the tool provides an accessible, holistic assessment of the multiple dimensions of a country’s progress relevant to a particular SDG. This includes an assessment in SDG areas that act as pressures, impacts and country capacities for the priority Goal, alongside progress on the Goal itself. It thus provides a finer-grained profile of a country’s strengths and challenges as it implements a particular priority.

Let’s apply the framework to my country, Ireland. When we use the tool’s traffic-light grading system and its radar diagrams, it shows that Ireland faces the greatest challenges to SDG 14 implementation from pressures (e.g., sustainable agriculture, wastewater treatment, renewable energy, municipal waste). In addition, important challenges appear to remain on capacities (science and innovation, inclusive decision-making, government spending, and corruption). Improved marine performance could contribute in several impact areas where gaps remain (obesity, gender equality, employment, biodiversity loss).

Assigning Responsibilities and Mobilizing Coordinated Action

Once a profile has been ascertained, country-specific challenges can be combined with mappings of SDG responsibilities across different stakeholders. Recommendations can be developed on whom the sector’s stakeholders need to cooperate with and in what areas actions might be needed. In addition, cross-country comparisons can shed light on whether the country acts as a leader or laggard on specific challenges.

Ireland’s 2018 voluntary national review maps SDG responsibilities across government departments. Using the new tool, analysis can suggest that Ireland’s lead department on marine issues cooperate with nine other government departments to address challenges on 15 policy issues connected to marine performance. Relative to a selection of peer countries, Ireland was ranked as a “leader” on three of these issues, and a “laggard” on nine issues.

Using the Tool for Municipalities, Stakeholders

This coordination tool can be flexibly applied to other countries and SDG priorities. Required data is publicly available (see, e.g., SDSN’s various global, regional, and national SDG datasets). Studies of interlinkages for other SDGs exist or consultations can be organized (these studies typically identify different clusters of interlinkages). Mappings of individual SDG responsibilities for different stakeholders can be conducted. All data computations and visualizations were made in Excel. It could also be applied at subnational and city-level using data from local SDG portals.

While future research can develop the tool in several ways, the framework can act as a starting point for coordinating actions and initiating multi-sectoral pathways. It should be seen as a complement to national policy work and ongoing work on pathways (which provide more detailed information on specific policy issues, and technology and policy options for transformation). It is a simple tool that can help to bring relevant stakeholders together and inform discussions on the selection and coordination of implementation strategies, the targeting of resources and tracking of progress in interrelated areas.

The papers setting out the assessment and coordination tool, titled ‘Enabling integrated policymaking with the Sustainable Development Goals: An application to Ireland’, and ‘National baselines for integrated implementation of an environmental Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) assessed in a new integrated SDG index,’ are published in the peer-reviewed international journal of Sustainability.

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