4 biggest challenges to achieving the SDGs

By Bill Hinchberger 05 April 2016

Mario Pezzini, director of the OECD Development Center and acting director of the OECD development cooperation directorate, at this year’s Global Forum on Development held in Paris, France. What are the major challenges that development professionals will face over the next 15 years as they work to achieve the SDGs? Photo by: Andrew Wheeler / OECD / CC BY-NC-ND

A series of long-term trends, from climate change to demographics, are already reshaping the global landscape for policymakers and practitioners, just as they set their sights on implementing the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030.

That was the main takeaway for participants at the 2016 Global Forum on Development held at the Paris headquarters of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development last Thursday.

“If you want the SDGs, it comes down to what you do to address the trends,” said Mario Pezzini, director of the OECD Development Center and acting director of the OECD development cooperation directorate. “Sometimes in the development community, we forget that this is a real world.”

A slowdown in emerging market economies, migration, and consequences of fragile states and societies — ranging from public health crises to terrorism — will all impact how the SDGs can be implemented.

The gravity of these challenges cannot be underestimated, one participant told the conference. Offering example, Ahmed Shide, Ethiopian state minister of finance and economic cooperation, warned that “environmental degradation and climate change are the most existential threats.” He added, “with the current trends in climate change, we cannot achieve the 2030 agenda.”

Of course, climate change and other challenges already loomed large as politicians, luminaries and global development professionals laid out the SDGs, during the landmark summits of 2015. Yet the rarefied air of high-level negotiations may have helped downplay the amount of hard work that will be needed to truly achieve the SDGs.

“Agreements make the headlines. Implementation changes lives,” noted OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurria in his introductory remarks at the March forum.

Amid this changing global dynamic, statistics, data, and monitoring systems can act as a sort of GPS for societies working toward the SDGs, Gurria offered as a metaphor.

Some participants at the forum extended the analogy: “When you have 17 goals, 169 targets and 230 indicators, what you need is a process that simplifies complexity,” said Pezzini. “That is usually called a strategy — you need to decide what comes first and what really matters. There is no one recipe. That for me is the GPS.”

Not all trends need represent barriers. Sometimes they can help facilitate positive change, suggested suggested Claudia Juech, associate vice president and managing director for strategic insights and Bellagio Center programs at the Rockefeller Foundation, a New York-based philanthropic institution.

“You have to identify where the wind is headed or where it could be going, and figure out how to mobilize global trends,” she said, giving the example of the “green revolution” in Southern Asia that rode trends in agriculture, food systems and demographics.

During an exclusive interview with Devex, Pezzini touched on some of the major challenges that development professionals will face over the next 15 years as they work to achieve the SDGs. Here are some of his observations:

Demographics in Africa

The population on the African continent is set to double by 2050. Even compared with recent histories of rapid population growth in China and India, Pezzini noted that “this is unprecedented.” His question: “How will society deal with the increasing population?”

Migration

“If we are not able to absorb the young population [in Africa],” the result will be “tension and migration,” said Pezzini. “It is crucial to understand that migration is not just a temporary phenomenon [but] an increase in population that will increase until at least 2050. This will not end because we slightly adjust controls at the border.”

Slower and unequal economic growth

Not only are many emerging markets facing a downturn, but the commodity-driven surge that many countries experienced in recent decades has not brought about stable development.

“As a consequence these societies tend to be extremely polarized,” said Pezzini, adding that average citizens witness how things could get better but they “wait, wait, and wait” and “never get the benefits … It is not just the slowdown. It is the model of growth.”

The vulnerable middle class

“People who have improved their positions, who have joined the so-called middle classes, remain vulnerable,” said Pezzini. “There is a risk that they will fall back into extreme poverty. How do you address this? It is not about extreme poverty. These people have left extreme poverty. It is about a social protection systems and other policies."

Devex was a proud media partner at the OECD Global Forum on Development 2016. Stay tuned for more coverage.

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About the author

Bill hinchberger
Bill Hinchberger@hinchberger

Bill Hinchberger is Devex's Paris correspondent. In his spare time, he's a freelance writer, communications consultant and educator. A native of California, he lived in Latin America for over two decades, reporting for media such as The Financial Times and Business Week. He also served as president of the São Paulo Foreign Press Club and founded the online travel guide BrazilMax.com. Assignments have taken him to over 30 countries, from Cuba to Egypt, India, Kenya, Turkey, and beyond.


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