Q&A: Economist Jeffrey Sachs on jumpstarting lagging SDG progress

Senior U.N. adviser and economist Jeffrey Sachs. Photo by: Max Alexander / Starmus / CC BY-SA

NEW YORK — New findings produced by economist Jeffrey Sachs’ organization UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network echoed the same concern that the United Nations voiced last month: Not one country is currently on track to meet the 17 Sustainable Development Goals.

The network released its 2018 SDG Index and Dashboards Report last Monday, at the launch of the U.N. High-level Political Forum. Forty-seven countries will offer voluntary progress updates on achieving the Global Goals, as they are known, early this week.

Implementation gaps of the SDGs remain large in G-20 countries, the SDG Index found, as only India and Germany have partially done an assessment of sustainable development investment needs. The United States and Russia have taken the least action on implementing the goals.

Still, privileged countries largely top the index, led by Sweden, Denmark, and Finland, while less-privileged countries, including those in conflict, display the worst performance: The Democratic Republic of the Congo, Chad, and the Central African Republic rank last.

Devex spoke with Sachs about persistent challenges of SDG implementation at the national level, and why countries should think outside the box for collecting data and accelerating forward action.

The conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

The official United Nations SDG indicators are still being developed and finalized. Do you think that impacts the ability of some countries to make progress on the SDGs?

Yes. The problem with the official processes is that national statistical offices are generally rather conservative, understandably, and developing metrics takes a long time. That's why we've introduced this SDG Index because we can move more quickly. We're trying to show: “Let's get on with it. Let's measure things, time is running out.”

It's also ironic that most of our big tech companies produce data hour-to-hour, while most of the major statistical agencies only find out, at best, year-to-year or even with a two- or three-year lag. With the international system, it's even longer.

We're living in a world of instantaneous data, but we're not harvesting it for these purposes. There isn't really the sense of prioritization given to data, and partly, it's because governments either have no focus or don't want to be held accountable.

“Our military, geospatial information agencies of the U.S. government, obviously, are monitoring the planet's surface every day. But they're not offering those services to global economic development — they should be.”

— Jeffrey Sachs, senior U.N. adviser and economist

I understand limited data, which does not capture large portions of populations, is an issue for official U.N. SDG data. Was accurate data a challenge in compiling this report?

We are not producing any raw data, so we only harvest what is globally available, on a relatively comparable basis. For some of the indicators, we are going to academic studies that have done really interesting things that the official system is just not focusing on. But we are not producing our own data.

We have the ability now, to measure deforestation or other phenomena on a daily basis — not on an annual basis, or using data two or three years out of date — but we're not doing that adequately, and this report does not solve these problems. But I hope it provokes others to step forward and say, “We can be moving faster to use a lot of what we're collecting.”

Our military, geospatial information agencies of the U.S. government, obviously, are monitoring the planet's surface every day. But they're not offering those services to global economic development — they should be.

The report seems to serve as a wake-up call of sorts.

Yes. It's a shame that the World Bank, for example, another institution that is the official holder of the income poverty measure, which is the key measure for SDG 1, does not have this comprehensive poverty data after 2015. So I hope that this is a wakeup call for the World Bank, also.

In the case of the U.S., the SDGs have not been adopted beyond a local level. What is your sense of why implementation has been slow in other rich countries?

Well, it depends on the countries. I would say, in Northern Europe, there's high interest and a lot of very important initiatives underway on energy, on biodiversity, and so on. In some countries such as Japan, there is not very much focus, unfortunately. And in the United States, I would say zero, basically, at the federal level.

The politics are quite different in different places. In Southern Europe, again, the focus is on more day-to-day economic issues, although some of these countries are getting hammered by global warming. I'm hoping that they will come to understand that this agenda is really tailor-made for their needs.

Would you recommend that governments look beyond the official indicators, and begin to track progress their own way?

I would recommend that they use new, experimental methods with informal data, for discussion and engagement with academics in their country, and globally, with the idea that success in a goal-oriented process requires measurement in real time. I would definitely recommend governments engage with tech companies, with the telecoms, and with the international agencies that have access to GISS analysis to come up with new experimental methods, to measure things that are of importance to them in real time.

Deforestation, crop yields, land use patterns, weather changes — where we have voluminous data, could be processed into very, very helpful climate and weather data. I’d recommend that governments join the data revolution. The companies already have all that stuff, why not have the development agencies use it too?

Do you think governments are starting to increasingly look to private sector partnerships as a source of producing quality data?

My guess is that it is happening. There is no doubt that there are many things that I don't know about, but I don't think that it's happening enough. There's anecdotal and motivational talks, but it's not happening in a serious way.

Given these issues, do you think that the SDGs are still a good marker of progress?

I think SDGs are very important, in fact, I think they are crucial. They are the only set of Global Goals that we're going to have around sustainable development for this generation. And I regard the sustainable development agenda as a make or break for the world.

We are very, very dangerously off course in social stability and in environmental protections. The fact of the matter is, it's a very fragile process.

The world geopolitics lurches from crisis day-to-day. It's not focused on this long-term agenda. We're really in a kind of battle between the short-term impulsive behavior of the global geopolitics and economy, and the longer-term challenges that the SDGs highlight — absolutely, so far, we're losing the battle.

Looking forward to the launch of the ministerial discussions at the U.N. High-level Political Forum next week, what will you be watching or listening for? 

Really, the purpose of the forum is to focus attention, by having governments come and report. That by itself is a key organizing principle, because governments are reporting work ahead of time to figure out what they are doing. They do not want to show an empty hand when they arrive here.

There will also be lots of exchange of ideas and strategy about how to speed things up and with a view to next year's summit on the SDGs, which is very important. In 2019, rather than the ministerial level, the SDGs will be taken up by heads of state. That also makes a difference because the heads of state will say, “So, what is this? What are we doing? Why aren't we doing anything? Shouldn't we be doing something?”

It’s a very important opportunity to insert these issues into national politics. That, in a way, will start next week also because the high-level summit of 2019 will be on the minds of a lot of the senior officials.

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About the author

  • Lieberman amy

    Amy Lieberman

    Amy Lieberman is the New York Correspondent for Devex. She covers the United Nations and reports on global development and politics. Amy previously worked as a freelance reporter, covering the environment, human rights, immigration, and health across the U.S. and in more than 10 countries, including Colombia, Mexico, Nepal, and Cambodia. Her coverage has appeared in the Guardian, the Atlantic, Slate, and the Los Angeles Times. A native New Yorker, Amy received her master’s degree in politics and government from Columbia’s School of Journalism.