Global progress towards achieving the SDGs is slow, and for many targets, off track. While SDG implementation is primarily a national task and responsibility, it also requires concerted international cooperation. Two arguments why foreign policy could play an important role in their achievement are presented here.
This year marks the end of the first cycle of the 2030 Agenda implementation. The High-Level Political Forum – the successor to the Commission on Sustainable Development – is currently convening in New York to review global progress on the last set of SDGs and to allow the remaining countries to present their Voluntary National Reviews (VNRs). To inform the Forum, two official SDG progress reports (the UN’s official Sustainable Development Goals Report 2019 and the Secretary General’s report) as well as numerous shadow reports (such as the SDG Index Report 2019) help shed light on the progress the world is making.
According to these reports, advances have been made towards reaching some of the SDGs, but no country is on track to achieve all 17 goals. The reports also suggest that land use and food production are not meeting people’s needs: while agriculture is destroying biodiversity and forests, squandering water resources and driving climate change, 800 million people remain undernourished. Despite high-level political commitment to the SDGs, many governments have not taken the critical steps necessary to implementing them. Most countries have endorsed the SDGs in official statements, but their central budget documents, financing schemes as well as bilateral and international agreements fail to mention the SDGs, let alone live up to their promises.
Overall, the shift in development pathways is yet to advance at the speed and scale required. Governments need to implement more radical and ambitious solutions. To that end, foreign policy is urgently needed: foreign policy actors play a key role in taking leadership, in increasing political will at a global scale, and in steering international action to implement the goals. Diplomats can take up a more proactive approach to the SDGs, an approach one could call “Sustainable Foreign Policy”. There are many reasons why such an approach is needed, and here are two of them:
(1) There is urgency for renewed multilateralism and international cooperation: SDG implementation is primarily a national task and responsibility - but its solutions require concerted and coordinated multilateral action. For example, high-income countries often generate environmental and socio-economic spill-overs through commodity imports. Tax havens undermine other countries’ abilities to generate public revenue to finance the SDGs. Poor labour standards in international supply chains have negatively impacted the world’s poor as well as women in many developing countries. All of these are systemic problems which require a shift away from strong path dependencies. In turn, this shift requires people who see the bigger picture - people who can work across geographical, linguistic and cultural borders, and who are doing the constant, persistent, day-to-day work of trust-building, seeking agreement and compromise, coordinating and communicating with various actors.
Foreign affairs actors are well placed to take up this task. They can strengthen and shape the level of international cooperation needed to address global structures, through forums such as the UN, G20, G7 and EU. Just as importantly, they can help build relationships and enable cooperation on the ground.
However, the world is currently facing turbulent times. International cooperation is under threat, as nationalist leaders spread narratives of fear and insecurity. In the light of these challenges, foreign policy must keep up and strengthen multilateral solutions.
(2) SDG implementation prevents conflicts and yields a high peace dividend: Violent conflicts have become more complex and protracted, and are linked to intensifying global challenges such as climate change, natural disasters, and transnational organised crime. Without utilising the transformation that the SDGs aim for, international peace cannot be secured in the long-term. The Agenda can be considered a framework for prevention, or as Oli Brown, an associate fellow with the Energy, Environment and Resources department of the Chatham House, named it, a “planetary health insurance”. In fragile contexts or states which are locked into cycles of conflict, foreign policy is particularly vital to ensure SDG implementation takes place in a conflict-sensitive manner.
Both the SDGs and foreign policy share the same objectives: peace, prosperity and stability. But policymakers oftentimes still see the SDGs as an add-on or as one topic among many others, and they frequently ask themselves how to engage with the goals and their interlinkages. At the same time, there is also a widely held view that SDG implementation is a technical exercise that lies mainly with the ministries of development or environment.
For foreign policy to move towards being more preventive, the 2030 Agenda would serve as an ideal compass for guiding that transition process. This in turn requires a more thorough understanding of the 2030 Agenda, which could bridge knowledge across thematic areas and catalyse integrated action, action foreign policy is well placed to deliver.
As the HLPF convenes, the momentum is there to renew commitment to the SDGs and revive the spirit of 2015. It is a renewed window of opportunity for the transformative change that the agenda envisions. Foreign policy actors can see what could be possible beyond the status quo and drive the political will to make it happen.
In cooperation with the German Federal Foreign Office and a number of international think tanks and organisations, adelphi has started an initiative to explore concrete areas of action for foreign policy to engage with the 2030 Agenda. One outcome is the essay volume “Driving Transformative Change: Foreign Affairs and the 2030 Agenda”, which was presented at the HLPF 2019.
The volume comprises six incisive essays which highlight different foreign policy approaches to the SDGs:
Iraq is on the verge of an environmental breakdown, and climate change is not helping. The country's fragile environment and the increasing scarcity of natural resources — particularly water — are a result of poor environmental management, as well as several political and historical factors. However, as climate change impacts add to the existing pressures, the environmental collapse turns into a security issue.
The severity of desertification and its mutual relationship with climate change cannot be overstated. In light of the recent launch of the Special Report on Climate Change and Land by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Robert McSweeney from Carbon Brief explains what desertification is, what role climate change plays, and what impact it has across the world.
A new form of organized crime has recently been emerging in the Amazon: illegal mining. Miners fell trees, use high-grade explosives to oblast soils and dredge riverbeds. But the impacts go beyond environmental damages, bringing with it a slew of other social problems. Peace researcher Adriana Abdenur urges policymakers to improve coordination and argues that diplomacy may help prevent further conflicts, corruption and crime.
To fight illegal coca plantations and conflict actors’ income sources, Colombia’s president wants to loosen the ban on aerial glyphosate spraying. However, considering the dynamics of organised crime, the use of toxic herbicides will not only fail to achieve its aim, it will have many adverse effects for the environment and human health, fundamentally undermining ways to reach peace in the country. International cooperation and national policy-makers need to account for this peace spoiler.