How can we prevent the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals from failing? The role of Communities of Practice (CoPs)

How can we prevent the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals from failing?

July 30, 2015

James Patterson, Florian Koch, Kathryn Bowen

… the soon-to-be-adopted SDGs are likely to fail unless far more attention is given to addressing governance challenges crucial to their implementation.

In the broadest sense, governance refers to how societies make decisions and take action. It is about the mechanisms we use to work together in society to solve shared problems. For the SDGs, this involves considering how government, business, non-governmental organizations, civil society and researchers will work together.

Governance fundamentally underpins our ability to get things done in society yet there numerous failures in governance everywhere: weak safeguards in the global financial system, coups against elected national governments, the multi-decadal struggle to take global action to manage greenhouse gas emissions and climate change…

Three key challenges that urgently need to be addressed are:

First, how can we bring together the right stakeholders at the right time in the right place?

Sustainable development inherently involves many different stakeholders operating at many different scales, from national governments, to transnational corporations, to local and international NGOs, to small villages, and many more.

It can be tough to get the relevant stakeholders working together at the right time and place to solve complex poverty and sustainability problems… How do governments, the private sector, and communities interact… and how does this differ in different contexts? Just consider the differences between China and the United States or between countries across Africa…

Second, how do we make difficult trade-offs?…

Climate change (Goal 13) is a classic example. Those affected in the short term, such as fossil fuel companies and their workers, will perceive themselves as “losers” if they are forced to change, even though society as a whole will be a “winner” in the long-term by avoiding the tremendous risks and impacts of runaway climate change…

Achieving the SDGs will require national governments, the private sector, the nonprofit sector, and communities to make difficult decisions based on thoughtful and genuine commitment to the SDGs. Unless there is a strong willingness to do so, the SDGs risk being relegated to the ‘too hard’ basket.

Third, how do we build in accountability for action?

… we need powerful ways of feeding this information back into the policy and political arena to hold responsible stakeholders to account. This chiefly includes governments, but also other key stakeholders in the private sector, NGOs, and even civil society. If we don’t create these sorts of ‘feedback loops’ to hold each other to account, how will we make sure that the SDGs are actually being implemented?

So after September when the dust settles and the ink dries on the SDGs, the job has really only just begun.

This article emerged from discussions at a recent international scientific meeting on the role of science and the Sustainable Development Goals, and was written collaboratively by the co-authors listed as well as the following contributors: Dr. Jess Vogt (DePaul University, USA), Dr. Nick Cradock-Henry (Landcare Research, New Zealand), Dr. Tiina Häyhä (Stockholm Resilience Centre, Sweden and PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency, The Netherlands), Dr. El Mostafa Jamea (MENA Renewables and Sustainability Institute, Morocco), and Dr. Fabiana Barbi (University of Campinas, Brazil).

Best wishes, Neil

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