The Knowledge to Act


Reporting on the Sustainable Development Goals—Challenges for OECD Countries. Part 3: Means of Implementation

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By Mark Halle, May 10, 2016

In part three of a blog series on the challenges that Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries face in reporting on their progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals, Mark Halle discusses financing the implementation of goals.

It stands to reason that a country's ability to fulfill the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is contingent on its ability to identify and mobilize the means that will permit it to take the necessary action. Not all of the commitments require new investment, but many of them do. So it is fair to ask: can a country unable to locate the necessary resources nevertheless be called to account for failing to fulfil these commitments? And who is responsible, in a universal agenda, for making these resources available?

In the past, it was taken as a given that, in the case of international commitments, the poorer countries would receive direct assistance from the richer ones. The term “means of implementation” (MoI) was code for increased development assistance. With the 2030 Agenda, the notion of MoI has been greatly broadened and specifically includes obligations on the part of the developing countries. The targets under SDG 17 spell out the elements of this rebooted MoI, and there is a further elaboration in paragraphs 60 through 71 of the 2030 Agenda. However this text, being a negotiated compromise, remains vague on some essential points.

Certainly, there are specifics in some areas. For example, the commitment by developed countries to dedicate 0.7 per cent of gross national income to offcial development assistance (ODA) (SDG 17.2), first proposed by the Pearson Commission in 1969 and endlessly reaffirmed over the past half-century, is prominently in place at a time when ODA is more threatened than it has been in decades. Similarly, there is a call to rebalance trade in favour of developing country exports (17.11), though the World Trade Organization has failed over the past 15 years to deliver such an outcome, and the mega-regional trade agreements don't even pay lip service to this aim.

While we must all accept that there is an aspirational element to the SDGs, their fulfillment will require action across the board, and not only on the limited set of topics agreed in the agenda. It is clear that, if we wish developing countries—to the extent possible—to locate the means of implementation domestically, then everything will need to be done to make that possible. This means improving terms of trade, correcting the imbalances in investment agreements, enabling developing countries to earn income through remittances from their citizens living abroad, and much more.

The danger of not doing this in good faith and at scale is that it provides a convenient excuse for any shortfalls in performance and compliance. If the “universal” 2030 Agenda is genuinely to be realized, the richer countries have only two acceptable choices: either help countries with an MoI shortfall or make it possible through less direct action for these countries to generate the means of implementation themselves. Failing this, we revert to the default choice—that of allowing implementation to stumble, leaving the world untransformed and watching sustainable development disappear below the horizon.

This is, of course, also a challenge for reporting. In many ways, how countries report on SDG 17 is the most delicate reporting challenge they face, especially for OECD countries like Switzerland that have signed up to a set of specific obligations. Naturally, it is important to report on the efforts made to meet the targets under the agreed categories—finance,  technology, capacity building, trade and systemic issues. But this may not be enough, because the implications of the expanded notion of MoI run considerably deeper.

Take, for example, the expectation that developing countries focus on domestic resource mobilization. One of the approaches designated in the targets under SDG 17 is reform of taxation. To fully succeed, however, this will require cooperation at the international level, such as that occurring through OECD's Base Erosion and Profit Shifting project. More disclosure of information on foreign citizens' holdings in rich country banks, greater cooperation on stamping out money laundering, gradual closure of off-shore tax havens—all of this is required to lay the foundation for successful tax reform in the poorer countries. Indeed, without such cooperation, it is difficult to imagine how domestic tax reform will yield its optimal share of resources mobilized domestically and, thereby, the means needed to implement SDG 17.

This form of action is implied in the targets relating to systemic issues, especially in addressing the challenge of policy coherence; but they are nowhere spelled out specifically as an adjunct to the obligations placed on countries for domestic action. However, if we are to track progress comprehensively, countries like Switzerland and its fellow OECD members should be reporting on measures they take in this and related domains.

Part one of this blog series is available here, and part two is available here.