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The common struggle to implement UN sustainable goals
July 16, 2016, 8:14 am

This week, Bertelsmann Stiftung and the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) published the first, country-level index to track progress on the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). These goals, which were adopted last year by 193 member states of the United Nations, aim to improve the lives of all people and build a more sustainable, inclusive and prosperous world over the next 15 years.

Measuring progress will be critical in making this ambitious plan a practical reality. The index highlights the considerable gaps in data that exist for many of the goals and corresponding targets, such as measures of decent work and quality of education, and underscores the need for greater investment in statistical capacity and data collection.

The index is being launched on the occasion of the High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development in New York, a platform for the review of SDG achievement. The forum is the first, official report-out since the SDGs were adopted last year and countries are starting to take stock of where they stand.

Until the UN Statistical Commission finalizes the official statistical indicators, against which countries can measure progress, the SDG Index will help countries set priorities for early action. Drawing on available data, the index ranks countries by overall performance on the SDGs and provides countries with a performance assessment on each of the 17 goals.

The index provides early insight into where most progress will be needed and allows countries to benchmark themselves against peers in their respective regions. This may help uncover reasons for differing performance and create better strategies to meet economic, environmental and social objectives.


[Graph: UNSDSN-Youth]

[Graph: UNSDSN-Youth]

A quick look at the index shows how countries are faring on SDG achievement so far. Most importantly, the index shows that sustainable development challenges, from inequality to loss of biodiversity, are present across continents and income levels.

The majority of poorer countries continue to face challenges across the full breadth of the SDGs. The causes for this are fairly well understood: Lack of resources and capacity makes it difficult for these nations to invest in education, healthcare and basic infrastructure. In light of this, one cannot overstate the importance of global cooperation. Major commitments made at the Financing for Development summit in Addis Ababa and the Paris climate conference are critical first steps in this direction.

At the other end of the spectrum are the high-income countries and economies, in particular the Nordic countries such Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Finland, which are closest to achieving the goals.

[Graph: UNSDSN-Youth]

[Graph: UNSDSN-Youth]



For wealthier countries much work still remains. The United States, for example, despite its economic prowess, ranks 25th on the index, as the country falls behind on addressing environmental challenges and tackling income inequality. But the US is not alone. Other member countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), a group of mostly high-income economies, fare poorly on roughly one third of the goals. OECD countries have a long way to go in meeting their climate commitments, protecting ecosystems and promoting sustainable consumption and production. Top performers on the index will need to radically transform their economies and energy systems to shift away from reliance on fossil fuels, in order to meet Goal 13 on climate change.


[Graph: UNSDSN-Youth]

[Graph: UNSDSN-Youth]

Countries with comparatively modest income levels, meanwhile, have demonstrated considerable environmental and social progress. Namibia, Nicaragua, and South Africa, for example, are among the countries that made biggest advances on Goal 5 (gender equality). Uruguay and Brazil, home to a robust clean energy growth, are ahead of many of their wealthier peers on Goal 7 (sustainable cities and communities) and Goal 12 (sustainable consumption and production).

What the index shows clearly is that all countries have substantial work to do. As Christian Kroll from Bertelsmann Stiftung has pointed out, when it comes to “sustainable development, all countries are now developing countries”. This couldn’t be more accurate in the context of the new SDG Index. While the need to help struggling countries is self-evident and still urgent no matter how one looks at the data, the index paints a more nuanced and perhaps humbler view of development – one where all of us have plenty of homework to do. And this should be the key takeaway from the report. The necessary work of the SDGs, which concern all nations, is now and must leave no one behind – from New Orleans to New Delhi, Dhaka to Detroit, Bogotá to Beirut and everywhere in between.


Note: This post was updated on 20 July 2016.


The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the publisher's editorial policy.