Good intentions aren’t enough: the need for effective SDGs policy implementation

SDG-related initiatives are increasingly under attack from the more right-wing, populist parts of the political spectrum, who portray the Goals as misguided, wasteful, vain, and coercive. How can cities and local governments enhance their policymaking and implementation, and – crucially – secure buy-in to ensure initiatives achieve their intended outcomes?

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Oslo, Norway. The city is consistently ranked as a leader in sustainability and the country performs well in global indices on SDG progress, human development, and happiness. ©WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities

With the mid-point toward 2030 now behind us, significant delays persist in meeting the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Only 15% of the Goals are considered to be on track to be met by the deadline. The UN’s 2023 SDG Report shows that progress toward 48% of the SDG targets is currently insufficient, and 37% are either stagnating or regressing, notably in terms of poverty, hunger, and climate action. According to the OECD, more than 80% of regions in OECD countries have not achieved any of the 17 Goals, while 70% of cities have not achieved more than two.

Key challenges for effective local SDG implementation

Cities and regions are working hard to implement the SDGs. For example, many have created specific strategies, put in place institutional frameworks, and run awareness-raising campaigns. According to an OECD, Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) and European Committee of the Regions (CoR) joint survey conducted in 2023, about 39% of local and regional governments were already using the SDGs before the pandemic and continued to use them for COVID-19 recovery efforts. Another 25% of respondents said they hadn’t used the SDGs for COVID-19 recovery yet but planned to start doing so. From 2018 to 2024, subnational governments developed more than 260 voluntary local reviews (VLRs) to track and report on SDG progress. (UN Habitat, 2024).

Why haven’t those efforts translated into greater progress on the SDGs at the local level? Cities and regions still face many barriers to a more effective implementation of the 2030 Agenda, as shown in Figure 1:

  1. The lack of financial resources is the main obstacle for 64% of the OECD-SDSN-CoR survey respondents. The SDGs financing gap increased by more than 50% in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, reaching USD 3.9 trillion in developing countries alone.
  2. A second major challenge is shifting political priorities – for example, after local or regional elections – as indicated by 52% of subnational governments. 
  3. Next comes insufficient vertical co-ordination between local and national governments, highlighted by 44% of respondents – despite efforts to engage subnational actors in voluntary national reviews (VNRs) (OECD, SDSN, 2024).

Figure 1: governance challenges facing cities or regions in implementing the 2030 Agenda

Source: ​(OECD, 2024)​ 

Note: share of respondents selecting the respective options. Multiple responses are possible. The survey was conducted from 22 February 2023 to 9 June 2023.


5 solutions to accelerate progress on the SDGs from the ground up

How can we improve and measure the impact of SDG initiatives and expand public buy-in for the 2030 Agenda? Five solutions can guide governments at all levels, building on the OECD Checklist for Public Action to localize the SDGs:

  • mobilizing financing and budgeting for the SDGs 
  • mainstreaming the SDGs in cities’ and regions’ policies and strategies
  • strengthening multi-level governance
  • measuring cities’ and regions’ SDG progress
  • engaging public and private territorial stakeholders

1.     Mobilizing financing and budgeting for the SDGs

To mobilize specific financing for the SDGs, many options exist, including earmarked taxes, land-value capture instruments, and revenues from assets. As an innovative mechanism for SDGs funding, the city of Kitakyushu, Japan has established the Kitakyushu SDG Future Bonds, a program specifically aimed at financing SDG initiatives. 

Other cities such as Rotterdam in the Netherlands are also experimenting with local investment crowdfunding platforms to finance the SDGs. 

Strengthening the alignment of local financing with the SDGs in budgeting processes can help to ensure that adequate resources are allocated to the implementation of the 2030 Agenda. For example, Strasbourg in France, Mannheim in Germany and the Basque Country in Spain have developed SDGs budgeting.

2.     Mainstreaming the SDGs in cities’ and regions’ policies and strategies

Cities and regions should use the SDGs to adopt a holistic approach to address concrete local challenges more effectively. The SDGs provide a framework to identify interlinkages and possible tensions between key policy objectives. 

For example, reducing air pollution and transitioning to low-carbon transport (SDG 9) is critical to build sustainable cities, but requires managing trade-offs between efforts to improve air quality (SDG 13), promote sustainable mobility (SDG 11), and strive to reduce inequalities (SDG 10).

Documenting and communicating the relevance of the SDGs as a guide to advance local priorities and address people’s daily problems rather than as additional burden will help boost political leadership for the 2030 Agenda and reduce the risk of shifting political priorities after local or regional elections.

3.     Strengthening multi-level governance

Using the SDGs as a framework can help align policy objectives, priorities, and incentives across national, regional, and local governments. Some national governments such as Germany and Japan provide technical and financial support to municipalities to implement the SDGs through a conducive, multi-level governance framework. 

Engaging regions and cities in the process of VNRs – as done, for example, by Norway and Italy – contributes to strengthening vertical co-ordination and facilitating multi-level dialogue. VLRs, meanwhile, offer a great opportunity to shed light on local initiatives, engage national governments, and promote peer-to-peer learning among subnational governments.

4.     Measuring cities’ and regions’ SDG progress

Data and localized indicator systems are essential to measure the impact of SDG initiatives and guide policies toward better lives for people. Subnational governments need to know where they stand regarding their distance to the SDGs to redefine priorities, budget the necessary resources, and course-correct where needed. 

With its 135 indicators, the OECD localized indicator framework and its online tool to measure the distance to the SDGs in cities and regions cover at least one aspect of each of the 17 SDGs for regions and cities. 

In addition to using quantitative indicators, local and regional governments should also showcase their success and positive stories in implementing the SDGs to inspire similar actions by their peers. 

Finally, user-friendly, open data portals can help increase the transparency of actions taken toward the SDGs, as in the case of Córdoba in Argentina or Los Angeles in the US.

5.     Engaging public and private territorial stakeholders

Engaging all territorial stakeholders –  including civil society, citizens at large, and specific groups such as youth, academia, and private companies – in the policymaking process for the SDGs can help enhance accountability and transparency and reinforce buy-in for the SDGs

In particular, civil society organizations play an important role in driving progress toward the SDGs and in holding governments at all levels accountable for their commitments to the 2030 Agenda. They raise awareness about the 2030 Agenda, allowing informed citizens to change their daily habits. For example, the Kitakyushu SDGs Club aims to raise awareness about the 2030 Agenda by promoting SDG activities and collaboration among members. In 2022, the club counted almost 1,800 actors, including 878 companies, 245 schools, 233 organizations, as well as individual citizens.

Conclusion

Those five solutions addressed to policymakers at all levels of government will increase the effective implementation, impact, and monitoring of SDG initiatives to improve people’s lives.

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