The SDGs: Transforming Global Promises into Local Results


On 1 January 2016, the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) officially came into force. As part of the ambitious 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which was adopted by 193 UN member states, these goals challenge nations around the world to unite in eradicating poverty, achieving equality, and addressing climate change.  The widespread adoption of the SDGs is progress, but a commitment to the Goals is not enough. The SDGs are not legally binding for governments, and the reality is that they will be extremely tricky to translate into practice. In order to be successful, the focus of the SDGs must be on implementation. A global vision is nothing without the tools that enable individual nations to translate high-level promises into local strategies.  

A key aspect of the 2030 Agenda to transform our world is an emphasis on inclusive and participatory development, with the aim of bringing “concrete change for people, society, governance, and the environment”[1]. When it comes to putting the SDGs into practice, however, there is no one solution which can address the varied political, societal, and environmental contexts across countries.  Therefore, it has been recognized that “strategies and targets in individual countries should be locally owned and anchored in individual country realities and priorities”[2]. While achieving the SDGs will be no easy task, there are strong foundations in place to help facilitate and accelerate their progress. The SDGs are not the beginning of the global sustainable development story- they replace the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) - and thus represent the beginning of a new age of progress which is informed by lessons from the past. Below, we discuss some lessons from the MDG era and provide recommendations for the roll-out of the SDGs.

Focus on means as well as ends

The emphasis of the SDGs should not only be on outcomes, but also on the processes and mechanisms which will allow those outcomes to be delivered. The overall objectives are fixed to achieving the 17 SDGs, but the means of implementation should be flexible. Ultimately, global norms should be illustrative rather than definitive[3], in order to allow national goals to be adjusted to local needs and conditions. 

Make sustainable development measurable and meaningful for all

The OECD[4] highlights that countries affected by conflict have faced many challenges in achieving the MDGs, with their governments becoming increasingly critical of the MDGs as they do not address the core causes of fragility. The challenge for the future is to make development efforts both measurable and meaningful for all countries. Processes must allow for differences in national conditions and priorities.

Define the starting point. The final destination is clear.

Another key lesson from the MDG era is that considerable emphasis has been placed on specifying destinations, without sufficient consideration of what the starting points look like. This is a critical element needed in order to meaningfully measure and evaluate whether or not progress has been achieved. How can transformation and positive change be understood without prior recognition of what development efforts have evolved from? Thus, the SDG support strategy should take roots in an “initial political economy analysis that maps interest in the SDGs at the national level, and assesses the prevalence of key factors known to influence the effectiveness of goal-based development planning.” [5]

Use measurement tools that recognize the existence of inequality

The MDGs are set out in terms of aggregates or averages, which often conceal important information as there is no reference to distributional outcomes[6]. For example, with social indicators, the well-being of the poor is often not reflected as the poorest lie significantly below averages. Thus, meaningful assessments of progress must recognize the existence of inequality between people and regions, and outcomes disaggregated in order to reveal distributional realities. Additionally, targets which seek a proportionate reduction (for example to reduce poverty by one half) should be avoided, as targets may then be set too high for some countries and too low for others.

Identify and respond to bottlenecks

Another recommendation[7] for the post-2015 era is to establish a new national tool for bottleneck analysis, to improve on the MDG Acceleration Framework. As the SDGs are a challenging set of targets to achieve, there is no doubt that a solid framework to identify and, more importantly, respond to difficulties will speed up progress at the national level and play a central role throughout different stages of implementation.

Undertake a comprehensive and wholesome approach

Taking health as an example, the MDGs prioritized specific outcomes without offering incentives to invest in broader health systems[8]. As a result, progress on certain indicators was notable, while other areas were left with severe deficiencies. Instead of ‘vertical’ programs such as disease-specific action, a future emphasis on broader, cross-cutting health systems could bring greater, and more relevant, impact to more people. It’s also worth noting that delivering on one SDG often impacts positively on others[9]. As progress can be made on multiple SDGs at the same time, it is essential that development efforts undertake a holistic approach.

Despite the challenges ahead, there is no doubt that the SDGs will bring substantially positive change on a global scale. This is an exciting time for humanity. Through collaboration and willingness to pursue the bold Agenda of Sustainable Development, global promises will translate into local realities and begin delivering on the pledge to ‘leave no one behind’[10].

Cover photo attribution: By United Nations -, CC BY-SA 3.0,


[1] Development Co-Operation Directorate., 2016. Linking SDGs with Development Co-operation Results. The Development Assistance Comittee. [Online] Available from: 
[2] Gable, S., Lofgren, H., Osario-Rodarte, I., 2014. The post-2015 global agenda: A framework for country diagnostics. World Bank Development Prospects Group. [Online] Available from: 
[3] Nayyar, N., 2012. The MDGs after 2015: Some reflections on the possibilities.UN System Task Team on the Post-2015 UN Development Agenda [Online]. Available from:
[4] OECD., 2013. Beyond the Millennium Development Goals: Towards an OECD contribution to the post-2015 agenda. OECD and Post-2015 reflections. Overview. [Online] Available from:
[5] Independent Evaluation Office., 2015. Evaluation of the role of UNDP in supporting national achievement of the millennium development goals. United Nations Development Programme. [Online] Available from:
[6] Nayyar, N., 2012. The MDGs after 2015: Some reflections on the possibilities.UN System Task Team on the Post-2015 UN Development Agenda [Online]. Available from:
[7] Independent Evaluation Office., 2015. Evaluation of the role of UNDP in supporting national achievement of the millennium development goals. United Nations Development Programme. [Online] Available from:
[8] World Health Organization., 2015. Health in 2015: from MDGs to SDGs. Chapter 1: General Introduction. Available from:
[9] Nature., 2016. Sustainable Development Goals: Diseases that neglect no goals.Nature International Weekly Journal of Science. [Online] Available from:
[10] United Nations., 2015. Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. UN Sustainable Development Knowledge Platform. [Online] Available from: