Finishing the Job

09/25/2015 09:37 am ET | Updated Sep 25, 2016
Damani Baker

With much jubilation, negotiators from 193 countries forged an agreement on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and targets to be achieved by 2030. The agenda is designed to guide domestic policies and support from the international community. Yet in the midst of the celebrations, among governments, businesses and civil-society organizations, there is also a sense of cluelessness about what comes next: about how the goals will be implemented, how budget priorities will be set and what gaps remain to be filled. This is because the key instrument for change -- national budgets, their execution and the accountability for the results they deliver -- often remain opaque to development partners, other stakeholders and citizens. The just-released Open Budget Survey 2015 shows that the country systems to provide measures of progress on the SDG targets and on the actions necessary to achieve them are not yet in place in the majority of countries.

The SDGs are more ambitious than the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), in many cases reflecting a commitment to "finish the job" where the MDGs had set more modest targets like "halving" poverty. They are also more comprehensive than the MDGs -- 16 goals and 114 outcome targets (along with an additional goal on a global partnership and some 55 intermediate implementation-process targets).

Both ambition and comprehensiveness will put more pressure on national-government budgets and budget processes. This is because there is a consensus that developing-country governments have the principal responsibility for their own development, and the budget and medium-term plans are the main instruments for implementation of the agenda. The international community can do a lot in support, both by aiding those countries that simply have so little that they cannot invest on a sufficient scale and by putting their own house in order so others have the policy space in which to grow and develop. But unlike the MDGs -- where donors promised to do much more by expanding Official Development Assistance (ODA) in targeted areas -- this time there is no additional money from donors on the table, so the burden is largely on developing countries themselves.

The ambition of the SDGs implies that the level of resources that must be mobilized and spent should be far higher than at present. Achievement of the SDGs could require an expansion of developing-country government investments of more than a trillion dollars annually. This is not an impossible task. The World Bank says that developing countries are already contributing $6 trillion more to their own development, through higher domestic taxes, than they were in 2000. At the third Financing for Development conference in Addis Ababa in June, there was agreement that domestic-resource mobilization would be crucial, and international programs to help through capacity building, control of illicit flows, and more equitable payment of taxes by multinationals (to deal with base erosion and profit shifting) among other measures are being designed.

The comprehensiveness of the SDGs means that more sectors will be advocating for an increased share of resources, both from budgets and from Official Development Assistance. Some of the debate could be technical -- which projects and programs result in the greatest benefit-cost ratio -- but some will undoubtedly be political. It is hard to compare the allocation of funds for institutional strengthening of the justice system, for example, with the allocation of funds for energy generation. Such trade-offs, therefore, have to be made through country-level budget deliberations, and the results need to be monitored through budget execution and impact evaluation.

The SDGs call for a revitalization of the global partnership for sustainable development, and a broadening of the number of stakeholders to go beyond donors and recipients to also include civil society, business, academics, scientists and others. At heart, the SDGs represent a theory that change will be driven by shared data and evidence, along with shared objectives; together these will provide a compass for coordinating the actions of many partners. They therefore rely on quantitative, time-bound and actionable targets that are regularly monitored. If governments, citizens and other stakeholders pay attention to the outcomes, then there will be a greater chance of success. To be relevant, targets must be seen to be both ambitious (else they will not serve to accelerate progress) and realistic (else they will not influence real decisions and will remain aspirational). But above all, both the targets and the means of implementation, notably through the budget, must be transparent with data accessible to all.

Transparency is not easily produced. For example, efforts to improve the transparency of ODA have been underway since the 2005 Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness. But OECD surveys suggest that only about half of all delivered ODA is actually reflected in government budgets, and progress since 2005 has been rather slow. There is hope. A common standard for aid transparency has been adopted to generate more timely, comprehensive and forward-looking information. Donors have started to respond and plans for improving the supply of better information are promising. But a critical element of aid transparency is to provide data that is useful, especially to governments in developing countries, in helping them frame strategies and execute budgets. Here, there is less evidence of progress.

The same issues apply to budget transparency. Attention must be paid to both the supply of information and to user demand. The latter requires easy-to-use interfaces and the ability to connect and overlay multiple sources of data. The Open Budget Survey 2015 shows country-specific gaps in transparency, public participation, and formal oversight, and how to improve.

The ambition, comprehensiveness and partnerships of the SDGs demand an improvement in the transparency of budgets and budget processes.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post, "What's Working: Sustainable Development Goals," in conjunction with the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The proposed set of milestones will be the subject of discussion at the UN General Assembly meeting on Sept. 25-27, 2015 in New York. The goals, which will replace the UN's Millennium Development Goals (2000-2015), cover 17 key areas of development -- including poverty, hunger, health, education, and gender equality, among many others. As part of The Huffington Post's commitment to solutions-oriented journalism, this What's Working SDG blog series has focused on one goal every weekday in September. This post, published on the day the conference is scheduled to start, addresses all the Goals.

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