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Blog: SDG Implementation: Has best become the enemy of better?

21 June 2019
Travis Mitchell, Adviser and Head of Economic Policy and Small States

Born out of the Commonwealth’s recognition of an SDG implementation deficit, the Commonwealth in collaboration with the Government of Malta and the Small States Centre of Excellence, will host the Commonwealth’s inaugural “Award for Excellence in SDG Implementation” on 26-27 June in Malta. 

This Award will be the first of its kind in the realm of the United Nation’s (UN) Sustainable Development Goals, and is expected to motivate and refresh Commonwealth efforts towards implementation of the SDGs.

Now one may ask how will an award help to speed up implementation of the SDGs?  Surely, while such an award is an invaluable and prestigious recognition, it could not possibly compare to the vast volume of dollars being invested by international organisations in supporting countries SDG implementation plans and strategies.  This brief article begs to differ.  In fact, it argues that rather than moving the needle on SDG implementation, the current focus by support agencies has in fact allowed “best to become the enemy of better,” thereby stifling SDG implementation.  

Professor Prajapati Trivedi, Senior Director of the Economics Youth and Sustainable Development Directorate at the Commonwealth Secretariat quotes in his 2017 paper on SDG implementation, “A good plan as good as it is does not self-implement”.  What a sobering truth.  We know very well that most governments and even ourselves are excellent at planning but horrible at implementation.  New year’s resolutions are perfect examples.  During January and February, the gyms are full to capacity because we make plans to get fit and to lose those unsightly bulges.  By March, however, the majority of us resort back to our old routines.  The fat returns and we start all over again.  The reason for this implementation deficit in our own plans is the same as that for governments, and in particular for the SDGs.  We lack the incentives and/or the incentives driving us are not strong enough to motivate commitment to implementation.

Governments are not entities unto themselves. They are made up of a collection of people with different functions.  For the government to implement any strategy or plan, individuals must be motivated to implement.  Several years of research has taught us that monetary compensation is desirable but not the only source of motivation.  To motivate employees, organisations need to inspire and provide the right incentives.  And for the SDGs the same principles apply.  Too much effort has been placed on creating the perfect plan and the most effective integration strategies for the SDGs. 

Case in point.  At a workshop in South Africa on the Commonwealth’s SDG implementation toolkit, participants shared valuable insights into the challenges with SDG implementation.  A large share of participants felt that the SDGs and the quest to fulfil its targets was an additional task and burden.  After so much investment in planning and strategies, there was no holistic view; no consensus that the SDGs had coalesced with national development plans. Instead, there was more a feeling of disillusionment and resentment for the extra strain imposed by the SDG agenda. 

Arguably, this is evidence that the current focus, or indeed, the weight of it has been misplaced.  To counter the SDG implementation deficit, SDG support agencies need to invest more in supporting actual implementation. The Commonwealth strategy in this regard is to focus on creating the right systems and incentives to support implementation of the SDGs. The Awards for Excellence in SDG Implementation is but one of those mechanisms which the Secretariat has designed to strengthen governments’ incentives. 

Specifically, the Commonwealth Award for Excellence in SDG Implementation seeks to incentivise delivery by recognising countries for their commitment to SDG implementation. The Commonwealth view is that such commitment is evidenced not by robust plans and strategies or even by the accomplishment of SDG targets, but by governments’ relative progress as reflected in its actions and approach to towards implementation of the SDGs. 

For instance, it is well accepted that one cannot simply compare the progress of countries by assessing their achievement of targets, mainly because countries have different baselines.  Rather, a more credible assessment is to instead compare how far from respective baselines countries have travelled. This is the main concept underlying the selection of winners for the Commonwealth SDG Awards. The Commonwealth Award methodology levels the playing field, and creates the right incentives. It more importantly puts less weight on planning and shifts the emphasis to implementation. Countries are not demotivated by their lack of resources, or by their non-achievement of targets. Instead they are incentivised by recognition of their ability to overcome such constraints.

The Commonwealth Toolkit for SDG Implementation also focuses on creating the incentives for implementation. It is driven by the key principles of performance management and performance contracts.  Just like the SDG Awards, the toolkit recognises departments, leaders and individuals for their commitment to implementation.  It does this by creating a “bottom line” for government, similar to the profit estimate for private sector entities and a scoring system against which governments can assess individual contribution to that bottom line.  Performance contracts are drawn up with individuals to hold them accountable for implementation. Most importantly, individuals are not only recognised for the achievement of an outcome or final target. They are recognised and rewarded for completion of tasks and actions needed in the process of implementation. No points are awarded for planning because a plan is needed before a government can embark on implementation. Recognition is given for implementing the plan and not for creating the best plan. Surely, plain common sense holds that one would be times better off implementing a mediocre plan than working to perfect the best one.