Venezuela-Colombia migration Luis Acosta/Getty Images

How to Achieve the SDGs

In September 2015, the leaders of 193 countries agreed to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals – the most ambitious plan ever to promote human development – by 2030. Nearly two years into the process, there is plenty of cause for concern, but also considerable reason for hope.

MEDELLÍN – In September 2015, the leaders of 193 countries agreed to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – the most ambitious plan ever to promote human development – by 2030. Nearly two years into the process, there are plenty of reasons for concern: the amount of financing raised so far is unlikely to be sufficient, and not all countries have adequate data to measure progress on the ground. It is enough to test even the most diehard optimist.

But there is still plenty of reason for hope. I recently visited Colombia, which, at long last, is leaving behind its decades-long civil conflict with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and setting itself up for SDG success.

In any country, achieving the SDGs will require government, business, aid agencies, multilateral banks, and civil society to work together, adopt flexible approaches, share knowledge, measure progress effectively, and recognize that the various targets are interconnected. Colombia seems to understand this, and is pursuing an integrated approach that leverages the strengths of each actor.

Start with government. According to Colombia’s finance minister, Mauricio Cárdenas Santamaría, the country is localizing the SDGs through the planning department, using the SDG framework to guide reforms relating to the implementation of the peace agreement with the FARC, OECD accession, the National Development Plan, and the Paris climate agreement.

Meanwhile, Cárdenas points out, Colombia’s policymakers are taking care to highlight the benefits of these efforts – in areas ranging from health care and education to employment – for the public. They recognize that a top-down approach will not work: to achieve the SDGs, all levels of the government, economy, and society must feel connected to the goals, understanding the concrete impact that achieving them will have.

To get business on board, the Bogotá Chamber of Commerce, led by Monica de Greiff, is raising awareness of the SDGs among its 640,000 members and providing skills training in sectors like construction and health care. The aim is to achieve the SDGs’ targets while increasing the economy’s overall competitiveness.

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The good news is that, as Bruce MacMaster of the Bogotá-based business advocacy and think tank ANDI noted, businesses have a strong incentive to consolidate the gains of the peace process, especially in remote areas that have traditionally been cut off from government services. And, indeed, in Medellín, once the illicit drug capital of the world, the leaders of small and large businesses with whom I met are already integrating the SDGs into their business plans and supply chains.

ANDI is working to support that effort, including by raising awareness among diverse industries, from mining to beverages, regarding their interest in keeping their water resources clean and abundant. The result will be more robust protection of watersheds – crucial to meet Goal 6, on water and sanitation, among others.

Of course, in a truly bottom-up process, strong engagement with local communities and civil society is vital. And Colombian youth are already deeply involved in promoting and implementing the SDGs. On my visit, youth leaders in Medellín’s Comuna 13 proudly showed off the progress in their low-income neighborhood.

In the 1990s, when Medellín had the world’s highest homicide rate, Comuna 13 was among the city’s most dangerous areas. Today, it is a vibrant area benefiting from strategic investments in public transportation (including cable cars and new metro stations), education (libraries and schools), and security. Similar strategic investments will be needed throughout the country to ensure that nobody is left behind; the empowerment of women and girls being one crucial objective.

Leadership by municipal and regional governments to facilitate such local-level progress is particularly important. All of the SDGs have targets directly related to the responsibilities of local and regional governments, particularly regarding their role in delivering basic services. But it is SDG 11 – which focuses on making cities inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable – that is the lynchpin of the localization process.

That process has the support of the World Bank, the United Nations, and other international development partners, which are working to provide more effective and coordinated support to all levels of government. But success will demand that local governments urgently improve their own capacity in key areas, such as expenditure control, revenue expansion, responsible fund-raising, and creditworthiness.

In Colombia, the municipal development bank FINDETER is aiming to promote such learning, as it strengthens local governments’ public finances and their management and planning capacity. This will enable local governments to invest more effectively in infrastructure and service delivery, thereby advancing local development objectives. Enabling institutions like FINDETER will be critical to localizing the SDG-implementation process to leverage the efforts of local governments elsewhere.

Beyond capacity-building, local governments must engage in smart innovation. In Colombia, innovation has been essential to Medellín’s progress in reducing urban crime and violence, improving mobility, and mitigating social exclusion. The same is true of the city of Bucaramanga’s success in attracting private investment and forging public-private partnerships to improve its competitiveness.

Careful planning processes, including a strong national framework and effective monitoring, are needed to support such innovation and anticipate potential challenges and shocks. For example, in Colombia, obstacles may arise from continued drug trafficking, as well as from the ongoing crisis in Venezuela, which is causing thousands of desperately poor people to pour across Colombia’s border.

Colombia still has a long way to go before achieving the SDGs. But its localized and integrated approach has put it on the right path. Other countries would do well to follow suit.

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