Accountability: Are we responsible for meeting the SDGs? Yes, personally and by programming for more sustainability

In a 2014 article about mutual accountability for the SDGs, Dr. Paul Zeitz states that “Sustainable development is the most urgent challenge facing humanity. The fundamental question is how the world economy can continue to develop in a way that is socially inclusive, advances human rights, and ensures environmental sustainability.” Today, the UN Secretary General’s report on SDG Progress on progress to meeting them is unveiled. As many of us work in global development, we need to consider our accountability for its findings.

First, Dr. Zeitz points to key aspects to such accountability, of which three are most relevant to sustainability:

  • Universal, Voluntary and Commitment-Based Approach

For the SDG agenda to be successful, “Shared and joint commitments by partners from governments, civil society and the private sector can inspire faster and bolder action, can garner enhanced citizen and media attention; and can contribute to the mobilization of resources from internal and external sources.”

Our industry has pushed for greater investments for decades.

  • Broad-Based Youth and Citizen Engagement

Local youth- and citizen-driven monitoring and accountability mechanisms are essential for improving budget transparency and service delivery outcomes. If citizens are enabled to pay attention, respond and engage, and then take responsibility and action, then everyone can be empowered to foster an enabling environment for “mutual accountability” and measurable results.”

While most of our work does M&E and listen to ciitzens, even foster voice through civic engagement and feedback loops, we are far from done.

  • Call for a Multi-Stakeholder SDG Monitoring and Accountability Mechanism

“… it is more challenging and more complex to ensure ‘mutual accountability’ for results. Given the advances in human cooperation and technology, we know that the SDG era can usher in and foster a new culture of ‘mutual accountability.’

It is here where we fail quite badly in global aid. We rarely talk about our reciprocal accountability with our participants and partners, with the countries themselves.  Too often we push money, extract data, claim success and leave abruptly. These SDGs push us to think about “global accountability” and how our actions at work and home need to change to (un)affect others. In a piece on mutual accountability, “Accountability for Development Cooperation under the 2030 Agenda” by Timo Mahn Jones explores “global accountability”, based on “mutual accountability, by which two partners agree to be held responsible for the commitments they voluntarily made.”

  • He warns of the danger that “development cooperation stakeholders do not follow through with their commitments, and are not held accountable.
  • He suggests that existing donors need to honor ODA/aid targets and new partners, especially the private sector are vital for the implementation of the 2030 Agenda, “to move from billions to trillions” in funding.
  • Equally in need of revision is the roles of ‘donor’ and ‘recipient’ as we have entered a new world of “sharing of risk and ‘mutual pain’ where all of us are affected if we do not reach the SDG targets – although unequally.

How do those of us in our industry foster such accountability? We can say, rightly that we have played a role in sectors like health, agriculture, natural resource management through many projects over the last century or more. Absolutely but we know, our projects are piecemeal and often scattered, more short than long in implementation (typically 5 years) and as we rarely return after clcose-out, we do not know how long will results will be sustained. Yet we have tried to do good and there are many public and private players. Is it adding up? .

The Sept 2019 UN report shows promising if mixed results.  

Immunizations are increasing, thereby saving millions of lives (SDG3).


There is also good news from investments in
renewable energy growth.

However, while those living below minimum living wage is falling on every continent, still, “one child in five lives in extreme poverty” (SDG1).


Hunger
, unfortunately, is rising (SDG2), partly due to a 150% increase in “direct economic losses from disasters… over the past 20 years, with losses disproportionately borne by vulnerable developing countries” and 68.5 million people have been forcibly displaced, sometimes from wars donor governments supply arms to or refugees are forced to remain in other developing countries, the UN report tells us, with shrinking refugee funds.


C
limate is the most worrisome of the UN reports. Reversing CO2 emissions and fostering the sustainability of climate adaptation and mitigation projects is imperative given today’s UNEP report that includes this graph. Collective accountability is key to reining in CO2, for our emissions are leading to unprecedented ice melt, sea-level rise, and high pollution, not globally sustainable. 

While we in ‘development’ could say we affect the earlier SDGs, climate is a global problem, one that each one of us affects with our consumptive actions… or aren’t all of them? Don’t we affect hunger through our food waste and food purchases from afar? Don’t we affect child survival and immunization through our advocacy for aid and even private donations to other health and food security charities?

Some of us disproportionally affect emissions by our wealth, population, or both. The Global Carbon Atlas from 2017 shows how wealthier and more populous countries emit far more than the poor ones. As CO2 rises, climate is affected, storms are more severe, yet the poorest countries have the fewest means to prepare or respond. In their World Disasters Report, The International Federation of the Red Cross found that “Between 1991 and 2010, the impact of recorded disaster events in poor countries resulted in over $840 billion of financial losses. Yet, over the same period, only 0.4% of the $3.3 trillion spent on aid was dedicated to prevention or risk reduction“. Our industry does some Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) but why have we not advocated to prevent more suffering?

Thinking about “collective accountability” makes this graphic from the UN SDG report uncomfortable, as the burden of climate change falls disproportionately on the poor through economic losses from disasters.

The UN Secretary General states: “The world will soon enter a decade that will be decisive for both current and future generations and for all life on this planet. It is the world’s responsibility and within its power to make it a decade of action and delivery for sustainable development.”

This will require both a clear accountability to them – not just us and ‘our’ projects. This will require us seeing such projects as our continued responsibility to sustain, namely, to design them collaboratively enough, led by local partners ranging from governments and private sector to communities, with the means to sustain what they value. As we return to evaluate sustainability less than 1% of the time, learning opportunities have been scarce to improve current and future projects.

USAID has talked about long-term transparent and accountable investments in “local solutions” partners. Has it worked? Not yet. While President Obama and former United States Agency for International Development (USAID) Administrator Raj Shah promised up to 30% of all contracts would go to ‘local solutions’ that “promote sustainable development through high-impact partnerships and local solutions”, little of that was met, given bureaucracy and the need for fast success, rather than investing more in long-term capacity development of partners. While there seem to be good examples such as HaitiAfghanistan is a poorer example. While most international non-profits implement projects through local sub-contractors, certainly building their capacity to manage and account for foreign taxpayer dollars spent, like this MSI in Lebanon example, is important. But if we extend the measure of ‘success’ beyond our project implementation, then policies and programming needs to change to sustain capacity and implementation post-exit (INTRAC report). Too often we still exit when funds are spent. USAID’s new Journey to Self-Reliance does promise to listen, to “ support partners to become self-reliant and capable of leading their own development journeys.“

It requires listening to those whom our aid, aids. Time to Listen talks movingly of a desire for collaboration during design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation. It requires we take the time to listen, have an openness to learn from our partners and participants about what they could – and could not- sustain and why. We need to do so before, during and well-after projects close, learn quickly and do better and be collectively accountable for longer. It requires seeing such people as real experts, not abstractions. How? Listening to those living with hunger and climate change is vital. While we read about Amazonian fires threatening over 2 million acres of rainforest, contextualizing statistics with stories that illustrate that those whose Development Goals donors are ‘sustaining’ know best what works there.  In this case, understanding the range of why the Amazon rainforest reserves are endangered is important for design, so that better approaches to achieving SDGs become a driving force to change all our lives. We need to be  accountable to them.

Let me know your thoughts on bringing the SDGs to our work and lives…