Jump-starting the SDGs in the UAE: Lessons from Early Adopters

Adam Fishman
Project Coordinator, Post-2015 Development Agenda
World Resources Institute

At the UN Summit this past September, the largest-ever gathering of world leaders adopted the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a bold new roadmap to tackle climate change and extreme poverty by 2030. The global community now faces the real work of translating vision into action. Fortunately, early actions by some countries already align with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and help point the way forward.

During an event alongside the Summit organized by WRI and the governments of Colombia and Switzerland, four key points emerged as vital to accelerating SDG uptake at the national level, all of which can be applied to the UAE and other Arab League member states:

1. Evaluate and align strategies

Governments need to review how their own national priorities and plans mesh with the global goals and targets, then identify synergies and any critical gaps, and assess where adjustments are needed and at what level of ambition. Colombia has already broken down the 169 targets included in the SDGs to identify where national policies line up, where changes to existing institutions might be needed and where the international system can be of help.

Engaging the private sector, civil society groups and political leaders is essential, and governments may need to set intermediary targets within political cycles to achieve the broadest possible support. In the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the Abu Dhabi Economic Vision 2030 appears to pair nicely with the SDGs, given analogous priorities and a matching timeframe for implementation.

2. Make policies more coherent

When translating the SDG framework to national levels, domestic policies’ impacts – both in-country and abroad – are crucial. Sweden already puts 1.1 percent gross national income (GNI) towards Official Development Assistance (ODA), but has gone even further: a 2003 resolution on ‘Policy for Global Development’ mandates yearly reports to Parliament describing progress towards coherent policies. Moving forward on the 2030 Agenda, each Swedish government ministry must formulate an action plan to implement the SDGs, using policy coherence for sustainable development (PCSD) as an instrument. The UAE’s 435 percent increase in ODA from 2012 to 2013 – largely to neighbors in North Africa and the Middle East – is essential to sustainable development outcomes in recipient countries. While development aid will remain critical, it is equally important to ensure that policies don’t undermine aid objectives, nor stifle domestic progress.

Creating the right enabling environment for private sector investment is key. Robust public policies are needed to drive these investments towards sustainable, equitable and inclusive growth. The Abu Dhabi Economic Vision recognizes the Emirate’s high number of low-income foreign workers that cannot afford to bring their families to the UAE, which has impacted on age and gender balances. Mitigating this trend and assuring decent work opportunities for all will be key to achieving progress on multiple Goals.

3. Integrate economic, social and environmental decision-making

To put the SDGs into practice, countries need to go beyond business-as-usual strategies. A traditional view of development may be compared to a cappuccino, with espresso as the economic layer, a layer of milk as the social layer, and a sprinkle of chocolate on top as the environmental layer. But by viewing economic growth as the base, we risk losing the transformation because one can still remove the layers and be left with a drinkable beverage. Instead, think of the SDGs as a cake where the primary ingredients are baked together. Remove one of them from the recipe and lose dessert!

The Emerging Gabon Strategic Plan, integrates environment and development. By making decisions using a set of objective sustainable development criteria, Gabon can simultaneously export pharmaceutical resources and encourage tourism, diversifying the country’s economy to benefit all citizens while maintaining its high forest cover and low deforestation rate. Similarly, the Abu Dhabi Economic Vision aims to boost non-oil revenues, increase access to capital and the proportion of GDP from small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and reduce economic vulnerability. However, recalling the first lesson on aligning strategies, a modified, integrated plan closer to the UAE Vision 2021 may yield a better fit with the SDGs by putting sustainability at the core of social and economic development.

4. Retain the SDGs’ core principles of inclusion and universality

The SDGs are built on the concept of shared destiny – the notion that all countries can contribute to and receive help in a complex and interconnected world. As Switzerland noted during the Summit side event, the 2030 Agenda’s universal nature requires countries to face common challenges together. Because the SDG framework demands action by all and moves us beyond the traditional developed-developing world dichotomy, promoting ownership by and convening a diverse range of stakeholders will be crucial to achieving ‘shared prosperity.’ Appropriately, the UAE Vision 2021 is built on a country united in responsibility, destiny, knowledge and prosperity.

Governments need enough policy space to tweak the SDGs to fit national contexts; cooperation by disparate agencies on intersecting goals and targets is key. A whole of government approach is needed in countries across the development spectrum, but must be complemented by bringing in local and non-state actors, including businesses. Doing so promotes education of and participation by ordinary citizens, so they too can own this agenda and take it forward, ensuring that no one is left behind.

Applying the lessons

The Abu Dhabi Economic Vision 2030 entails action across multiple departments, leading toward a whole-of-government approach. Dividing the vision into five-year programs enables manageable cycles to promote continuous implementation and monitoring of progress. Further, the Vision’s calling for assessments of resources, benchmarking, examination of regional development to ensure equitable growth, and the use of successful country examples against which goals can be evaluated are all in-line with the spirit of the SDGs. However, “ensure environmental sustainability” is but a sub-target underneath one of seven priorities, and therefore the plan may be strengthened by weaving the environmental dimension into wider economic decision-making. A more integrated approach, as seen in the UAE Vision 2021, which links the environment to health and education among other priorities, can more effectively implement dynamic sustainable development solutions.

Broad Agenda, Targeted Action

The SDGs are a triumph for multilateralism, but without leadership at the national and local level, they will remain a vision for what the world could have achieved. We know that coherent policies and planning can amplify the impact of both financial investments and development outcomes. We also know that integration helps achieve irreversible reduction of poverty whilst preserving ecosystems. As Pope Francis said before the UN Summit on SDGs opening: “Solemn commitments are not enough even if they are a necessary step towards solutions.” Using the lessons above, governments can act on their commitments.

*Disclaimer: This article updates a previous piece by the author, initially written for WRI’s Insights blog. Any opinions or views expressed are those of the author alone.

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