Business as usual at the expense of our planet?

Half-time remarks on the implementation of the 2030 Agenda in Switzerland

Platform Agenda 2030

More leadership for sustainable development, please!

When the 2030 Agenda was adopted seven years ago there was talk everywhere that transposing a global reference framework into national policy would be an enormous challenge. While countries in the Global South have for decades aligned their policies with agendas set by the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund or the UN, most governments in the Global North have so far been able to determine their policies for themselves.

Yet a global frame of reference was urgently needed in view of the challenges facing the world, be they climate change, biodiversity loss, pandemic or war. The 2030 Agenda lays the foundation for a common, sustainability-centred policy followed by all UN member states.

Now almost half of the set timeframe has already passed. Switzerland’s experience clearly illustrates the great difficulty of integrating into a global target framework. Although the Federal Council adopted the 2030 Sustainable Development Strategy (2030 SDS) in the summer of 2021, it by no means translates the global SDGs into national goals. In fact, the Federal Council has watered down many of the SDGs. Even if we were to assume, optimistically, that Switzerland is implementing the 2030 SDS properly, it is no way to implement the 2030 Agenda. The latter is considerably more ambitious.

Although Switzerland shows creative drive and commitment in certain areas, the latter is visible only where no appreciable resistance is to be found.

The Federal Council otherwise limits itself to coordination mechanisms and to managing consultation processes, but our economy and society will never be transformed if the ‘goal’ is what is politically feasible in the first place.

Instead, this transformation demands strong leadership to do what is politically necessary. Achieving greater policy coherence for sustainable development does not mean finding the lowest common denominator between the federal agencies involved, but rather persuading them to adopt sustainable solutions.

At present, coordination at the institutional level between the many different federal agencies is the task of the 2030 Agenda Steering Committee, with two delegates but no significant resources or scope of action. There is also a strategy, but it is no more than a summary of existing measures and goals. This does not constitute leadership. A further factor is that other civil society actors are not genuinely involved. The present federal government 2030 Agenda Advisory Group did not actually have any meaningful input into the draft of either the 2030 SDS or the Voluntary National Review (VNR).

The Federal Council plans to revise its Sustainable Development Strategy and the accompanying action plan by 2024, and to incorporate the gaps and challenges identified in the VNR. It is vitally important that this is a participatory process that incorporates the knowledge and experience of civil society and the scientific community. It also demands the courage to develop solutions that are truly transformational. Cosmetic amendments that merely throw an SDG-hued cloak over business as usual are not enough. What we need is a real transformation to achieve the move to a sustainable society.


The challenge of the monitoring and progress report

Eva Schmassmann. In collaboration with Laura Ebneter, Alliance Sud and Mirjam Gasser, CBM Schweiz.

With its 17 SDGs, the 2030 Agenda does more than simply set targets. It also defines how these are measured, and how progress towards the SDGs is reviewed. The review is a voluntary undertaking that will, at best, reflect critically on how the Agenda has been implemented. What we have seen, however, is that given a global stage governments are more interested in shining the spotlight on the progress they have made, and consigning the real need for action to the wings.

A small number of countries, among them Norway and Finland, include the civil society perspective directly in their progress reports. Others, such as Austria, include representatives of civil society in the drafting of their reports. Participation was also encouraged in Switzerland. In the summer of 2021 the Federal Council called for a wide-ranging stocktake of progress towards the goals, inviting interested actors to contribute their analysis in what was a complex process. They were not included in the downstream work to interpret this data, however, which raises a number of questions. We expect civil society actors to be actively included in the drafting of Switzerland’s next voluntary national review.

Measuring progress in a standardised, internationally comparable and objective way has proven a major challenge. The wording of the SDGs and their targets varies considerably, as does the degree to which they set specific requirements. For certain goals it was therefore easy to determine indicators.

What it means to eliminate poverty and hunger is clearly defined, for example. But although indicators have been established for other goals, there is no recognised methodology for how they should be measured. Examples here include ‘reduce illicit financial flows’ (SDG 16.4) and ‘enhance policy coherence’ (SDG 17.14).

Switzerland has its own sustainable development monitoring system, MONET 2030. It serves the federal administration as a basis for its voluntary national review. Although the system has mapped greater international responsibility and raw materials consumption abroad in recent years, it still displays considerable gaps.

One of the fundamental problems here is that the SDGs and their targets have not been sufficiently translated into national policy. The Federal Council watered down many of the SDGs in its 2030 Sustainable Development Strategy. Instead of halving poverty in Switzerland, as SDG 1.2 demands, the Federal Council aims only to reduce it. For other SDGs the chosen indicators are unsuitable for measuring the target concerned. For example, SDG 17 sets out targets for equitable trading systems, knowledge and technology-sharing, enhanced policy coherence and development assistance to support poorer countries. What is measured, however, are Switzerland’s debt ratio, the level of development assistance, and direct investment from Switzerland in developing countries. These indicators fail to capture key aspects of SDG 17, such as whether or not trading systems are becoming fairer or policy coherence has improved. Others are no more than navel-gazing, not showing the extent to which private actors from Switzerland contribute to greater indebtedness in developing countries, or whether direct investment is supporting sustainable projects or further warming the climate. MONET 2030 needs to be reworked to provide an internationally comparable monitoring system that genuinely measures progress toward the SDGs.

The 2030 Agenda promises that nobody will be excluded from sustainable development, according to the leave no one behind principle. Yet neither Switzerland nor the international community has had a sufficient basis of data to establish who, exactly, is being left behind. Recognising this, the 2030 Agenda calls for the data to be broken down according to income, gender, age, ethnicity, migration status, disability, geographical location, and other relevant characteristics where appropriate. Disaggregating the data like this makes it easier to pinpoint which people or groups of people have so far been excluded from sustainable development and access to basic rights such as education or health. Without this data and the corresponding strategies and action plans, we risk being unable to fulfil the 2030 Agenda promise. Data for Switzerland and its international cooperation work is still insufficiently granular.

Read the report Business as usual at the expense of our planet?, PDF version is here. The press release is here.