So three years in, what do we know about the impact of the SDGs?

Next Tuesday I have to give a talk on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and I need your help. As you may recall, I was a massive SDG sceptic in the run up to their creation in 2015 (here’s a summary of previous rants, with links). Now I want to see if my scepticism needs to be moderated/abandoned.

My main concern back then was that the SDGs were never designed to influence government behaviour. For example, there was almost no research on what aspects of international agreements (e.g. UN & ILO Conventions) get traction on national governments, and there was hardly any serious research on the impact of the MDGs – people basically said ‘ooh look, poverty has halved, the MDGs are a success’. Causation v correlation anyone?

In the absence of evidence or discussion on how to design for national impact, the SDGs were drawn up as a laundry list for lobby groups, and a happy hunting ground for the data geeks that drove the creation of the MDGs, but what practical difference were they likely to make?

But now I hear lots of stories of the SDGs being picked up by CSOs, governments, companies and others – is it hype or are they actually leading to those players doing something they would not have done otherwise?

So I appealed for things to read via twitter, and here’s what I found – please add ideas and references.

The most useful thing I’ve read was ‘The SDGs in middle-income countries: Setting or serving domestic development agendas? Evidence from Ecuador’, by Philipp Horn and Jean Grugel, a paper in the World Development journal. Based on a load of interviews with government and other players in Ecuador, they found:

‘The SDGs are not determining what Ecuadorian development means. They are, rather, legitimising development goals and policies that have already been decided on.’ Ecuador has picked two SDGs (10.2 on reducing group inequalities and 11 on inclusive cities), and sees the SDGs both as a way to validate its own priorities, and to tell the rest of the world about its work on these areas (particularly interesting on disabilities – the president is a wheelchair user, and the country has done some impressive work in the area).

‘Poverty halved, so the MDGs were a success’

National and City governments have both picked up the SDGs and used them to highlight different approaches to development. Quito city government has challenged that national administration by using a more private sector-friendly approach to urban development, and saying ‘why are you only talking about disability on inequality – what about indigenous people?’ (The government had big fights with Ecuador’s indigenous movements, so chose to focus on disability under the inequality SDG).

More broadly, they conclude that the impact of SDGs is more on norms and debates, a ‘looser script’ than the MDGs.

Elsewhere Shannon Kindornay, Javier Surasky and Nathalie Risse read through 42 country ‘voluntary national reviews’ of their progress on the SDGs, two years in, along with relevant civil society reports (some people have all the fun….). Among other things, their report found that most reporting countries had in some way incorporated the SDGs into national development plans, had set up some kind of institutional oversight (eg committees headed by a cabinet member) and selectively reported on the SDGs they cared about.

Other snippets: Somaliland, which is not even a signatory, has integrated them in its new development plan. Then there’s the impact in the Global North – the SDGs are explicitly universal. Accordoing to the Brookings Institution.

‘In recent weeks, New York City declared it will be the first major city to report directly to the United Nations on its progress toward the relevant economic, social, and environment targets for 2030. This came shortly after an array of Canadian federal ministers emphasized the goals’ importance both domestically and internationally. Meanwhile, in the big leagues of business, many of the world’s foremost institutional investors have indicated (e.g., herehere, and here) they are considering integrating the SDGs into their investment processes. Even Kanye West, the celebrity artist, posted the 17 goals for his 28 million Twitter followers, to many people’s surprise.’

What do I take from all this? Maybe I was too harsh – the SDGs are showing signs of having a drip drip influence that is dispersed and hard to pin down. Lots of spin and lip service, but some impact, albeit softer, more pervasive and harder to measure than ‘have you halved X?’ The SDGs seem to fit a diverse, multipolar world where development priorities are quite rightly decided at a local level, not imposed from outside, and being being subsumed into national politics in different ways in different places.

But that still doesn’t answer the question of why we should devote so much time and attention to the SDGs, when other international instruments are more binding (ILO and UN Conventions). I have still have seen nothing that compares the SDGs against all these other agreements in terms of their impact on decision makers.

Over to you.

Update: thanks everyone. Thanks to you, the talk went fine – most thought provoking discussion was on the tension between local adaptation and universal rights. I like the fact that countries can pick and choose between SDGs to make them relevant to local context, but I also believe that rights are universal. Tricky that. Anyway, here’s my powerpoint (I’m afraid it wasn’t recorded): DG SDGs + 3 TEESNET September 2018

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19 Responses to “So three years in, what do we know about the impact of the SDGs?”
  1. Dear Duncan,

    Good that you are still positive critical! As you know, we, FairWater International are very much involved in the PRACICAL appliction of the SDGs in rural water supply in Africa for the last 10 years.

    A good example is the project that you supported in Turkana, Northern Keny with Oxfam, by changing many of the poorly functioning handpumps by durable BluePumps. The main impact improvement was that now, the repairs are less frequent, so the Diocese that has a regional repair team (BlueZone Approach) spent less and the pumps can be maintained at less than 50US$ per year on average.

    So the good news is, the BlueZone approach works great.

    The “sad” news is, that this approach, with durable BluePumps, is very difficult to scale up because most donors, especially NGOs, are still reluctant to pay more for a more durable (= cheaper to maintain) SDG BluePump, although that they acknowledge that BluePumps are better.

    The main issue here is, that in rural water supply:

    1) There is still no incentive for the local governments to invest in quality that last long.
    2) Governments still are reluctant to impose and facilitate a regional repair approach

    So there are still too many products on the market that are not “SDG-Approved”, because so many vested interests, but who cares?

    It is about time that results must count, and not only the “effort” is appreciated.

    Let the people of Turkana speak to the world! They know what is best for them because they have seen the difference a BluePump makes.

    People (NGOs) always speak about PROBLEMS, because that is raising more money, but let the local population speak more about SOLUTIONS that they like, instead of the imposed technology of the mainstream NGOs that is not working in the end.

  2. David Harold Chester

    Duncan, the following essay explains how our situation of poverty is being generated and what should be done to eliminate it. If you are honestly seeking the cause for it and means for eliminating poverty (and certain related other economic ills), then please take this explanation seriously. This essay is titled:

    “Socially Just Taxation and Its Effects (17 listed)”

    Our present complicated system for taxation is unfair and has many faults. The biggest problem is to arrange it on a socially just basis. Many companies employ their workers in various ways and pay them diversely. Since these companies are registered in different countries for a number of categories, the determination the criterion for a just tax system becomes impossible, particularly if based on a fair measure of human work-activity. So why try when there is a better means available, which is really a true and socially just method?

    Adam Smith (“Wealth of Nations”, 1776) says that land is one of the 3 factors of production (the other 2 being labor and durable capital goods). The usefulness of land is in the price that tenants pay as rent, for access rights to the particular site in question. Land is often considered as being a form of capital, since it is traded similarly to other durable capital goods items. However it is not actually man-made, so rightly it does not fall within this category. The land was originally a gift of nature (if not of God) for which all people should be free to share in its use. But its site-value greatly depends on location and is related to the community density in that region, as well as the natural resources such as rivers, minerals, animals or plants of specific use or beauty, when or after it is possible to reach them. Consequently, most of the land value is created by man within his society and therefore its advantage should logically and ethically be returned to the community for its general use, as explained by Martin Adams (in “LAND”, 2015).

    However, due to our existing laws, land is owned and formally registered and its value is traded, even though it can’t be moved to another place, like other kinds of capital goods. This right of ownership gives the landlord a big advantage over the rest of the community because he determines how it may be used, or if it is to be held out of use, until the city grows and the site becomes more valuable. Thus speculation in land values is encouraged by the law, in treating a site of land as personal or private property—as if it were an item of capital goods, although it is not (see Mason Gaffney and Fred Harrison: “The Corruption of Economics”, 2005).

    Regarding taxation and local community spending, the municipal taxes we pay are partly used for improving the infrastructure. This means that the land becomes more useful and valuable without the landlord doing anything—he/she will always benefit from our present tax regime. This also applies when the status of unused land is upgraded and it becomes fit for community development. Then when this news is leaked, after landlords and banks corruptly pay for this information, speculation in land values is rife. There are many advantages if the land values were taxed instead of the many different kinds of production-based activities such as earnings, purchases, capital gains, home and foreign company investments, etc., (with all their regulations, complications and loop-holes). The only people due to lose from this are those who exploit the growing values of the land over the past years, when “mere” land ownership confers a financial benefit, without the owner doing a scrap of work. Consequently, for a truly socially just kind of taxation to apply there can only be one method–Land-Value Taxation.

    Consider how land becomes valuable. New settlers in a region begin to specialize and this improves their efficiency in producing specific goods. The central land is the most valuable due to easy availability and least transport needed. This distribution in land values is created by the community, after an initial difficult start and not by the natural resources. As the village and city expand, speculators in land values will deliberately hold potentially useful sites out of use, until planning and development have permitted their site-values to grow. Meanwhile there is fierce competition for access to the most suitable sites for housing, agriculture and manufacturing industries. The limited availability of useful land means that the high rents paid being by tenants make their residences more costly and the provision of goods and services more expensive. It also creates unemployment, causing wages to be lowered by the monopolists, who control the big producing organizations, and whose land was previously obtained when it was cheap. Consequently this basic structure of our current macroeconomics system, works to limit opportunity and to create poverty, see above reference.

    The most basic cause of our continuing poverty is the lack of properly paid work and the reason for this is the lack of opportunity of access rights to the land on which the work must be done. The useful land is monopolized by a landlord who either holds it out of use (for speculation in its rising value), or charges the tenant heavily for its access. In the case when the landlord is also the producer, he/she has a monopolistic control of the land and of the produce too, and can charge more for this right than what an entrepreneur, who seeks greater opportunity, normally would be able to afford.

    A wise and sensible government would recognize that this problem derives from lack of opportunity to work and earn. It can be solved by the use of a tax system which encourages the proper use of land and which stops penalizing everything and everybody else. Such a tax system was proposed almost 140 years ago by Henry George, a (North) American economist, but somehow most macro-economists seem never to have heard of him, in common with a whole lot of other experts. (I would guess that they don’t want to know, which is worse!) In “Progress and Poverty” 1879, Henry George proposed a single tax on land values without other kinds of tax on produce, services, capital gains, etc. This regime of land value tax (LVT) has 17 features which benefit almost everyone in the economy, except for landlords and banks, who/which do nothing productive and wrongly find that land dominance has its own reward.

    17 Aspects of LVT Affecting Government, Land Owners, Communities and Ethics

    Four Aspects for Government:

    1. LVT, adds to the national income as do all other taxation systems, but it can and should replace them.
    2. The cost of collecting the LVT is less than for all of the production-related taxes—then tax avoidance becomes impossible because the sites being taxed are visible to all.
    3. Consumers pay less for their purchases due to lower production costs (see below). This creates greater satisfaction with the government’s management of national affairs.
    4. The national economy stabilizes—it no longer experiences the 18 year business boom/bust cycle, due to periodic speculation in land values (see below).

    Six Aspects Affecting Land Owners:
    5. LVT is progressive–owners of the most potentially productive sites pay the most tax.
    6. The land owner pays his LVT regardless of how his site is used. When fully developed, a large proportion of the ground-rent from tenants becomes the LVT, with the result that land has less sales-value but a significant “rental”-value (even when it is not being used).
    7. LVT stops the speculation in land prices and any withholding of land from proper use is not worthwhile.
    8. The introduction of LVT initially reduces the sales price of sites, (even though their rental value can still grow over long-term use). As more sites become available, the competition for them becomes less fierce so entrepreneurs are more active.
    9. With LVT, land owners are unable to pass the tax on to their tenants as rent hikes, due to the reduced competition for access to the additional sites that come into use.
    10. With LVT, land prices will initially drop. Speculators in land values will want to foreclose on their mortgages and withdraw their money for reinvestment. Therefore LVT should be introduced gradually, to allow these speculators sufficient time to transfer their money to company-shares etc., and simultaneously to meet the increased demand for produce (see below).

    Three Aspects Regarding Communities:
    11. With LVT, there is an incentive to use land for production or residence, rather than it being unused.
    12. With LVT, greater working opportunities exist due to cheaper land and a greater number of available sites. Consumer goods become cheaper too, because entrepreneurs have less difficulty in starting-up their businesses and because they pay less ground-rent–demand grows, unemployment decreases.
    13. Investment money is withdrawn from land and placed in durable capital goods. This means more advances in technology and cheaper goods too.

    Four Aspects About Ethics:
    14. The collection of taxes from productive effort and commerce is socially unjust. LVT replaces this extortion by gathering the surplus rental income, which comes without any exertion from the land owner or by the banks–LVT is a natural system of national income-gathering.
    15. Bribery and corruption on information about land cease. Before, this was due to the leaking of news of municipal plans for housing and industrial development, causing shock-waves in local land prices (and municipal workers’ and lawyers’ bank balances).
    16. The improved and proper use of the more central land reduces the environmental damage due to a) unused sites being dumping-grounds, and b) the smaller amount of fossil-fuel use, when traveling between home and workplace.
    17. Because the LVT eliminates the advantage that landlords currently hold over our society, LVT provides a greater equality of opportunity to earn a living. Entrepreneurs can operate in a natural way– to provide more jobs. Then earnings will correspond to the value that the labor puts into the product or service. Consequently, after LVT has been properly introduced it will eliminate poverty and improve business ethics.

  3. Duncan, I haven’t been involved in much work on the SDG’s though many ‘lobby group’ initiatives I am involved in are trying to use them as the basis for their thinking. For me the most important thing of all is this concept of articulating and legitimising a strong and powerful vision. Obviously all the practical issues you talk about need to happen too, but in my world which is trying to focus technology innovation on public good at least they give us a starting point for debate. Before that, who’s vision, what goals could tech be pointed at, ‘public good’ such a rubbish and woolly concept.

    So in summary, whilst you are totally right I am sure about the hard edge of them, don’t underestimate the power of their narrative and not just in development terms. This was a huge gap, a problem and held back so many in their aspirations simply because of a lack of a common goal and compelling narrative to take to those who needed to change.

    • I started being as active volunteer to promote the 17 SDGs in my home town. Thanks to UNESCO Hong Kong that gave me a platform to do it in order to raise the awareness for Yeung people here. I invited academic and experts to write articles and published online at published a collection of those articles in a book called “Ideas and Act”, organised a debate on the 17 Goals at , created an free online English tutorial site at during weekends.
      More and more volunteers are joining me to help.
      We can do anything big, but we are gather together to follow this road map to move forward.

  4. Duncan Green, there are so many responses possible at so many levels!!! Here is a brief comment. I do think, possibly because I shared it also, that your scepticism was/is justified. The Ecuador example, and the others, show clearly that governments are picking and choosing, whether to legitimise or to show and tell their commitment to the SDGs in a limited way. Picking and choosing goes against the aspiration of the SDGs to be an integrated framework. The typical siloes in which governments are organised makes such integration hard to achieve, even if there was political will.
    Very happy too that you brought out the issues of ILO and UN Conventions – which are important because they provide a framework for holding governments accountable, and which the hype around the SDGs could undermine. The SDGs do not have such an accountability framework – and the HLPF provides little or no feedback, in the way for instance that reviews of states by the CEDAW or ICESCR Committees do. And they largely exclude civil society participation – allowing governments to pat themselves on the back for their achievements without any scrutiny or alternate viewpoint. In an ideal world of democratic governance the SDGs could ” fit a diverse, multipolar world where development priorities are quite rightly decided at a local level, not imposed from outside, and being subsumed into national politics in different ways in different places” but they also provide a framework for states to sidestep from their obligations under international law. You are right though in pointing out there is a lot of time and attention being paid to the SDGs. At the International Women’s Rights Action Watch Asia Pacific (IWRAW Asia Pacific) where I work, my colleagues are engaging with women’s rights groups to use the hype to leverage state obligations under the UN Conventions. We are using the very interesting tool ( that has been initiated by the Danish Institute of Human Rights to bridge the gap between the UN Conventions and the SDGs – and this year, the women’s groups from Palestine used this tool to make a report on Palestine’s progress against the SDGs to both the CEDAW Review of the State of Palestine and to the HLPF. It allowed the CEDAW Committee direct some incisive comments in their constructive dialogue with the state. You can see this report at You may also be interested to hear my colleague Sachini Perera discuss whether the HLPF has been successful in achieving its mandate – see

  5. Elham Seyedsayamdost

    Hi Duncan,
    Nice to see you are following up and asking similar questions that I have been trying to answer in a paper that is currently under review. My essay looks at the macro level and tries to understand how the SDGs might have triggered a different or similar response as the MDGs. I will share with you separately some of the results but would like to highlight three points: First, it seems that the high-income and middle-income countries have been really quite responsive this time around, at least as far as the preparation of the Voluntary National Reviews is concerned. Second, there is a lot of pick and choosing going on, but then again what should one expect with a list of 17 goals and 169 targets – it’s difficult not to prioritize. Third, the private sector has been really engaged this time around, as a variety of reports indicate, including by the Business and Sustainable Development Commission, Bertelsmann Stiftung, among others. What the actual impact at the local level is may not be as clear at this point, but I admit to not having looked into this more closely.
    Thanks for keeping these discussions going.

  6. I’ve followed the growing SDGs movement for past two years, mostly on Twitter, and think that in a relatively short time there has been a growing awareness. Their efforts to engage youth in schools across the world has long-term potential.

    What I really like is that the graphics used to visualize the 17 goals show that most problems are complex, with many on-going solutions needed. While I understand the need to prioritize, my hope is that over time communities will develop strategies that try to address a growing percent of the 17 issues, as one huge tent, with many leaders and actors.

    I also hope that other elements will be added, such as addressing what governments do, or don’t do, how corruption and politics affects what happens in different places, and other issues that may not yet be included in the official SDGs sites.

    Thanks for your analysis and the contributions of other who have left comments.

  7. Duncan Campbell

    Greetings Duncan,

    Thank you for your well-articulated and, as always, humbly flexible skepticism of the SDGs. Hear, hear!

    For what it’s worth, here’s what I think about them:

    1. The stated purpose of the SDGs suffers from the usual delusion of development people (and governments … and most other human beings); we think we matter too much and we take ourselves far too seriously. We just don’t matter enough to be able to achieve the stated goals of the SDGs. It’s pretty much a case of, “Get over yourself!”

    2. As a result of the delusions of grandeur, the SDGs are useless for accomplishing their stated purposes, such as dramatically reducing poverty and “leaving no one behind”. For one thing – perhaps the worst thing – there are WAAAAAAY too many of them, and way too many subdivisions. I counted more than 100 SDGs one day when I looked at all of the sub and sub and sub divisions that you find in the run-on text when you scratch beneath the surface of the colourful, pretty, and very appealing “Graphic of 17”. The list is far too long and complex to be of any use “in its entirety”; not even for the immense governments of the world’s largest countries or the bloated bureaucracies of the WB or the UN.

    However, I think the evidence shows the SDGs are very useful as a reference for “the things that are genuinely important” for human development. As the research in your post shows, lots of governments and other organisations are picking the bits that make sense to them, and using them effectively. This has, it seems, brought about an increase in coherence, uniformity and relevance for a lot of the development efforts across the globe. For me, that’s a laudable and applaudable outcome.

    2. I think the SDGs are mis-named. They should be called the “Strategic Development Directions and Indicators”. The SDGs are mostly useful as road signs; the graphic actually looks like something out of a driver training manual! 🙂 And the indicators are a beautiful list of really good, sensible, SMART indicators! I think the Global Indicator Framework (hilariously giving the acronym ‘gif’ … is the very, very best part of the SDGs. ( A lot of development efforts (probably the majority) continue to be handicapped by inadequate M&E (I defy anyone to present me with evidence to refute this claim, as I desperately wish I were wrong!), and the GIF can go a long way towards helping people to find good indicators.

    So, the SDGs are a useful contribution, but that’s all. And as long as they are treated that way, and not as anything more, then it’s all good.

    The manipulations and aggression of the wealthy in and through banks, the media, stock markets, tax evasion, corrupting governments, financing wars, laws that protect speculators, etc, etc, are the root and real cause of poverty and suffering in the world, and the SDGs don’t and can’t do anything about that. But that’s a topic for another blog … er, rant. 🙂

    Oh how I wish I could be there to hear your talk! Will you be publishing it on YouTube so we can all watch it after the fact?

    (Another) Duncan

  8. Udaya Kumar Mallik

    Dear sir,
    The logo u have used of SDGs is old one. 10th goal symbol is old one here.
    Sorry to say.
    And your presentation of writing is very good.
    Me from Nepal ,south Asia.

  9. Anjela Taneja

    Why should one focus on the SDGs? Because they form a new development regime that cuts across sectors and has spill over effects on aligned regimes- aid, trade, security apparatus etc. It lays down new norms, rules and decision making procedures and changes how development practioners “do business”. Being non-binding, they enable all countries to come on board and agree to a set of loosely defined rules of the game. However, enforcement of these rules is then weak, but the diffuse accountability has been a tradeoff while ensuring wide agreement.

    From the beginning, for those of us who engaged with the process, it was expected to determine global planning benchmarks, provide standards against which performance of nation states would be judged and serve as hubs around which norms of how development has to be done are created. There was always expected to be a bit of a lead in time (and the slow take off was frustrating), but the system is beginning to react in react in predicted ways.

    What is particularly heartening is that the discourse is going beyond measuring progress (and yes, avoiding ranking countries by performance on obscure indices) and actually beginning to move towards implementation. Just wish more of the CSO actors who were involved in the shaping of the agenda were able to walk the hard and complex journey of its implementation.

    My very own list of how one should proceed to ensure SDG (4) implementation at national (and sub-national) levels :

  10. Dear Duncan,

    Good to hear a critical assessment of the SDGs and progress as it is often very easy to get caught up in the sustainability sector and think everything is rosy.

    I work as a researcher between the University of Bristol, Bristol City Council and the Bristol Green Capital Partnership. We’re looking to embed the SDGs in the work of the City Council and while we are one of the only UK City Councils currently working on this (aside from Sheffield who have just begun) there is a lot of work happening around the Localisation of the SDGs across Europe and the world. We’ve used an assessment methodology from a pair of American academics ( to understand which SDG targets are relevant to our city and we are beginning the process of increasing awareness and activity across the city. We have a councillor who is an SDG ambassador in our Mayor’s Cabinet (; a network of nearly 50 organisations in the city who meet regularly to discuss the SDGs; a business event coming up to engage nearly 100 new businesses in the relevance of the SDGs; both universities are committed achieving the SDGs; and we are hopeful of the creation of an SDG education centre for schoolkids to interactively engage with the SDGs.

    While you’re right that the awareness and integration is a slow process, the SDGs alignment with local priorities makes them an excellent opportunity to connect the dots between our local priorities at a community level and Bristol’s global commitment to being an international city. This common language helps us share our experience and learn from other cities worldwide.

    If you’re interested in learning more about how Bristol is working on the SDGs we have a report on what has happened to date:

    Best wishes,
    Allan Macleod

  11. Richard Jolly

    Dear Duncan,
    Two points, one historical and one contemporary -Kenya and Lewes in 2018.
    Historically, people have always been somewhat skeptical about UN goals, from those of UNESCO for education and UN goals for economic growth in 1960. However, of the 50 or so goals set by the UN from 1960-2000, the majority have been “considerably achieved”, in the sense that in most countries the goals seem to have made a positive difference – some countries reaching or even exceeding the targets,most countries accelerating action towards them, and only a few totally ignoring them or moving backwards. The UN history project published our findings goal by goal in Richard Jolly et al, UN Contributions to Development Thinking and Practice (Bloomington, Indiana University Press) 2004, Table 10.8 pp 259-267
    My contemporary evidence is personal and anecdotal, none the less important for me. In January 2018, I went back to the district, now a county, where I had worked in community development 60 years ago. To my total surprise, on the day I arrived, I found the Governor chairing a meeting to set priorities among the SDGs for the county and an hour to two later, stopped along the road where a “baraza” was being held. Some 130 men and women were discussing priorities for SDG actions in their part of the county.
    A few days later, when I got back to Lewes, where I live in the UK, I was invited to a meeting with the mayor to discuss SDG priorities for our town (which incidentally had prepared an Local Action Environmental plan in the 1990s, following the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992.)
    Moral for all of us: don’t be globally skeptical- just start acting locally.
    (Our next meeting in Lewes is November 7th if you want to come down and join in!) .

    • Duncan Green

      That is truly impressive Richard – what do you think makes the SDGs different from other international targets, or is Lewes Council also discussing ILO conventions on the rights of migrant workers?!