Implementation, the make or break factor in post-2015 growth plan

Global summits of the magnitude witnessed in New York late September where the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals were adopted, and that in Addis Ababa which hosted the Financing for Development Conference in July, have their own simple logic: When done well, the enthusiasm and “can do” spirit are unmistakable, as well as the amount of goodwill generated across the board.

But we must remember that “talk is cheap, and implementation is everything.”

Obviously both the New York and Addis Ababa summits, not to mention the forthcoming COP21 in Paris where climate negotiations will take place on a global scale, and the many “emergence conferences” making their rounds in Africa, are much more than opportunities to talk.

The meetings typically take years to prepare and often lay out carefully crafted strategies to address the challenges of sustainable development in the 21st century.

In many ways, they project multilateralism at its very best. That notwithstanding, the high-level meetings also bring to the fore critical implementation challenges both on the side of aid recipients and the donor community.

There is little doubt that implementation or the “I” word will be the make or break factor of the SDGs and similar initiatives in Africa and elsewhere in the world.

Unfortunately, history shows that political theatre is often preferred to the hard and dogged business of ensuring that results are achieved, even if it requires mid-term corrections or even change of course.

There was a time in Africa, in the years after Independence, when policy rhetoric seemed to supersede substance, with a premium placed on national development plans that were renewed promptly but never implemented. Leaders claimed, with some irony, that development was too complex to be hurried, requiring sacrifice. Indeed it was stated in some political circles from the 1960s, that individual welfare had to be sacrificed for the “common good.”

Much water has flowed under the bridge since then, but the “implementation deficit” has remained a perennial affliction of Africa’s public sectors and its bureaucracies at all levels. This must concern us all in light of the heavy national, regional and global agendas that are being rolled out.

Impact on the ground

The general consensus among Africa’s technocrats and leaders is that the SDGs, with their 17 goals and 169 targets, are a vast improvement on the MDGs in a number of key areas. They have, importantly, brought development to the centre of the global actions to be taken in the next 15 years, emphasising inclusion, gender equality, sustainability and peace.

African leaders at the Summit were particularly enthused by the fact that many of the goals and their targets resonated well with the continent’s unique perils — ranging from mass poverty, deforestation and gender inequality, to state fragility and conflict.

The SDG goal number 17, sounds like a clarion call for revamping the current state of international development co-operation. Summits aside, the retrenchment of global public goods as well as that of the UN’s reach are of concern to many countries in Africa today.

However, in order to have impact on the ground, the SDGs and similar initiatives must, above all, be implemented. This is ironical as development strategies of this nature usually contain well-formulated log-frame for implementation — which remain untouched, overwhelmed by other urgent issues.

The challenge is simply the insufficient emphasis put on the process of implementation, before embracing yet another big idea. The SDG post-adoption debate, has unduly focused on the number of goals, and the even larger number of targets (some critics have suggested sarcastically that “no target was left behind”).

However, this misses the point — many African countries have drafted a new wave of national development plans, often with parallel vision projects, that have more or less the same goals and targets as the SDGs.

“Implementation” is, however, often thought of as something that will take care of itself, as a matter of course, once the goals are known and the targets set.

Confronting the deficit head on

The moral of this story, if any, is that SDGs and related interventions would have been less invasive, and may have been unnecessary, if African countries had put in place effective institutions over the past 50 years, as well as incentives to implement their own policies.

Examples from Asia suggest that countries do not develop on the back of decisions reached at global fora [although the environment they create can be useful] but rather by following their own national convictions and devising razor sharp implementation strategies.

This allows for a great deal of freedom, including making mistakes and undertaking course corrections where required. In other words, the real work on the SDGs begins after the pomp and ceremony. It must take place in the cubicles of the planning and finance ministries and, with the resoluteness of the local bureaucracies, to ensure that “things are actually done” in the villages and hamlets.

Ultimately, discussing the implementation deficit in Africa is like preaching to the converted. The deficit and its repercussions are well known.

The challenge confronting the implementation of such major initiatives as the SDGs in Africa is that the big words and noble gestures at the summit itself often translate poorly at the country level.

This is of course not surprising as similar discordance exists between centre and periphery in many countries, notably in Africa. Thus, while the SDGs could well become part of the language used by the bureaucratic worthies in individual countries, it must be matched by real capacity for implementation at the local levels.

This is important because the real value add of the SDGs is to nudge countries towards a more holistic approach to development that is supported (but not executed) by the international community, and that is realistic and can be implemented.

Local initiatives

A number of African countries have recently established or reinvigorated specialised units high up in their bureaucratic hierarchies to ensure that governments deliver on their promises, including the SDGs.

These “delivery units,” are in structure not very different- from those set up by the ministries of finance in previous years to ensure the smooth implementation of the pervasive structural adjustment programmes favoured by the international community at that time. However, this time around, the delivery units are the product of the countries’ own realisation that policies and programmes are less useful if not implemented properly, and that good results depend on well-designed implementation strategies and follow up.

Therefore, looking ahead, countries should embrace all the good that comes from global conferences, but with an eye, always, on how to improve their own frameworks, and how to implement them properly.

This is important because in spite of the media hype that surrounded the launch of the SDGs, they are in reality neither new nor radical. This is not criticisms of their contents, which are universally considered sensible and well chosen, nor the difficulties of building a consensus around them. Indeed, the surprise is that consensus was reached at all on such potentially controversial issues: Inequality, industrialisation and climate change.

In my view, the main service that the SDGs are doing for humanity is to lend the convening power of the UN and the multilateral community to the elimination of “poverty, ignorance and disease.”

African countries will be judged by their communities many of which do not even understand that there are “things” called SDGs, on what they have done to improve their welfare and that of their families.

Steve Kayizzi-Mugerwa, PhD, is a visiting Fellow at Cornell University, Ithaca in the US. Formerly, he was associate professor at Gothenburg University, Sweden, and an official at the African Development Bank, IMF, and the United Nations University.