As the Covid-19 pandemic has tragically brought to the fore, most countries face interlinked challenges of entrenched inequalities, uneven access to public goods and insufficient support for those most exposed to shocks.
Beyond difficult immediate impacts and meeting urgent needs brought on by the crisis, an uncertain future lies ahead and for many it is potentially disastrous. Add environmental issues into the increasingly bleak picture and what should be evident is the need for all countries to adhere to a better blueprint.
This blueprint exists in the form of the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Agreed in 2015 by all UN members, the SDGs are the best agreed-upon plan that countries have for dealing with many interlinked crises we are facing. And they have a defined endpoint, ten years from now, to sharpen minds.
Almost five years on from the SDGs agreement, Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the 2020s had been called “the decade of action”. It goes without saying that this action to transform how we live and work on a healthy planet is needed more than ever.
This “decade of action” can also be understood as a decade of transition: moving from a model that’s no longer fit for purpose, to a more appropriate one which is more resilient to emerging risks, corrective of inherent market and governance failures and capable of opening up new opportunities for everyone to live well.
Alongside the current crisis, we also know that right now the natural world is undergoing an unnatural process of degradation due to modern economy engineered activities. Societies are growing more unequal, becoming more urban, and people are living longer. The impacts of globalisation mean many are left behind further, as gains are weighted to those who are able to participate over those that can’t. And infrastructure demands are straining existing capacity—from healthcare systems to energy networks, physical and institutional systems are struggling to cope with changing and increasing needs.
Given these daunting challenges that the SDGs hope to tackle, an essential part of reaching this deadline is effective measurement and audit of progress. Tracking and evaluating how governments are doing is a critical accountability mechanism.
Supreme Audit Institutions
What’s increasingly clear is that the systems, institutions and outcomes generated at present are insufficient to build the type of socially just and environmentally sustainable prosperity that’s needed now and in the future. New approaches are needed.
To tackle this, our new report Auditing the SDGs: Progress to 2030 recommends a shift in focus to ensure the interconnection of social, environmental, economic and institutional issues become a priority for policymakers.
It highlights the activities of Supreme Audit Institutions in making this happen. Their commitment to assessing the integration of the SDGs into governments’ national plans and their ongoing work to measure progress against SDG targets are key ingredients in the endeavour to transform our world so that no-one is left behind.
The SDGs demand new types of decision-making by governments that’s more connected to and co-designed with civil society than what’s come before. Auditors general and their teams are assessing how prepared governments are to take on the SDGs. They are looking at issues like how well integrated the SDGs are into national plans and the effectiveness of policy coherence, across departments and down through administrative tiers.
The SDGs also set out key issue areas for government performance. Supreme Audit Institutions are evaluating progress on specific issues and targets, many of which are deeply interconnected, in some places combining welcome synergies, and, in others, difficult trade-offs. From climate change adaptation and mitigation plans, air quality policies, gender equality and sustainable livelihoods support, Supreme Audit Institutions are assessing how well governments are doing and making constructive recommendations for improvements.
A model for collaboration
The SDGs demand increasingly collaborative effort across a range of actors. Supreme Audit Institutions’ approaches to collaborative ways of working, their global and regional approaches to knowledge sharing and their strong engagement with the 2030 agenda, can be a model for other groups looking to learn more about how to coalesce and combine efforts to take on formidable challenges.
Despite constraints of different mandates, geographic diversity and a variety of political and economic development contexts, Supreme Audit Institutions around the world continually come together through a range of fora to share knowledge, build learning and action tools and pool advocacy voice, united in the pursuit of making a difference to the lives of citizens. And as they do this, they strengthen their own institutional capacity and contribute to SDG 16.
We know that the SDGs are way off track and governments need to move further, faster. Supreme Audit Institutions have a vital role in helping to deliver this decade of action by supporting “whole of government” approaches to SDG delivery; by embracing their civil society focus that can amplify the impact and relevance of auditing progress; by building capabilities for dealing with SDG data challenges that will assist in tracking performance; and in continuing to construct a networked approach with a wide range of actors to taking on the interconnected challenges.
Jimmy Greer is head of sustainability at accountancy association ACCA.