In the last couple of years, the reassessment of the Sustainable Development Agenda has become more relevant. As the world enters a new phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, characterised by lower numbers of infections and deaths, the apparition of new variants of the virus, and considerable economic and social challenges, several issues have become more urgent. These include the adaptation capabilities and resilience that are required of societies in the face of social isolation and economic conversion policies; the realisation that mental health is as important as physical health; the wider inequalities affecting the young and women regarding poverty, lack of decent work, and the burden of childcare; the difficulties of ensuring access to technology; and the impact of these matters in our (changed) expectations on the State. These factors have emphasised that the Sustainable Development Agenda is ultimately a governance agenda, in the sense that they overcome the usual governability concerns with a focus that identifies interdependencies with non-governmental actors.
The post pandemic evaluation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) has produced a continuum of positions, ranging from the reiteration of the Goals as the blueprint and “compass” for “building forward better” , to the call for their substitution by a “post 2030 utopia”. As it is always the case with complex problems, the solution lies somewhere in the middle, developing sophisticated approaches that allow making the necessary adjustments without compromising the improvements already made.
Between two harmful extremes
The “middle approach” is typical of governance dynamics. By this I do not mean that SDGs are a good governance agenda – that is, one that focuses on voice and accountability, political stability and absence of violence, governmental effectiveness, regulatory quality, rule of law, and the control of corruption, as the World Bank Worldwide Governance Indicators propose. Rather governance in the sense that Sustainable Development requires the cooperation of governments, civil society, and private companies to deal with complex or wicked problems. In its most fundamental, governance is formed by the co-definition of shared goals and the inter-organisational and inter-sectoral processes to achieve them. It requires effective governments, but it goes beyond them, incorporating non-governmental actors that behave as stakeholders in the solution of common problems. It usually implies flexible arrangements, typically networks; but includes wider socio-political, institutional, and civic-culture frameworks that enable a common understanding of the problem, processes of co-construction of solutions, and rules of the game that maintain conflict at manageable levels.
Governance theories have been criticised for not being consolidated enough to offer effective analytical tools to actually solve problems; being one of the most important how to ensure cooperation among actors and coherence among objectives. The do-it-by-yourself definition of the national indicators for SDGs assumes, too easily, that all the actions conducted by public, social, and private actors will virtuously contribute to the solution of the problems behind the indicators. Advancement in one SDG, however, does not necessarily ensure advancement in the rest of them, despite the argument posed by the United Nations regarding “the interlinkages and integrated nature of the Sustainable Development Goals”.Governance is not only “technical”; it requires a new style of leadership that recognises the political dimension of cooperation and policy coherence. The tensions between traditional rule of law solutions (mostly hierarchical, based on the implementation of conventionality control measures), on the one hand, and the more selective approach of SDGs (mostly horizontal, based on inter-organisational cooperation), on the other, offer a good example of the political nature of governance. Generating a more or less common approach to Sustainable Development requires a combination of traditional and new solutions, in a mix that varies according to context.
Towards the post-2030 Agenda
The governance approach to Sustainable Development recognises that, in spite of the possible measures and indicators that can be reached and adjusted with time, it remains a horizon that can never be completely fulfilled. In that sense, at least in a very fundamental dimension, SDGs will remain a project of multi-level governance with different co-existing conditions and speeds. By implication, Sustainable Development as governance entails the acknowledgement of the partial usefulness of governance literature to deal with complex problems, addressing the challenges of steering, the re-definition of new priorities among the SDGs in the post-pandemic world, the assignation of funds to those new priorities, and the discussion – again – on how to adjust the right indicators to empower public, social, and private actors as the different SDGs develop in space and time.
The future of a post-pandemic 2030 Agenda might require a reclassification of priorities, the effective increase in coordination capabilities, and fostering cooperation in the lines described here. This, in turn, calls for the rethinking of the integrated nature of SDGs that assumes that the 17 Goals are equally important, in all places, all the time.