Scientific evidence on the political impact of the Sustainable Development Goals

In 2015, the United Nations agreed on 17 Sustainable Development Goals as the central normative framework for sustainable development worldwide. The effectiveness of governing by such broad global goals, however, remains uncertain, and we lack comprehensive meta-studies that assess the political impact of the goals across countries and globally. We present here condensed evidence from an analysis of over 3,000 scientific studies on the Sustainable Development Goals published between 2016 and April 2021. Our findings suggests that the goals have had some political impact on institutions and policies, from local to global governance. This impact has been largely discursive, affecting the way actors understand and communicate about sustainable development. More profound normative and institutional impact, from legislative action to changing resource allocation, remains rare. We conclude that the scientific evidence suggests only limited transformative political impact of the Sustainable Development Goals thus far.

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  1. shinichi Post author

    Scientific evidence on the political impact of the Sustainable Development Goals

    In 2015, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development to guide public policies and inspire societal actors to promote sustainable development worldwide. The core of this programme is 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) with 169 specific targets, most of them to be achieved by 2030. Although the SDGs are not the first effort to set global goals (and they have been criticized earlier on, for example, ref. 1), they are still by far the most comprehensive and detailed attempt by the United Nations to advance sustainable development. After six years of implementation, the question arises whether these 17 SDGs have had any political impact within national and global governance to address pressing challenges such as poverty eradication, social justice and environmental protection.

    In this Article, we offer the results of a meta-analysis of the available scientific evidence about the political impact of the SDGs since 2015. The assessment covers over 3,000 studies, analysed by a team of 61 scholars. Most studies assessed are peer-reviewed academic research papers, along with a few studies from the ‘grey literature’ that were consulted when the scientific literature was scarce, such as policy studies from think tanks, research institutes and non-governmental organizations. The majority of studies assessed in depth were empirical policy analyses by experts in political science and related fields of study, including analyses of the political impact of the SDGs over time; single or comparative case studies of individual SDGs or of specific countries; systematic assessments of expert opinions, for example, through broader surveys or series of systematic interviews; and a few quantitative datasets that assess the political impact of the SDGs.

    Drawing on earlier research programmes on international institutions, we searched for three types of effects: discursive, normative and institutional changes. Discursive effects we define as changes in global and national debates that make them more aligned with the SDGs, for example, through explicit references to goals, targets or the general provisions of the 2030 Agenda. We define normative effects as adjustments in legislative and regulatory frameworks and policies in line with, and because of, the SDGs. Institutional effects we define as evidence for the creation of new departments, committees, offices or programmes linked to the achievement of the SDGs or the realignment of existing institutions. The presence of all three types of effects throughout a political system we define as transformative impact, which is the eventual goal of the 2030 Agenda.

    The assessment has been organized around five dimensions, which we derived from the core ambitions expressed in the overarching United Nations document, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development: the political impact of the SDGs on (1) global governance, (2) domestic political systems, (3) the integration and coherence of institutions and policies, (4) the inclusiveness of governance from local to global levels and (5) the protection of ecological integrity.

    We find that the SDGs thus far have had mainly discursive effects but also have led to some isolated normative and institutional reforms. However, effects are often diffuse, and there is little evidence that goal-setting at the global level leads directly to political impacts in national or local politics. Overall, our assessment indicates that although there are some limited effects of the SDGs, they are not yet a transformative force in and of themselves.


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