Getting Started with the SDGs: Emerging questions from the first 30 days of SDG implementation in Colombia

Written by Jessica Espey

On September 25, 2015, 193 Heads of State and Government agreed upon a set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), to set the world on a path towards a more inclusive, environmentally responsible society, which protects both people and planet.

The world’s religious leaders, including Pope Francishigh-profile celebrities, and the general public worldwide, have welcomed this momentous commitment.

One month on, world leaders and their governments are shifting their attention to implementation. Important questions arise such as what it means to implement the 17 ambitious SDGs? How to prioritize attention given political cycles and limited resources? And what success will look like come 2030, at their end date?

Colombia has been heralded as a poster-child for the SDGs since President Juan Manuel Santos approved a Decree (No.280) establishing the creation of an Inter-Agency Commission for the Preparation and Effective Implementation of the Post- 2015 Development Agenda and the SDGs. The Decree was passed in February 2015, long before the SDGs were formally endorsed, demonstrating Colombia’s dedication to the agenda.

Agreements made by the Commission thus far include the necessity to work across Ministries and sectors in order to achieve this integrated agenda, as demonstrated by the composition of the Inter-Agency Commission; to launch a multi-stakeholder consultative process to identify priorities and to help design the national monitoring process; to launch a process for localizing the agenda to different regions and municipalities; and to focus much of the attention on designing a comprehensive national monitoring framework.

Prioritizing the goals

As highlighted in a recent paper by CEPEI and ODI, the Commission is wrestling with a series of difficult questions however, such as how such a complex agenda, comprised of 17 goals and 169 targets, can be translated into a manageable programmatic strategy? Some within the government seem in favor of using the priorities articulated in the current national strategy (peace, education and equity) as a gateway to tackling the social, economic and environmental dimensions of the other goals. For example the national education strategy relates to SDG4, but could also support a reduction in economic and social inequalities (SDGs 5 and 10) and promote the development of strong institutions (SDG 16).

Others are in favor of a more literal plan of action, focused on a specific set of priority SDGs, though with a commitment to realize the others progressively, over time. Professor Sachs, speaking at an event hosted by CEPEI, The Bogota Chamber of Commerce and the UN SDSN, suggested that there are 8 goals of particular relevance for Colombia, for its first phase of implementation; goal 2 with a focus on sustainable agriculture; goal 4 focusing on quality secondary school education; goal 10 with a focus on income inequality; goals 7 and 13 which relate to a transformation of the national energy system to decarbonize the economy and lower GHG emissions; goal 11 in support of sustainable and inclusive cities; goal 16 and its quest to build strong institutions and a peaceful society; and goal 17 on means of implementation and partnerships, including a strong focus on effective national monitoring systems.

Identifying priority goals need not necessarily mean specific sectoral strategies. Indeed Colombia has a good track record of pursuing strategies that speak to multiple programmatic areas such as green growth and social mobility. What is clear though is that to operationalize the goals and their strategic objectives, a process must be put in place to “back-cast” strategies and plans i.e. to identify ambitious, context specific objectives for 2030 in each goal areas and to map out a strategy for achieving that goal over the next 15 years. SDSN has launched a body of work on long-term pathways or “back-casting,” including our Deep Decarbonization Pathway Project, which may prove a helpful reference. The DDPP aims to map out energy transformation pathways to reduce greenhouse gas emission in line with the 2 degree centigrade commitment.

Engaging cities and local government leaders 

Aside from the process of rationalizing and operationalizing the goals, there is also the necessity to think of implementation at multiple scales. A whopping 76% of Colombia’s population lives in urban environments, dependent on municipal public services and economic opportunities. Engagement of the countries’ municipal leaders is therefore crucial for successful implementation of the goals, not least of all SDG 11, which aims to make “cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.”

The Commission openly recognizes the necessity to start a process of designing local SDG strategies and hopes to commence this process in November 2015. Likewise UNDP and the Colombia Coalition of NGOs are also working with local government to encourage alignment with the SDGs and to spread awareness. But, with the vast majority of Colombians living in cities, local implementation is not just a local issue. Local government leaders need to be actively involved in the national dialogue on implementation, helping to identify priority concerns, to design programs and to decide upon a monitoring framework. In particular, the national Commission itself should include representation from local government leaders, elected on a rotating basis.

Opportunities for action on data and monitoring

The third operational challenge relates to the design of a robust monitoring system, so that the government and other key stakeholders can track progress and course-correct, as required. Nearly all of the key stakeholders that I met on a recent trip to Colombia (members of The SDG Commission, the Bogota municipality, private companies and civil society) highlighted the importance of an indicator framework for successful implementation. Much hangs on the conclusions of the Inter-Agency and Expert Group on SDG indicators that is currently deliberating a set of global SDG monitoring indicators, though it is clear that these will need to be tailored to the national context.

Underlying these indicators must be good data collection techniques and a strong statistical system. Although a very professional and comparatively well-resourced outfit, Colombia’s National Statistical Office – DANE- cannot do everything. Nor is total control of data collection feasible or desirable in the era of data revolution. To maximize efficiency in data collection, coverage and detail, the Colombia government must seek to encourage the development of a data ecosystem, including local government data departments, civil society (collecting citizen generated data), academia (with expertise to analyze and interpret the data), and businesses, all coordinated by DANE.

There is much discussion of a “roadmap process,” supported by the government and members of the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data (of which Colombia is a founding member), to elaborate what the new ecosystem should look like and how it can best support implementation of the new SDGs. To prevent generalities and ensure that the engagement of multi-stakeholders adds real value to the SDG monitoring process, the roadmap dialogue should be structured around the SDG indicators. Colombia’s input to the IAEG-SDG may provide a useful basis for this discussion as it will give an indication of what DANE and other government departments currently measure, what they aspire to measure but lack resources or capacity to do, and what issues require completely need methodologies and approaches, as they have not been previously measured. This could potentially be a traffic-light system, with external actors invited to discuss the amber and red indicators, for which DANE needs additional capacity. Potential opportunities for collaboration might include:

  • Private companies providing high resolution geospatial data to enable measurement of urban and ecosystem SDG targets;

  • Local government representatives, or local Chambers of Commerce, providing data on economic opportunities, business expansion and associated services (e.g. the expansion of broadband and other ICT networks);

  • Private companies and mobile phone operators providing call data records to track transport systems or to do crime reporting (as per an emerging project between DANE, Telefonica, and DataPop Alliance);

  • Civil society supporting measurement of goal 16 through citizen-generated data on justice, institutions, peace;

  • Expert groups (including universities and some civil society organizations like WWF) collecting primary data on specific indicators and feeding them into the national official statistical process. The importance here is that the third parties have a track record of statistical rigor / have an adequate sample size to be nationally relevant/are committed to monitoring the dimension over 15 years;

  • Municipalities providing local surveys to complement national surveys, thereby enabling better disaggregation of the population in select regions.

The necessity to prioritize the SDG agenda without cherry-picking only politically palatable issues, to engage local government leaders, and to design a robust and inclusive monitoring system are challenges that many countries around the world will face over the coming year. There is no one right or wrong answer, but Colombia’s process helps to shed light on possible scenarios or strategies for overcoming these challenges and to guide the way for other countries.

This briefing was informed by a series of meetings and events which took place in Colombia from October 18-22, 2015, organized by Philipp Schönrockand Priscilla Miranda at CEPEI. Summaries of the events are available on CEPEI’s website.

Originally published at on October 30, 2015.