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A brief commentary on the World Bank’s new report “Trajectories for Sustainable Development Goals: Frameworks and Country Applications”

By Jessica Espey

On Tuesday, December 1, the World Bank released the first in what is likely to be a series of papers, manuals and guides on SDG implementation, at an event at the United Nations (indeed SDSN has a guide for Getting Started with the SDGs coming out on December 14, so watch this space.) The World Bank’s book–Trajectories for Sustainable Development Goals–attempts to map out the fiscal space available to countries to fulfill the SDGs, and ways to leverage these resources to accelerate progress. It correlates changes in Gross National Income (GNI) per capita with progress on a set of key SDG indicators. It then projects trends in GNI per capita to ascertain likely SDG outcomes in the future, on a business as usual scenario.

The report provides a helpful framework for ascertaining countries fiscal space, and therefore their capacity to invest in programs in support of the SDGs. Furthermore, the clear correlations between investments and outcomes may encourage some countries to dig a bit deeper in their pockets, but (as highlighted at the launch event by me and my fellow panelist) the report falls short in a few areas. First, although a clean and simple approach, directly correlating GNI per capita with social outcomes fails to take into account the impact of social and economic inequalities upon the efficacy of investments or, indeed, the impact that decisive leadership and political prioritization can have to transform outcomes. Second, the World Bank and the wider international community recognize that some countries will need to receive additional external financing in order to meet the SDGs (as agreed in the Addis Ababa Action Agenda). This in turn requires a clear assessment of needed investment levels that must not be constrained ex ante by available fiscal space. Finally, and more fundamentally, this method lacks the ambition of the SDG agenda, which aims to transform the world- to make it more just, equitable and sustainable. The SDGs were not devised by projecting forward current trends and assessing what was feasible, but instead by identifying what we MUST do and then articulate the means of implementation (including the resources, the means and the political will) to achieve it.

The SDGs are incredibly ambitious and will require both efficient, yet innovative use of fiscal resources. They require new ways of doing business, new partnerships, new types of investment and a radical shift in the way we design and implement integrated policies and programs.

Designing an implementation strategy for the SDGs has to match this level of ambition. First and foremost, the goals cannot be seen as optional, aspirational objectives that we may or may not reach. They need to be translated into defined quantifiable objectives, against which we can measure our progress and our collective trajectories. Many of the goals already have clearly defined end points, such as an U5 Mortality rate of 25 deaths per 1000 live births, while others (such as those on universal secondary school competition) need further attention. As mentioned in Guido Schmidt-Traub and my blog back in October, epistemic communities need to get to work to explain and set these quantitative outcomes and how they can be measured. Governments must use these quantitative objectives to work backwards and map out policies, investments, and interventions required to achieve the goal.

“This kind of approach [backcasting] is common in the health sector but less so in other ideas. The SDSN has helped pioneer a back-casting methodology for energy transformation through our Deep Decarbonization Pathway Project, and we are now exploring a similar approach to map out the transformations required for sustainable agriculture. Such work is needed in every goal area to support the implementation of the SDGs and ensure that are taken seriously as quantitative, time-bound goals – not just considered high-level principles or broad areas of activity.”

Once countries have these “backcasted” strategies, it is possible to conduct a thorough needs assessment to map these needs against available fiscal space (as articulated with the World Bank’s report) but also domestic and international public and private resources, and to start to devise innovative partnerships to finance and support national objectives.

A clear articulation of national objectives, needs, and a pathway to get there is what will instill confidence amongst domestic and international investors, as well as the international public finance community, and it is this that will bring about transformative change. The World Bank Report is a useful tool and a commendable piece of analysis but, in an era when global growth is flat-lining pinning our expectations on expanding fiscal space cannot be the answer, lest we start to roll backwards.


Jessica is the Associate Director of the SDSN and head of its New York office.