The first Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) critical assessment report will be presented to the United Nations General Assembly on September 24, 2019. One of its contributors, Jean-Paul Moatti, explains the three main messages it contains and how science can contribute to sustainable development.

Science for SDGs - La science pour le développement durable
Science for SDGs - La science pour le développement durable

The High-Level Political Forum (HLPF) was mandated by the United Nations General Assembly to monitor Agenda 2030 after the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in September 2015. It appointed an independent group of scientists (IGS) to produce a critical assessment of the SDGs in the form of the quadrennial Global Sustainable Development Report (GSDR). The first edition of this report covers the 2015-2019 period and will be discussed at the United Nations General Assembly in September 2019. It is the fruit of extensive consultation with the international scientific community, but also with government stakeholders, representatives of the public and private sectors and NGOs, particularly during regional forums and regular discussions within the framework of the HLPF. However, its content has not been negotiated, i.e. it has been produced entirely by the scientists who carried out this work, operating in total autonomy.

Three of the powerful messages that emerge from the report and its calls for action in the short, medium (horizon 2030) and long (beyond 2030) terms are particularly pertinent for targeting the provision of development aid and are worthy of emphasis here.


SDGs assessment : a message of alarm and urgency

A limited number of the 169 targets associated with the 17 SDGs are on track to be achieved by 2030: reducing child mortality, access to primary education – including for girls, and reducing extreme poverty. Between 2010 and 2017, one billion people emerged from extreme poverty by exceeding the threshold of $1.9 per day, but despite these potential successes, there is little call for optimism. Firstly, because these forecasts are obtained by linear extrapolation of the current trend to 2030, which is a questionable projection. Secondly, because these indicators reflect global averages and mask large disparities. For example, more than half of all extreme poverty is concentrated in five countries in sub-Saharan Africa and Southern Asia. The billion people who have emerged from extreme poverty now live on between $2 and $3 a day and remain vulnerable to economic and environmental crises or conflict situations. Finally, because the scientific literature and empirical data, such as those from the international comparisons recently conducted under the aegis of ATD-Quart Monde, highlight the limitations of the reference indicators. Defining extreme poverty by a simple monetary threshold completely ignores its multidimensional nature, and the perceptions of poor people themselves.

Not only is the achievement of the overwhelming majority of the targets not progressing quickly enough to ensure the success of Agenda 2030, the trend for several goals is clearly downwards. In some cases, the SDGs have failed to reverse the current negative dynamics, and in others, the economic recovery after the 2008 global crisis has been accompanied by a resurgence of damage to the global environment. The decline is corroborated by goals relating to greenhouse gas emissions, the ecological footprint of our production methods, the loss of biodiversity – which actually accelerated between 2015 and 2019 – and inequalities, which are growing at an unprecedented rate.




SDGs: arrows rather than boxes

All the SDGs are potentially contradictory and share synergies with each other. Working on a goal-by-goal basis, without considering their interactions, means taking a considerable risk that the improvement of one goal will be to the detriment of the others. For example, a recent study shows how poorly designed CO₂ emission mitigation policies could lead to an increase in the number of hungry people due to their effects on land use. Conversely, a large body of research based on experience in the field shows how the synergies between SDGs are being positively exploited. Studies in which the IRD has participated have demonstrated how marine protected areas can put a stop to overfishing and the overexploitation of marine ecosystems while safeguarding the living conditions of communities that depend on marine resources, provided that they are managed with the appropriate levels of regulation. Similarly, research conducted on the “developmental origins of health and disease” shows that massive investment in the well-being of children (from the fetus stage to adolescence), and in single-parent families in particular, is likely to have beneficial effects on the health of individuals, and even on education or productivity, throughout their lives.

Being committed to sustainable development trajectories implies identifying the priority interactions between SGDs, which must be specifically taken into account for each national, regional and local context. The report proposes six major areas in which this transformational approach can be put into practice: improvement of human well-being and capabilities, transition toward sustainable and equitable economies, transformation targeting sustainable food systems and nutrition, decarbonization of energy production and use, promotion of sustainable cities and peri-urban systems, and protection of global environmental commons. To facilitate this strategy, it proposes to make SDGs the explicit and mandatory framework for inter-ministerial and inter-sectoral budgetary decision-making procedures. Lastly, it takes up the International Development Finance Club (IDFC) proposal to establish a UN-level mechanism for the quality-labeling of sustainable financial investments. Such a mechanism would clarify and speed up the movement of financial resources, both public and private, towards sustainable development.



A paradigm shift required to improve the contribution of science and technology to sustainable development

“Sustainability science” has been a priority for the US National Academy of Sciences since 1999, for its Chinese counterpart since 2009 and, more recently, for UNESCO. This specific discipline took on greater importance at the start of the 21st century, when globalization was confronted with the problem of limited global resources. This science, which studies the interactions between the environment and societies, seeks ways to create a sustainable balance between global health and human well-being. It aims to understand the causal chain of the ecological and social phenomena being studied, at all levels. Due to its interdisciplinary nature, it also encourages scientists to work with communities and develop solutions for and with all stakeholders in the field.

The scientific production specializing in this field is constantly increasing. Nevertheless, the efforts to promote sustainability science remain insufficient and fall far short of what is required to meet the challenges ahead. The obstacles include the fact that around 60% of all research and development worldwide is now carried out by the private sector, whose interests often favor a short-term perspective. Then comes the North-South imbalance in science and technology, as well as the reluctance of part of the scientific community to engage in major societal debates.

In July 2019, a conference was held in Washington, D.C. at the initiative of the International Science Council, which brings together international Academies of Sciences. It was attended by representatives of scientific institutions, research funding agencies and development agencies. AFD, the French National Research Agency (ANR) and IRD made up the French delegation. There was a complete consensus among all stakeholders on the need to maximize the impact of investments in SDG-targeted research by strengthening strategic partnerships. We have strong grounds to hope that the ongoing reinforcement of collaborations between AFD and IRD, and more generally between development banks and research, will make an exemplary contribution to the progress of a science that effectively contributes to the profound changes required to safeguard the planet and human societies.




The opinions expressed on this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official position of their institutions or of AFD.

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