Budgeting for Sustainable Development

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November 27, 2017

In my time at the Department of Economic and Social Affairs for the United Nations, I have helped to build understanding of how to reach the “sustainable development goals” (SDGs). This is a UN initiative adopted in 2015, containing 17 goals with 169 targets to achieve by 2030, covering a broad range of sustainable development issues including poverty and hunger elimination, health improvements, and increased access to education. The 17 SDGs make up a broad global agenda, and they need to be translated into each country’s national policy. As a budget is the most basic reflection of government plans and policies, it is essential to consider SDGs in the process of budgeting and have mechanisms to monitor and evaluate the results. This poses three challenges:

  1. There are 17 goals with 169 targets. Different countries have different problems, and thus it is hard to have one specific, clear budget and audit criterion. How can the UN support national governments in addressing different budgeting issues whilst balancing different contexts and priorities?
  2. Some developing countries advocate SDGs only because their governments want to attract more international funding. Consequently, their budget priorities are not aligned with real domestic demand, but with funders’ demand instead. How can the UN motivate developing countries in acting on their most pressing SDGs?
  3. It is difficult to track the budget devoted to SDGs within countries. For some goals this is especially true because there are many sub-targets, which can generate conditions to reach the SDG without directly addressing the core issues. Additionally, due to long budget cycles, data on actual expenditures are often delayed. Countries with several levels of government can have a vertical coherence problem, such as using different indicators to measure the same progress at different levels, and thus it is hard to have a common database or solution that can be uniformly applied across the country. How can the UN accurately track spending on SDGs under these conditions?

There are steps that can be taken to face into each of these three challenges:

  1. The UN can support national governments in building coherent policy and budget plans by using best practices and experiences of other member nations to provide guidance and standards on the quantification of the budget allocations to the SDGs. For example, the UN can organize global peer-learning meetings and workshops regarding classification, guidance for integration, and models for analysis indicators formulating and assessing a project. Mexico, for instance, has aligned SDGs into the already-established system and sought ways to integrate measurement of these SDGs with existing indicators in the monitoring system. Sharing this experience would help developing countries to build budgets, which reflect their context and priorities. Moreover, governments can have their own specific checklist of SDGs when budgeting based on their own experience.
  2. Engage all the stakeholders, including legislatures, executives, civil society, private companies, and media in the budgeting process. To build such a coalition, it is vital to advocate the importance of SDGs. While some countries’ ministries of finance are excited to integrate SDGs into budget process, it can be necessary to convince people in the country that these will impact them directly, and that they must be priorities. To accomplish this, the media must understand the relationship between budget and climate change in order to communicate the importance of spending and policies focused on these SDGs. This wider engagement can help to protect against donor-led policymaking and ensure that the sustainability is adequately prioritized.
  3. To address difficulty in data collection, it is important to have specific agencies and committees within governments dedicated to collecting data to track financial status and link input and output of the funding for the SDGs. For example, in India a working group comprising of representatives from the National Institution for Transforming India (NITI Aayog) and Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation (MoSPI) are responsible for the implementation and evaluation of the SDGs.

The United Nations faces many difficult challenges as it seeks to balance the priorities of individual nations with the collective importance of sustainable development. By using successful models to spread best budgeting practices, prioritizing public communication regarding SDGs, and dedicating groups to the collection and analysis of performance data surrounding these investments, the UN can help its member countries move toward greater sustainability. With the threat of climate change on the horizon, it is critical that countries prioritize hitting the SDG targets by 2030.

Fels Institute of Government

The Fels Institute of Government
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Philadelphia, PA 19104

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