5 lessons from Latin America and the Caribbean on the 2030 Agenda

Posted On October 17, 2018

The global commitment to eradicate poverty in all its forms, reconciling economic, social and environmental goals, has resulted in a few simple truths. Photo: UNDP / Guatemala

Three years into the adoption of the 2030 Agenda, we are now ready to extract some lessons on SDG implementation. The global commitment to eradicate poverty in all its forms, reconciling economic, social and environmental goals, has resulted in a few simple truths. Fundamentally, all actions are either adaptations to existing contexts, or disruptions that transforms the very ecosystem of development.

Consider the cactus, as it adapts to a hostile environment. It thrives to the extent that it does NOT transform. It stores water in the stems, and only nourishes at night. A slight change to this configuration and the cactus "drowns" or "dries up". It is perfectly adapted to a severe context of deprivations. And yet, we cannot stop asking: which other plants could flourish if the environment changed?

The complex problems of the 2030 Agenda in Latin America and the Caribbean—the eradication of extreme poverty, the reduction of emissions to achieve the 1.5 degree Celsius goal, the transformation of overcrowded cities into green and dynamic centres—all deal with the dilemma of either “improving the cactus” or “transforming the desert”.

In these first three years, we identify five challenges that emerge from this dilemma.

1. The first is moving beyond a gap-by-gap approach to development to a focus on intertwined transformations. We intuitively understand that urban renewal and multidimensional poverty reduction or energy transitions are complex development problems. An yet, the way ministries are structured tends to hinder holistic public policies that address root causes of problems and their multiple dimensions. Ministries of Health, Education, Social Development, Finance or Agriculture tend to have separate budgets with agendas that do not talk to each other.

Redefining problems from multiple perspectives is also insufficient. We need to create incentives for “intersectorality”, in the budget, in the decision-making power and in the impact of interventions. Undoubtedly, the priority is to emphasize the local, the territorial spaces and groups, and from the territorial, to rise in the political leadership towards presidential agendas.

2. The second challenge is that the lack of data sometimes leads to inaction. Innovation is key to reaching excluded groups and places if we are to succeed in leaving no one behind. Today mobile technologies enable what 10 years ago seemed like a dream. Today, governments build massive household registries that continuously measure the impact of public policy interventions towards the SDGs. This is a great achievement, considering that a decade ago most countries had only a census and intermittent demographic and household surveys. Today, Honduras, for example, can track four million people using mobile technology, geo-referencing needs and linking these to dozens of government interventions. This is a quantum leap in its capacity to reduce multidimensional poverty. Technology has also enabled a detailed mapping of child malnutrition and is helping tailor more effective public policies targeted to leaving no one behind.

3. Leaving no one behind means building a favorable environment for the most vulnerable groups and places —and not simply filling gaps. UNDP works with governments at the local level, mapping hotspots that identify the highest rates of maternal mortality, child malnutrition, multidimensional poverty and dozens of other social, economic and environmental indicators. This helps create composite hotspot maps for the SDGs, where hard exclusions by gender, ethnicity, race, migrant status continue to keep groups excluded. It also allows redefining places where policy interventions can help level the floor, empower and recognize the rights of traditionally excluded peoples.

4. Do we finance the usual winners or do we generate new parameters to redefine what it means “to win”? The region is going through a fragile economic and political moment. The International Monetary Fund cut its growth forecast for 2018 (from 2.0 to 1.6%) just above the rate of population growth. The electoral cycle is at a peak, with six presidential elections this year and five next year. To top it off, the impact of hurricanes and other natural disasters continue to take a toll on these countries, and the hurricane season is still ongoing.

There is less fiscal space today than 10 years ago in the region. At a time when public finances are contracting, an important space opens up for the private sector, so-called B corporations, which balance purpose and profit, triple impact investments, development impact bonds and new instruments oriented toward emerging sectors of the economy.

5. Finally there is the "who cares politically about this agenda" problem. We live under the tyranny of short-term political cycles, normally lasting a 4 or 5 years. Thinking beyond government policies towards long-lasting policies, 15 years or more, is usually perceived as utopic. And yet, in all of the countries of the region there is a concern for the causes and not only the effects of short-term crises. This broadens the spectrum of appropriation of the Agenda, while raising the ambition of the SDGs to assist countries to transform their horizon of what is possible, creating “oases in deserts”.

The great challenge presented by the 2030 Agenda for the countries is to re-think (and re-design) traditional development models and generate the instruments to change the environments of the most vulnerable actors. Only by generating structural transformations can they boost gains in the economic, social and environmental realms, leaving no one behind.