In recent years, countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) have worked to integrate the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) into their national development plans. The COVID-19 pandemic presents an opportunity to put the SDGs at the centre of the stabilisation and recovery efforts.
The importance of the SDGs stems from the tangible benefits they provide to different economies under stress from the pandemic. For non-oil economies, the pandemic reinforces the need for resilient and renewable energy systems that can withstand trade disruptions in line with SDG 7 which promotes Affordable and Clean Energy. For economies with a substantial informal sector, SDG 1 of No Poverty affirms the need for effective supports for critical groups that contribute to a country’s socio-economic fabric. The SDG framework can serve as a blueprint for determining a response to the crisis and ensure inclusive and diversified economic growth that is consistent with national medium- and long-term plans.
MENA governments will need to make changes to their planning with three guiding principles.
1. SDG-driven prioritisation and budgeting: MENA governments should apply an integrated approach to stabilisation and recovery investments, articulating how these investments advance specific SDGs. Their integrative approach should also consider the linkages between different SDG targets and prioritise indicators that have a positive multiplier effect on the overall society, economy, and sustainability agenda.
Additionally, MENA governments will benefit from using official checks and balance mechanisms to improve accountability. This transparency is particularly important given the substantial stimulus packages announced in the wake of the pandemic. Following the example of Norway, MENA governments can integrate SDG targets into the on-going budget review process, thereby improving resource allocation and performance evaluation. Economic recovery and sustainable development do not have to be mutually exclusive. To the contrary, their compatibility is manifest both in SDG 7, which calls for Affordable and Clean Energy and Industry, and SDG 9, which calls for investment in Industry, Innovation, and Infrastructure. Together, such investments will support job creation, economic diversification, and increased resilience to future shocks while pushing the sustainability agenda.
2. Participatory governance: MENA governments ought to expand their consultative processes with a range of stakeholders – especially youth – to gather localised feedback and input into policy formulation for all 17 SDGs. The Finnish government, for example, ran a citizen panel and created a Youth Group to gauge public perception of issues involved with meeting SDGs. Their government then integrated the findings into its sustainable development policy roadmap. Canada takes a similar approach, organising workshops for youth. In the UAE, members of the Youth and Private Sector Advisory Councils work with policymakers to improve policy-related decisions.
Governments will also need to adopt innovative ways of engaging participants to share ideas and projects that contribute to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, such as online surveys and Twitter impressions, as seen in Canada.
3. Localised and shared implementation: MENA governments needs to share the implementation of SDG targets with local authorities, the private sector, and citizens. SDGs are more than government business; they concern the whole of society. Indeed, meeting SDGs is similar to countering the pandemic – it requires the involvement and contributions of everyone. For instance, Indonesia’s Localise framework builds the capabilities of sub-national authorities such as provinces, municipalities and districts to plan and implement the targets in collaboration with national authorities.
Governments can also partner with the private sector to launch impact investment initiatives. The UK’s Clean Growth Fund, a co-investment between the UK government and the private sector, is an example of this approach, which aims to deploy innovative clean technologies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Most importantly, SDGs need the participation of the general public. In the context of climate change, the UN’s ActNow Climate Campaign raises awareness and celebrates smart consumption patterns, such as turning lights off and decreasing time in the shower, to encourage behavioural change. In view of the current social distancing measures, millions of people who are spending more time at home may have a newfound appreciation for such habits, which pave the way for increased adoption of similar behaviours in the future.
As MENA countries proceed with ambitious national development plans and investments, they need to bring their economic goals, SDGs, and pandemic responses together. By ensuring that these plans proceed in harmony, MENA countries can use each to reinforce the other, thereby ensuring national and sustainable development.
Note: This article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of the Social Policy Blog, nor of the London School of Economics.