April 24, 2018

The power engine behind the SDGs

By Nika Salvetti and André Nijhof.


It is remarkable to see how fast the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development has become a common language for governments, corporates and not for profit organizations.

This agenda was adopted by world leaders in September 2015 at the United Nations. For example the photo illustrates how two people from a public and a private company pose for the 17 SDGs with “Sierra Leone and the World want to achieve these 17 goals by 2030” on top. Before we had the Millennium Development Goals. In 15 years they never had such an impact on the debate between governments, NGOs and companies as the SDGs achieved in just 1,5 years. How come?

We believe the main reason is that the “power engine” for the SDGs is different! Standards like the SDGs are delivered with three different engines.

A first engine is labelled as compliance. This engine requires the combination the establishment of clear and unambiguous norms, monitoring whether behavior and results are in congruence with these norms and the application of meaningful sanctions or rewards to link consequences to compliant behavior. The OEDC guidelines for multinational enterprises with the complaint mechanism at the national contact points is a good example of this approach.

A second engine is labelled as engagement. It requires a sense of responsibility of the people involved, open space to learn how to build upon this responsibility and complete transparency about the progress so all actors involved can ask for justification in order to stimulate continuous improvement. The “We are the World” campaign was a typical example of this approach.

However there is also a third engine that is used way too often. It is labelled as the Laissez Faire approach. It basically means that certain intentions are established and that it is left for good faith to see what might come from these intentions. The next figure summarizes the three approaches.

The success of the SDGs is in our opinion based on a strong engagement approach. Engagement is not based on “blind trust” – like the Laissez Faire approach. It is based on “deserved trust”. And that requires ongoing dialogue about the 17 principles of the SDGs and why they might be important to the actors involved. It also means space to learn and become more capable. This has to happen in a context with many obstacles like anti-trust legislation while pre-competitive dialogues are crucial for engagement. And a strong engagement approach has to come together with extreme transparency and a culture of justification.

That is still largely lacking. At present the transparency about the SDGs is a showcase of good practices but extreme transparency also requires sharing the doubts people have, the projects that failed and a culture that is based on the belief that full transparency will strengthen the development.

We believe embassies and other actors in international diplomacy can fulfil a very important role to strengthen the engagement approach around the SDGs in the specific countries and regions. And we know it will be rewarding role because the SDGs envision what might be come possible. Especially if we add an 18th principle that is proposed by our colleague Herman Mulder: “SDG 18 – Leave no SDG behind”.

About the authors:

Phd Candidate Nika Salvetti, Program Leader Business & Peace. UPEACE Centre The Hague. Email: mailto:nsalvetti@upeace.org(for more information about the Program on Business & Peace please check our website www.upeace.nl)


André Nijhof, Professor in Sustainable Business and Stewardship, Nyenrode Business Universiteit.

Email: A.Nijhof@nyenrode.nl

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