Cutting across contexts: Better evidence to link the SDGs with national planning

Political will to localize the SDGs is growing. But decision-makers need a rigorous and replicable way to link the global goals to local contexts.

March 18, 2019
Jacob Sims, Jennifer Turner
A camera records Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed (left) at the SDGs Media Zone in 2017. Photo by UN/Cia Pak via Flickr, licensed under (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

A camera records Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed (left) at the SDGs Media Zone in 2017. Photo by UN/Cia Pak via Flickr, licensed under (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).


Today, the UN is hosting a high-level forum as part of the 63rd Commission on the Status of Women to discuss how gender statistics can empower women and further the SDGs. Implied in this discussion is a critical question: What is needed to make global aspirations like Agenda 2030 meaningful for those trying to make tangible progress on the ground—for women and for all?  In her speech at the Commission today, Jordan’s Gender Statistics Chief and Executive Director of Jordan’s Demographics and Health Survey, Mrs. Manal Sweidan, summed up this need, calling on the international community to “continue seeking ways to provide assistance localizing and operationalizing the SDGs” to help translate their aspirational vision into reality.

By definition, localization of the SDGs will not be a one-size-fits-all proposition. However, in the absence of a more standardized approach, countries are expending significant effort to develop their own ad hoc solutions to supply this demand for improved data linkages. 23 out of 64 countries who submitted voluntary national reviews to the United Nations High-Level Political Forum between 2016 and 2017 reported undertaking (or are actively contemplating) isolated exercises to link the SDGs to their national planning. Examples of such SDG localization initiatives already underway include Mexico, Colombia, Nepal, and Rwanda.

These investments signal political will to align the SDGs with national planning—but ad hoc localization approaches will not be readily comparable across countries. This is a lost opportunity. Helping decision makers learn from each other by promoting common, practical methods will provide a more standardized and lower-cost entry point for linking the vast global indicator framework of the SDGs to a country’s specific local needs.

Read about AidData’s vision for localizing the SDGs

Data and planning systems will play a critical role in this process, but we need to go beyond surface-level integration challenges. We need a stronger understanding of where and why SDG localization efforts are working; what barriers these efforts are overcoming; and the lessons learned from success stories where data helped make the case for change.

Jordan’s Gender Statistics Chief and Executive Director of Jordan’s Demographics and Health Survey, Mrs. Manal Sweidan, speaks at the 63rd Commission on the Status of Women. Photo by Jacob Sims/AidData.

Learning from success stories of localization

A case in point is Jordan, where political will within the government and the framework created by the SDGs combined to create a success story of increased demand for data and policy change impacting SDG Goal 5—to empower women and improve gender equality.

In Jordan, women possess higher levels of education relative to men. However, this advantage was not corresponding with greater labor market participation, dragging down the economy. Until the Gender Statistics Division (GSD) began collecting and analyzing data on the issue—in part to report on progress against the SDGs—there was no case for a shift in policy.

“In 2017, GSD and our partners used nationally collected data to successfully advocate for greater labor law gender neutrality,” said Mrs. Sweidan. “Policies were instituted to allow flexible working arrangements for all women; paternity leave for new children; and mandatory day care in the workplace. As a result of this evidence-driven policy, female unemployment rates were reduced from 31% to 25%.”

How can we understand and scale localization efforts across country contexts?

Jordan’s story illustrates the challenges and opportunities of integrating data on one SDG (Gender Equality) with national planning processes. Countries’ individual priorities and their respective policymaking processes affect how resources are raised and allocated, which targets are tracked, which policies are enacted, and how results are measured. The extent to which the SDGs translate into local action therefore depends on the extent to which the goals are seamlessly integrated within the various national- and regional-level planning, budgeting, and reporting processes for each of the 193 countries who adopted Agenda 2030.

With 17 broad goals and 169 targets, the SDGs represent an unprecedented opportunity to make the global development agenda more inclusive, universal, and locally relevant. However, the push to "localize" the SDGs within national contexts faces a challenge: these efforts require a more systematic approach in order to scale across many countries.

Jordan’s example captures this opportunity (and the associated challenge) well. Given the many objectives for data collection, “technical, human, and financial capacity support is desperately needed to lower the cost of entry as Jordan seeks to fully integrate the SDGs framework with its national planning processes,” said Mrs. Sweidan. “The Jordanian Government would benefit from opportunities to learn from peers and better understand the benefits, challenges, and resources required to undertake different approaches to sustainable, inclusive, equitable development for gender-related issues and more broadly.“

As countries increasingly seek to align national planning and budgeting with the SDGs, the question remains: how can this process become more efficient, rigorous, and replicable across country contexts?  

Why we need research on successful localization efforts

“Localization” can be a loaded term. For some country contexts, it may simply mean honing broad global goals until they contain a sufficient measure of specificity to be meaningful at the domestic level. For example, in early 2018, AidData and Rwanda’s National Institute of Statistics partnered to assess the alignment of Rwanda’s national development plans with the SDGs framework. We adapted our methodology for tracking financing to the SDGs for use beyond just financing, ultimately providing a standardized method that can be used to link both funding of the SDGs and progress on SDG indicators to local planning processes across different countries and contexts.

For other country contexts, “localization” may simply refer to the integration challenges of management information systems that must be spun up to accommodate waves and waves of international accords, the latest being the SDGs (2015-2030). For example, does funding for a nutrition program in a girls elementary school for Syrian refugees count towards all, some or only one of SDG 3 (Health), SDG 4 (Education), SDG 5 (Gender Equality), SDG 10 (Reduced Inequality)?  

Localization of the SDGs is not merely one giant crosswalking exercise, however. Certain goals, particularly SDG 5 (Gender Equality), have a “mainstreaming” dimension to them. This is why more rigorous investigation into successful examples of SDG localization is so needed. Just as global agendas are intended to raise awareness of universal issues and mobilize resources towards them, these campaigns for SDG localization should also create an outcomes race to the top.

To do so, leaders and citizens not only need to make meaningful comparisons of progress between countries; they need data that resonates with particular local contexts. One reason Jordan realized progress on a policy goal is because they were able to collect gender-disaggregated data on education levels and employment participation. This data enabled them to reframe the issue in a way that pushed the conversation forward in the unique Jordanian context.

Government decision-makers are eager to connect their higher-level planning processes to the SDGs. To best respond to Mrs. Sweidan’s call to action, the international community needs to document efforts such as these to align national planning with the SDGs, identify best practices, and develop practical tools to help countries more efficiently align domestic planning, budget, and monitoring frameworks with the SDGs.

For more on AidData’s vision for localizing the SDGs, visit our Sustainable Development Intelligence page.

Jacob Sims is Associate Director of the Sustainable Development Intelligence program at AidData.

Jennifer Turner is a Senior Program Manager at AidData working on sustainable development solutions.