Income and wealth inequality are rising in most countries around the world today. Recognising that this challenge has become a universal issue, the United Nations agreed in 2015 to seventeen Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), as part of a global agenda to transform society. Specifically, SDG Target 10 commits countries to ‘reduce inequalities within and among countries’. To what extent SDGs and in particular SDG target 10 can help nations reverse inequality towards a downward trend is the question we address in this paper. To answer this question, we build on the theory of change underpinning the goal-based governance characterising the SDGs, then we infer the added value of the SDGs along three criteria: the production of a common metric, the capacity to emulate peer pressure, and policy learning within and across countries. Across these three criteria, our main finding is that there is much that states can take away from the SDGs to address the problem of rising inequality, though success is conditional on achieving the buy-in of key actors and epistemic communities for which domestic inequalities remains a domestic issue and not a global sustainability one.
- There is much that states can take away from the SDGs to address the problem of rising inequality, though success is conditional on achieving the buy-in of key actors and epistemic communities for which domestic inequalities remains a domestic issue and not a global sustainability one.
- The first major contribution of the SDGs is the old cliché, ‘what gets measured gets done’. The guarantee of standardized, comparable statistics is likely to serve as a catalyst for political action to reduce inequality. At the very least, it serves as an enabler for civil society and other non-government institutions to hold governments to account.
- Second, and relatedly, the SDGs create a forum in which countries’ performances are ranked against each other. The SDGs enable us to distinguish between those countries that are performing well and those falling behind, while serving to remind political leaders that inequality reduction is not just necessary but possible.
- If a country ranking will be technically feasible thanks to national statistical reports on SDGs, it remains politically tricky. Ranking countries according to their performance in achieving specific goals and targets is very unlikely to become part of the mandate of the UN High Level Political Forum (HLPF). This ranking, which according to us is a key lever for national action, could be produced instead by coalitions of think tanks and research institutions outside of the UN system.
- Greater focus is required to encourage and vitalise the learning process beyond current state practice at HLPF where the risk of ‘showcasing’ national strategies and anecdotal successes cannot be discarded. Forums cannot simply serve as platforms for states to selectively clarify their individual successes while overshadowing and exonerating responsibility in areas where they have underperformed. Creating a platform for countries successfully implementing corrective measures is therefore vital.
Photo Credit: UN Ukraine via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)