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Accelerating progress on Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

Article by Lilei Chow and Dr Abigael Baldoumas

October 10, 2023

Accelerating progress on Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

In this interview, Lilei Chow (Save the Children) and Dr Abigael Baldoumas (Policy and advocacy consultant) discuss if there is evidence of accelerating progress on SDGs, and whether the UK is doing enough to remain on track to achieve all 17 goals by 2030. Full series around the G20 can be read here.


Quick explainer: The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), setup in 2015 and adopted by all United Nations Member States, are 17 global goals designed to be a “blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all”.[1] The interconnected goals address global challenges and the aim is to achieve them by 2030.


In July, ‘The Sustainable Development Goals Report 2023’ was published by the United Nations, marking the halfway point between the creation (2015) and projected achievement (2030) of the SDGs. At this stage, what markers of progress do you see towards reaching the SDGs?


Lilei Chow: Early efforts to implement the SDGs were showing positive signs, for example on reducing child mortality, improving access to vaccination and universal health coverage and tackling extreme poverty. Unfortunately, at the halfway point and with the overlapping, compounding crises of COVID-19, climate, inequality, hunger and conflict, the report paints a rather dire picture on where the world is at the moment in collectively delivering on the SDGs, with only 12% of targets on track, roughly half making insufficient progress and about a third reversing in the wrong direction.


Analysis by Save the Children shows that unless the current rate of progress rapidly accelerates, by 2030:[2]

  • 3.16m of the 942m children born will not survive to celebrate their 5th birthday.
  • Malnutrition will leave more than 1 in 5 babies stunted.
  • 2 in 5 children who start school will not be able to read and understand a simple sentence by age 10.
  • 67m of the 414m girls who should be finishing primary school will marry as children.
  • 2.6 billion – 4 in 5 – children will have experienced at least one extreme climate event including flooding, drought and heatwaves.


These figures are of course alarming, but behind every statistic is a child whose voice matters. Ultimately the SDGs are about people. It is also important to underscore that while the lack of progress on the SDGs is almost universal, it is low-income and climate-vulnerable countries and children and communities most affected by inequality and discrimination within those borders that are bearing the brunt of this collective failure.


Dr Abigael Baldoumas: The overall picture of progress towards the SDGs is bleak. The pandemic, war in Ukraine and subsequent global economic repercussions of both have contributed to a step backwards across a number of goals. The unfolding climate and nature crisis is already undermining progress, hitting those with the least hardest. In 2023, sustainable economic growth, food security, vaccine coverage, reduction in greenhouse gases, removing fossil fuel subsidies, preventing species extinction, ensuring sustainable food stocks and reducing unsentenced detainees are all deteriorating.

“The pandemic, war in Ukraine and subsequent global economic repercussions of both have contributed to a step backwards across a number of goals.”


Since 2020 progress towards ending extreme poverty, ending preventable deaths under five, ensuring primary education, access to electricity and reducing homicide rates has been reversed. There are pockets of hope. Increased internet use and mobile access are on track. The 2023 review found increasing skilled birth attendance, full employment, and sustainable and inclusive industrialisation close to meeting the target.


Overall, it is clear that business as usual will not deliver. The recent SDG Summit on the fringe of the UN General Assembly set an ambitious tone in the final political declaration. At one point over the summer it was not certain that the declaration would be agreed. So to have a clear reaffirmation of the goals and acknowledgement of the scale of action needed to achieve them is an important prerequisite to further progress.


What would you pinpoint as the biggest opportunities as well as obstacles to accelerating progress towards the SDGs? And how can these be maximised and mitigated respectively?


Lilei Chow: Having just returned from the SDG Summit at the UN General Assembly in September, I do believe that the world is at a crossroads. There is now consensus that the status quo has to change. Broadly speaking, we can hope to see opportunities emerge around four major themes – the first, as I mentioned, on international financial reform, including reform of the Multilateral Development Banks, the second around climate ambition, the third around the proposed “SDG Stimulus Package” and the fourth around reform of the multilateral system.

“[Political] vision and commitment needed to undertake long-term decisions that may be difficult and to invest in our collective future.”


These broad areas offer the opportunity to usher in systemic reforms that are needed to unlock progress across the SDG framework. The challenge, of course, lies in political will and leadership – the vision and commitment needed to undertake long-term decisions that may be difficult and to invest in our collective future. For us in civil society, it’s about building on the momentum created by the Summit to push for accountability on the SDGs.


Dr Abigael Baldoumas: One of the biggest hurdles to progress towards the SDGs is the lack of adequate and appropriate finance. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and UN Development Programme (UNDP) estimated the annual financing gap had reached $4.2 trillion USD in 2020 as needs increased while resources declined.[3] Substantial public investment in public goods like healthcare, education, water and sanitation and social protection systems is needed. This will require:

  • Fair and effective national tax systems, backed by a UN tax convention that tackles international tax avoidance and offshore tax havens.
  • Fast and meaningful debt relief. Unsustainable debt burdens are pushing too many countries into crisis. The current system for negotiating debt relief is not fit for purpose. Countries in debt distress need a comprehensive debt restructuring and forgiveness mechanism that includes bilateral, multilateral and private debt. Debt relief, including forgiveness, would free up resources for progressing the SDGs.
  • A dramatic scale up of Official Development Assistance (ODA) and climate finance. OECD members need to meet their 0.7% commitment, and ensure that ODA is both focused on meeting the SDGs and aligned with the Paris Agreement. Climate finance should be additional to ODA as pledged in Paris.

“Decolonising development is a huge opportunity to progress the SDGs.”


It is not just about more money, and it definitely is not just about ODA. Low- and middle- income countries (LMIC) and their populations need to be in the driving seat of their own development, including investment in gender-transformative public services and social protection. Decolonising development is a huge opportunity to progress the SDGs. This includes national ownership of development strategies and programmes, increased LMIC voice and agency in multilateral institutions like the World Bank and IMF, and more direct access to development finance including ODA. Furthermore, it also includes fair and effective national tax systems, backed by a UN tax convention that tackles international avoidance and offshore tax havens.


Are the current UN reporting mechanisms doing enough to ensure governments deliver on their SDGs commitments?


Lilei Chow: The follow-up and review mechanism negotiated as part of the 2030 Agenda was modelled after existing human rights reporting practices such as the Universal Periodic Review. The challenge has not been in the mechanism per se as opposed to the process of follow-up and review, and in particular, the voluntary nature of it, which means there is a tendency for governments to cherry pick what they report on.

“Review process is like a country’s “report card” on the SDGs, but it is written by governments.”


The Voluntary National Review (VNR) process is like a country’s “report card” on the SDGs, but it is written by governments. Likewise, there is a huge gap in reporting on SDG commitments by the private sector and other actors. There has also been a disconnect between the review mechanisms at the local level through to the regional and global levels, although this is improving. There is now a rich body of spotlight or complementary reporting on the SDGs by civil society, including reports written by children that we have supported that are important accountability tools although much more needs to be done to include them in the High-Level Political Forum. The upcoming High-Level Political Forum review provides an opportunity to strengthen the follow-up and review mechanism on the SDGs, but national parliaments and local councils also offer avenues to strengthen accountability at the national level, for example through parliamentary select committees.


Dr Abigael Baldoumas: The distance to reaching many of the SDGs suggests that the current reporting mechanisms are insufficient. Measuring progress is dependent on data and information provided by national and subnational governments statistical agencies and through the voluntary national review process. While the 2023 SDG progress report paints a bleak picture of progress today as well as an ambitious and transformative agenda for achieving the goals by 2030, there are very clear limits to the UN’s ability to compel action by its members. They do help to track progress and understand the gaps. Transparency and accountability are the cornerstones of good development, the SDGs will only be realised if concerted effort is taken by all stakeholders.

“The SDGs should be incorporated into strategies and policies at the national level with clear milestones and budgeted action plans”


Reporting mechanisms are not a substitute for national-level action. As the ultimate duty bearers, governments need to take the steps necessary to get the SDGs back on track. The SDGs should be incorporated into strategies and policies at the national level with clear milestones and budgeted action plans, including commitments to conduct and publish regular voluntary reviews. This will improve their reporting and more importantly incorporate the SDGs into national-level systems of accountability.


How should external expertise, the private sector, and civil society be engaged to support progress towards the SDGs? And are there positive examples you can point to?


Lilei Chow: There are many examples out there now of multistakeholder partnerships on the SDGs.

“There has been little progress in bringing together these actors to deliver on the SDGs in a meaningful way.”


The UK is fortunate to have a largely engaged private sector, strong civil society that works in some of the hardest to reach places and with the most marginalised communities around the world and active local governments, but to date, there has been little progress in bringing together these actors to deliver on the SDGs in a meaningful way. There are many examples of how this can be done in practice, for example by looking towards Denmark, the Netherlands, Germany, Sweden, South Korea and Indonesia.


Dr Abigael Baldoumas: The ambition of the SDGs and the scale of transformation needed to achieve them require a coordinated effort. Civil society, scientific and other experts, the private sector and governments all have a role to play. Multi-stakeholder engagement mechanisms are one way of engaging broad support towards SDG implementation. The UK Government should deliver on their 2019 voluntary national review commitment to establish a multi-stakeholder engagement mechanism as a way to mobilise cross-sectoral support. This should be accompanied by specific support to civil society organisations, who play a critical role representing people, holding governments and others to account and supporting communities.

“Governments need to ensure that private sector investment is focused on delivering the SDGs and reaches those further behind.”


The role of the private sector is critical. Much has been made of the potential for private investment to bridge the financing gap. However ‘billions to trillions’ remains a slogan and the promised returns on public finance have not materialised. Moreover investments have been limited to a few sectors and higher income countries. Governments need to ensure that private sector investment is focused on delivering the SDGs and reaches those further behind. One way to achieve this is to require all private sector partners meet human, labour, and women’s rights standards as well as environmental regulations. For example, adopting a polluter pays model could help to bridge the SDG financing gap while improving environmental and climate outcomes. At the same time, the potential of the LMIC private sector, especially small- and medium-sized enterprises, to contribute to the goals, with the proper incentives and support has been undervalued. Investing in local economies and job creation, builds resilience and serves local needs.


What policies should the leading British parties prioritise in order to accelerate progress towards the SDGs as we approach the next UK general election?


Lilei Chow: The simple answer is that the UK needs leadership and strategy at the very top levels of government in order to deliver the SDGs not just internationally but domestically as well.

“UK needs leadership and strategy at the very top levels of government in order to deliver the SDGs”


The UK needs to strengthen the means of implementation on the SDGs so that they can be implemented in a way that promotes integration and policy coherence across the framework. This includes meaningfully engaging all stakeholders and to improve accountability and transparency around how SDG gaps and progress are being monitored. As one of the major creditors of multilateral development banks, it is positive to see that the UK has announced its intention to get behind some of the key reforms of the international financial architecture that are being proposed – however, there needs to be clarity on how these will now be taken forward and to ensure that these proposals do not further entrench debt unsustainability of low and middle-income countries. Finally, it is important that the UK’s approach on the SDGs is grounded in the transformative principles of the 2030 Agenda, namely the pledge to Leave No One Behind, universality and human rights.


Dr Abigael Baldoumas:

  • Ensure that the SDGs and Leave No One Behind Agenda are championed at the highest level, and demonstrate that commitment by:
    • Publishing a clear roadmap for getting back to 0.7% and meeting climate commitments.
    • Establishing multi-stakeholder engagement mechanisms in line with the 2019 VNR commitments.
  • Meet commitments to become a locally-led donor that puts countries and their populations in charge of their own development. This will require:
    • An ambitious action plan with transparent targets and metrics on local funding, addressing internal roadblocks to equitable partnerships and rebalancing power dynamics in favour of local and national actors.
    • Centering collaboration and co-creation rather than prioritising British interests and expertise.
    • Investing in diverse, long-term partnerships with LMIC civil society, including women’s rights organisations, youth movements, human rights defenders, groups that represent ethnic, religious and indigenous communities and people living with disabilities.
  • Level the playing field by:
    • Promoting policy coherence based on the SDGs through development, diplomatic and trade relationships as well as domestically, ensuring that domestic policies do not undermine progress.
    • Ensuring that the UK’s trade strategy aligns with international development and international climate finance strategies. Any trade strategy and all trade deals should respect LMIC development strategies, prevent the export of social and environmental risks.
    • Supporting the transformation of the international financial architecture to increasing LMIC voices and agency in multilateral institutions and spaces, making the rules of the game fair, so that they work for people and the planet.


Lilei Chow is the global technical lead on the SDGs for the Save the Children global movement, with a particular focus on accountability to the Pledge to Leave No One Behind. Lilei has over fifteen years of experience working in international development, including within the UN system, mostly with vulnerable and marginalised groups such as indigenous communities and persons with disabilities. She also has a background in field research. Lilei graduated Summa Cum Laude with Distinction from Boston University in International Relations, and holds a Master’s in Public Policy from the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore and a Master’s in Public Affairs from Institut d’études politiques de Paris (Sciences Po), Paris Magna Cum Laude.


Abigael Baldoumas is a senior policy, advocacy and research professional with over a decade of experience in global development and humanitarian response. She has a track record of delivering high quality, evidence-based policy analysis and a proven ability to shift government policies and practices. She has a masters and doctorate in political science with a focus on social justice activism. She led the UK international development sector’s response to successive rounds of cuts and the 2022 international development strategy. Her recent work on the future of international development research brought together leading thinkers and practitioners from across global development and adjacent sectors to challenge current narratives and surface opportunities. Her work on fair share analysis provided an innovative advocacy tool for humanitarian funding. Her work includes policy analysis and development, research and project management, managing donor relations for advocacy and fundraising, leading field-based research for advocacy and communications, drafting policy briefs and high profile reports, briefing high-level representatives, lobbying to improve ODA quality and transparency, humanitarian assistance and gender justice, with a focus on women, peace and security.


[1] UN, Sustainable Development Goals, Take Action for the Sustainable Development Goals,

[2] Child Atlas, The SDG Summit must unlock new financing and raise ambition with and for children, September 2023,

[3] OECD, Closing the SDG Financing Gap in the COVID-19 era: Scoping note for the G20 Development Working Group, October 2021,

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