16 December 2019

Marjanneke Vijge: ‘Are the SDGs succeeding at leaving no one behind?’

The UN’s ambitious Sustainable Development Goals have swept in with the promise to build integrated approaches that “leave no one behind”. But achieving 17 very different goals of supposed equal importance is no easy feat. How are countries dealing with this, and what implications does this have?

Dr. Marjanneke Vijge, assistant professor at the Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development, Utrecht University tells us about her research investigating how countries are deciding which SDGs to prioritise, and what this means for the poorest and most vulnerable people.

Marjanneke Vijge in a train on fieldwork in Myanmar.

Your research is focussed around the SDGs and inclusiveness. Can you tell us about this?

“The SDGs are part of the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. They’re 17 wide ranging social, economic and environmental goals covering everything from poverty reduction and gender equality, to life on land and climate change, to economic growth and responsible production and consumption. 

The basic idea is that they are each of equal importance, and that countries should strive for an integrated approach to ensure all are achieved together. The other thing is that in committing to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, UN Member States promise to “leave no one behind”. But with such wide ranging goals, is it possible for these two things to be achieved simultaneously? And if it is, under which conditions?”

The 17 Sustainable Development Goals. Photo: United Nations

What got you thinking about this topic?

“Before taking up my position at Utrecht University, I spent some time working at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO) on the implementation of climate goals in the agriculture sector of developing countries. At international meetings I was seeing representatives from all sorts of different countries grappling with how to coordinate the SDGs and climate goals within their own governments and build integrated and synergistic approaches. 

For many countries an integrated approach has been extremely difficult, and certain goals are being prioritised over others

These kinds of approaches are often seen as something we have to strive for, but for many countries this integrated approach has been extremely difficult, and certain goals are being prioritised over others. So how do countries decide which goals to prioritise? Are the poor and most vulnerable included in these conversations? And how is this affecting inequality? These questions are especially relevant in developing countries. Due to limited availability of funding and capacity, they cannot spend equal attention to the implementation of all goals.”

Interesting! So how do you study this?

“Continuing on from my work at the FAO, I’m particularly interested in how countries try to achieve both SDG 2: Zero Hunger and SDG 13: Climate Action. The SDGs are being implemented on many levels: by national governments, regional governments, local governments, and civil society to name a few. But policies aimed at combating climate change, for instance, are not always beneficial for food security.

Agriculture in India. Photo Bishnu Sarangi

Industrialized agriculture has been successful in producing large quantities of food, for example, but agriculture is directly responsible for around 14% of total greenhouse gas emissions, and broader land use decisions have an even larger impact. Deforestation (often to make way for agricultural land) accounts for an additional 18% of emissions. So given that both climate action and zero hunger are extremely important goals, how are countries choosing what to prioritise?

India is a great case study for looking into these kinds of questions. There is a lot of activity at the state level, with states building their own visions for the SDGs and international climate agreements. Together with Abbie Yunita, a PhD researcher from the Utrecht-based GlobalGoals Project, we are planning a comparative case study of different Indian states. Which actors are involved? Who has the power to decide? Which goals are being prioritised? And of course, what is the result in terms of inequality?”

India is a great case study for looking into these kinds of questions. There is a lot of activity at the state level, with states building their own visions for the SDGs and international climate agreements.

Apart from contributing to important theory around this topic, what do you hope for your research in terms of impact?

“Through empirical research in India and Kenya I’m looking at best practices and lessons learned to see under which circumstances the poorest aren’t being left behind while producing coherent policy outcomes. I’m also looking at the available literature for wider lessons of what does and what doesn’t work in terms of environmental policy integration. 

I will link my insights to FAO meetings where country representatives and international donors meet annually to discuss how to implement climate goals in the agriculture sector. I hope this can make a difference to the implementation challenges many countries are facing!”

Further reading

Adger, W.N., Boyd, E., Fábos, A., Fransen, S., Jolivet, D., Neville, G., De Campos, R.S. and Vijge, M.J., (2019). Migration transforms the conditions for the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals. The Lancet Planetary Health, 3(11), 40-442.