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Policy Innovations for Transformative Change: Implementing the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development: Overview

In September 2015, the international community agreed on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development that will guide development policy and practice at national, regional and global levels for the coming 15 years. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) follow the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which successfully mobilized efforts around poverty reduction and social development, but also had shortcomings and gaps. Overcoming these by forging a universal agenda that will “leave no one behind” is the ambition of the 2015 agreement and the SDGs. The more inclusive process of formulating and negotiating the goals not only resulted in a more comprehensive development vision, but also laid the foundation for more inclusive implementation and monitoring processes.

“Transforming our world”, as the 2030 Agenda is titled, is a far more challenging task than business as usual and goes well beyond the narrower focus of the MDGs. Transformation requires attacking the root causes that generate and reproduce economic, social, political and environmental problems and inequities, not merely their symptoms.

The transformative 2030 Agenda is to be welcomed. Instead of segregated policies in separate domains, it could lead to policy integration and usher in an “eco-social” turn—a normative and policy shift toward greater consideration of ecological and social objectives in development strategies—that delivers genuinely transformative results in terms of human well-being and rights-based, inclusive development.2 Indeed, it is the vision of doing things differently to achieve radically different outcomes, rather than doing more of the same, that inspires hope for breaking the vicious circle of poverty, inequality and environmental destruction confronting people and the planet.

So what needs to happen now to enable the 2030 Agenda to deliver on its transformative promise? Which policies would lead to social, economic and ecological justice? In this report, UNRISD contributes answers to these questions by:

• unpacking the concept of “transformation” to which governments have committed themselves, using the term transformative change to designate the qualitative changes in different policy domains that are necessary to achieve the SDGs; and
• presenting integrated policy and institutional reforms and innovations, as well as the conditions for their implementation, with the potential to foster transformative change leading to sustainable development.

From the perspective of development and social justice, the key question is how to catalyse processes of change that result in transformation. While the terms transformative, transformational or transformation are now being used widely in development discourse, their meaning is often vague, referring to desirable outcomes such as inclusion and sustainability. In contrast, this report is specific about the processes of change needed in society and the economy to achieve greater equality, sustainability and empowerment.

Transformative change, as defined in this report, involves changes in all three dimensions of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development: economic,
environmental and social. It requires changes in economic structures to promote employmentintensive growth patterns that ensure macroeconomic
stability and policy space. In order to make this economic change environmentally sustainable, profound changes are required in production and consumption patterns and energy use through legislation, regulation and public policies. But most importantly, it requires changes in social structures and relations, including addressing the growing economic and political power of elites and patterns of stratification related to class, gender, ethnicity, religion or location that can lock people (including future generations) into disadvantage and constrain their choices and agency. It also means changing norms and institutions, both formal and informal, that shape the behaviour of people and organizations in the social, economic, environmental and political spheres.

Transformative change understood in this way is a long-term process, requiring both individual agency and collective action by societies. Its means, and its results, include visible and measurable economic and political empowerment of disadvantaged and vulnerable groups; greater gender equality in all
spheres; more equal redistribution of income and wealth; active citizenship with greater agency of civil society organizations and social movements; changes in North-South power relations and global governance institutions; empowerment of small enterprises, rural producers and informal workers; and a reversal of the hierarchies of norms and values that subordinate social and environmental goals to economic objectives.

It is clear that transformative change involves multiple actors, and transparent and democratic political processes involving all those actors are also part of the “transformation we want”.