Local, National, Global: Evaluative Evidence of Scaling Up the SDGs

April 2019
Document Type:
Staff Publications


Juha Uitto*, Global Environment Facility

Indran Naidoo*, United Nations Development Programme

Background and Introduction

Using the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as a framing reference for development, which all countries subscribe to, has the potential to significantly shape the development discourse, and development itself. As a set of guiding principles and objectives they set the basis for a common discourse amongst policy makers, politicians and citizens on what should be achieved through 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, with no one being left behind. Assessing progress presupposes that there is a common understanding on what each goal means in practice, how it can be measured and what are the units of analysis, and evidence, that transacts across local, regional and national levels to produce evidence of progress. This is both an evaluation and spatial challenge, given that there is limited consensus as to how measurement is to take place, and little understanding in the evaluation community of scale, and what this means when it comes to scaling up for SDGs. Evaluation practice in the international development community, while making efforts at an enhanced comprehensiveness and holistic perspectives (Garcia and Feinstein, 2019), must be better prepared to respond to the complex challenges posed by the SDGs, including scale (Naidoo and Soares, 2017; Steiner, 2017; Uitto, Puri and Berg, 2017).

A key question to geographers is that of scale, and whether the SDG thrust will in fact transect the global, national and local, and be able to address progress at the local level (SDG localization) and report credibly progress of the national level, internationally.  There remains an inevitable tension between reporting on progress from a government perspective, over that of beneficiaries, notably at the local level. This brings in the question of how successful SDG localization is, and whether aggregated data of SDG progress that may be presented as country progress, does in fact reflect and represent the experiences of citizens, and if so, whether this is the experience of a proportionally significant part of the population. The persistent and even exacerbation of inter and intra-regional inequality has marked development in the last century, and the changing environmental, economic and social landscape, at rates unprecedented, makes measurement of SDG progress difficult. It is evident that in most instances the environment has been adversely impacted through development policies, and negative effects spill over into vulnerable national states, with dire consequences on overall sustainability of resources, and a disproportional adverse impact on the poor and marginalized. The sustainability of new ways of doing business in reducing poverty – through job creation efforts that may be resource consumptive or infrastructure development that may destroy habitats – means many intended and unintended consequences which impact on any ecological sustainability.

This paper explores what it means to scale up, and examines why this intent can often be challenging, given that theories of change around the SDGs are not clear, and the connectedness between the SDGs implies a complexity that is difficult to address in providing coherent progress reports on SDGs.

This paper was presented at the American Association of Geographers (AAG) Annual Meeting in Washington, DC on April 3, 2019.