By Melanie van Driel and Maya Bogers

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals were adopted in 2015 to ‘inspire multiple levels of government to embark on the transformation to sustainable development’. Five years into the goals, can we say that the SDGs are living up to these high expectations? What steering effects of the SDGs can we see so far, and what is their transformative potential for the decade to come?

In the context of the GLOBALGOALS research project, we invited four experts – representing national government, academia, business and youth – to discuss these questions for The Netherlands, our research team’s home base. The experts answered all our questions, and the questions of the audience, in an interactive online panel discussion that took place on January 19th, 2021. This is a short report on their insights and reflections.

The Status of the SDGs in the Netherlands
According to the European Sustainable Development Report 2020 The Netherlands is currently ranked 14thin Europe when it comes to achievement of the SDGs. The Netherlands is doing well in achieving SDG 1 (No Poverty) and SDG 9 (Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure). Achieving the other 15 goals remains a challenge. Major challenges include achieving the goals for Responsible Consumption and Production (SDG 12), Climate (SDG 13), Life Below Water (SDG 14) and Life on Land (SDG 15) as well as Partnerships for the Goals (SDG 17).

Johan Schot, Professor of Global Comparative History and Sustainability Transitions at the Utrecht University Centre for Global Challenges kicked of the panel with a reflection on the potential of Dutch academia to contribute to the SDGs. He posits the SDGs as an agenda for the world, and universities can be part of this agenda by doing SDG-relevant research. However, an important focus of the SDGs, that is often forgotten, is transformation. To move beyond business as usual, scholars, faculties and universities must transform themselves too. One way this is addressed at Utrecht University is engaging in a reflective process of what research is currently being done, and how research can better connect to existing societal challenges and become problem driven. The latter is a broad process of reflection that must occur bottom-up and with the involvement of societal stakeholders. This focus on transformation is initiated by an SDG-mapping of existing research. Schot also emphasizes that sustainable development requires lifestyle changes that start at the level of the individual. 

Sandra Pellegrom, the National SDG Coordinator stationed at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, shares insights on the commitment of Dutch government to achieve the SDGs. She states that exactly because of its transformative and ambitious nature, the 2030 Agenda takes time to implement. Yet, many actors in Dutch society already play an active role in implementing the SDGs in a bottom-up matter. For example, ‘SDG Nederland’ is a network of over a thousand Dutch organizations (for-profit, not-for-profit, large and small) that have voluntarily committed to use the SDGs in their organization, and actively contribute to their achievement. This network already started in 2013 (then under the name ‘SDG Charter’). The Dutch government tries to facilitate such bottom=up initiatives. However, the current Dutch coalition agreement is not based on the SDGs, and few national policies explicitly mention or link to the goals. Pellegrom nevertheless is happy with the progress being made. An ongoing mapping of the relation between existing policies and SDG targets shows that, although this is currently not explicitly stated, policies exist for nearly every SDG target. In addition, policies do exist that address weaknesses observed in the monitoring reports, including on environment and climate. It will be essential, however, to focus more on the social goals in the near future, including those around poverty and inequality. 

Joukje Janssen,Partner at PwC and responsible for Sustainability Reporting and Governance, reflects on the role that companies play in achieving the SDGs. She is positive about the extent to which companies have adopted the SDGs: many show how their strategy relates to the SDGs, and a few are even taking the SDGs as a basis for new strategies. It remains a challenge, however, to balance short term revenue gain with long term impact. This requires a cultural shift within companies that is a time-consuming process. Furthermore, as businesses try to define areas where they can have the highest impact, it proves difficult to design useful impact indicators. PwC, itself an early adopter of the SDGs, only recently started an impact measurement pilot. Joukje contends that the regulatory push of the European Union has inspired businesses to incorporate sustainable development in a way not observed before. 

Thyrza Zoons, Board Member of the National Youth Council (NJR), reflects on the involvement of Dutch youth in SDG implementation, and the potential to trigger youth to more action.The mission of the council is to inspireand enable young people to express their voice, which she deems highly relevant in the context of the SDGs. Changesin our educational system are needed to realize the full potential of youth to contribute to the SDGs. Instead of focusing solely on the ‘hard’ sciences like math and biology, weneed to allow youth to develop all interests and talents that might help them tomake a positivechange. Another necessary change relates to the language used to propagate the goals, which she considers ‘not sexy’and not inclusive enough. The term’is too abstract’ and too detached from the daily lives of Dutch youth to spur mass action of young people.

Does The Netherlands communicate clearly, and steer forcefully enough? 
In general, the panelists agreethat more action is needed to reach the goals in 2030, that more needs to be done to communicate the goals in a comprehendible manner, and that all societal actors are needed to realize the envisioned transformation. The panelists differed, however, in their vision on the need for a leading actor to kick-start this transformation. Pellegromstatesthat many actors are already coordinating via the SDG Netherlands network, and that the government is working hard on its SDG mapping to improve the communication of its SDG related activities. Schot emphasizes the importance of individual activities and lifestyle choices related to the SDGs and warns that steering ‘from above’ might empower actors that have in continuing business as usual. Janssen, on the other hand, does recognize the added value of a regulatory pushfrom government, as this has worked well in the past to enforce more sustainable business practices. During the discussion, multiple participants didquestion the transformative nature of the SDGs themselves. Within and outside of the research community, it has been clear that trade-offs between SDGs exist. Ambitions for continued growth co-exist with aims to tackle climate change and increase biodiversity. Schot emphasizes the need to look at entry points for transformation that take these trade-offs into account, and Pellegrom also recognized the need to study interlinkages more closely. The adequacy of existing indicators was also questioned, as well as the timeline beyond 2030. It was also mentioned that companies, government and academia are not prevented from engaging in SDG ‘cherry-picking’. This leaves the door open for actors to focus on goals they can easily contribute to, instead of goals that require the biggest effort.

Moving forward: five avenues for action
All actors agree that more needs to happen to transform the Netherlands and reach the 2030 Agenda. Several action venues were suggested during the panel that have real potential to accelerate the 2030 Agenda in the Netherlands. 

  1. The way in which the goals are communicated must be simplified to reach a broader audience and inspire action within Dutch society more broadly. 
  2. Dutch citizens need to be reminded of the small actions they can make in their own lives to contribute to these goals.
  3. Dutch government can inspire activity among citizens by clearly relating its own policies to the SDGs, using the SDGs as the framework for the next coalition agreement, and issuing yearly reports where it is clarified how goals that are currently facing significant challenges are going to be addressed. 
  4. More can be done to create a level playing field for businesses who might be willing to implement the goals into their strategy but are currently concerned that this will impact their competitiveness.
  5. All actors, and companies especially so, should be discouraged from cherry-picking SDGs. A shift towards integrated reporting on all goals could help in this regard.

Upcoming SDG events in the Netherlands
The panelist suggest interested readers to keep an eye out for the following events:

  • The parliamentary discussion on the SDGs in May
  • The SDG Barometer that is being developed by PwC
  • Especially relevant for young people: The Night of the UN”, and workshops and lectures related to the SDGs hosted by the Youth Council.

From our side as the GLOBALGOALS team, we invite you to join our upcoming webinars on our forthcoming SDG Mid-term Assessment: an assessment of the steering effects of the SDGs globally, conducted with a group of over 40 renowned international scientists. Subscribe to our newsletter to stay updated.

We would once again like to thank the panelists and everyone that tuned in for their insights and questions. The panel discussion was originally held on January 19th, 2021 and was moderated by Maya Bogers and Melanie van Driel. You can re-watch the entire discussion here.


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