The missing ingredient? Adding knowledge to Agenda 2030 and the Sustainable Development Goals

'(Un)usual suspects' — SURe programme,Inclusive Economy08 Nov 2017Sarah Cummings

Knowledge is a catalyst – an indispensable ingredient in all human progress and development. Despite this, as many commentators are discovering, knowledge is missing from Agenda 2030 and the Sustainable Development Goals. But recent developments seem to indicate that the UN, civil society and others are finding ways of putting knowledge back into the mix.

Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for sustainable development, probably the most influential international development policy for the 2015-2030 period, is having an unprecedented global impact. For the first time, global development efforts in the economic, social and environmental spheres are being integrated for both developed and developing countries. Ratification of Agenda 2030 has been hailed by Frans Timmermans, first Vice President of the European Commission, as “a historic event, and a significant step forward for global action on sustainable development.”

Despite the enormous significance of Agenda 2030, it has some limitations. One significant weakness of the SDGs, identified by scholars, international organizations and civil society actors, relates to knowledge. Although widely recognized as an important catalyst and ingredient of development, knowledge is largely ignored by the SDGs, as has been demonstrated in a recent academic paper. In addition, cognitive, cultural and spiritual aspects of local knowledge, so important to communities worldwide, are invisible. This neglect of knowledge is critical because development organizations and national governments are revising their development policies within the framework of Agenda 2030. At a time when local knowledge is being ignored, the private sector and information technologies are being given unprecedented attention.

There is growing evidence that the UN itself is aware that knowledge requires more attention within the SDG process. In 2016, the UN Joint Inspection Unit undertook a comprehensive analysis of the state of knowledge management within the UN system, based on the premise that “knowledge constitutes an intangible and a concrete asset, an operational reality and a permanent aspiration, a general and a specific resource.” In its report Knowledge management in the UN system, the Joint Inspection Unit emphasized the importance of knowledge within the SDG process, arguing that knowledge has the potential to break down silos and is a natural integrating factor for all stakeholders in the implementation of Agenda 2030. In response to the recommendations made by the Unit, the UN has set a framework for a review of knowledge management within and across UN organizations in a recent General Assembly Resolution. As part of these efforts to learn from experience within the UN system, knowledge managers from 24 agencies met in New York, USA, on 30 October 2017 to share experiences and discuss possible future collaboration.

Civil society has also been increasingly addressing the role of knowledge within the SDGs. In a global collaborative effort, the Knowledge for Development Partnership has developed the Agenda Knowledge for Development which contains 13 Knowledge Development Goals and allied targets designed to complement the SDGs. This Agenda is founded on 73 individual statements from academics, UN policymakers, knowledge professionals, business leaders, students and many others from different countries around the world. Launched at the Knowledge for Development: Global Partnership Conference in April 2017, these Knowledge Development Goals address many of the outstanding issues that were neglected in Agenda 2030, including the need to establish pluralistic, diverse and inclusive knowledge societies. Local knowledge has even received its own goal as “KDG 3: Strengthening local knowledge ecosystems.”

This increasing attention to knowledge and knowledge management from the international community is a positive trend – and may lead to more effective implementation of Agenda 2030 and the SDGs. However, going forward, this attention needs to become more structurally embedded in development policies and practices. It also needs to be underpinned by new research on the potential contribution of local knowledge to specific SDGs and on the role of the private sector. A new research project An unusual suspect, based at the Athena Institute of the VU University Amsterdam and funded by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research-Science for Global Development (NWO-WOTRO) until August 2019, will be analysing the role of the private sector in knowledge brokering for international development.