The SDGs in South Africa: why transitions are always the hardest part

Programme Type: Events Programme: Mistra Urban Futures

On the 21 August Dr. Alexis Schäffler-Thomson, consultant at development advisory firm, Pegasys, presented a talk, The SDGs in South Africa: why transitions are always the hardest part. The seminar, this time hosted collaboratively by the African Centre for Cities, the African Centre of Excellence for Inequality Research and the Poverty & Inequality Initiative, was attended by over 50 people, representing different research departments at UCT, civil society, private sector, local government networks, city, provincial as well as national government.

The seminar kicked off with welcoming words from Prof Murray Leibrandt, Director of the Southern Africa Labour and Development Research Unit (SALDRU) at UCT. This was followed by an introduction by Sylvia Croese, who outlined the Voluntary National Review (VNR) process that started in 2016 after the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). VNRs are part of the follow-up and review of the 2030 Agenda. They are intended to track progress in implementing the SDGs and its targets and are presented on an annual basis to the UN High-Level Political Forum.

Between 2016 and 2018, 111 VNRs were conducted by 102 countries, with 8 countries having conducted more than one VNR. In July 2019, 51 countries presented their VNRs, including South Africa which presented its VNR for the first time (available online here). The Department of Planning, Monitoring and Evaluation (DPME) coordinated this work, while Stats SA led  compiling South Africa’s first SDG country report. This report is expected to be published in September 2019, which will coincide with the first UN SDG summit since the adoption of the SDGs.

South Africa is seen as leading on the African continent when it comes to voluntary reporting and national mainstreaming of the SDGs, including the process of domestication of SDG data – which refers to the process of developing national proxies or indicators that are aligned to a country’s national context. However, there are areas for improvement relating to institutional alignment between the work of National Treasury (responsible for resource identification), the Department of Environmental Affairs (sustainable development mandate) and the Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs (implementation at local government level). These efforts may accelerate from 2020 onwards – which will mark the start of the final decade before reaching 2030.

Schäffler-Thomson reflected on Pegasys’s work driving developmental impacts in emerging economies. Pegasys has worked in and on countries across Africa, Asia, Europe and the Americas providing strategic advice to governments in the areas of resilience, sustainable development, infrastructure and regulation. Pegasys was appointed by Stats SA to report on SDG 6 (Clean Water and Sanitation), 14 (Life below water) and 15 (Life on land) as part of South Africa’s voluntary reporting process on the SDGs. The reporting process has a dual objective: reporting on the progress made towards achieving the SDG targets on the one hand, and reporting on the progress made on the reporting process itself on the other.

Schäffler-Thomson highlighted understanding that SDG reporting represents a transition from the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which set the framework for development reporting. With their expanded 17 goals and universal application, the monitoring and reporting on the SDGs require several big steps at different scales: global, national and local.

The presentation described the process of data collection and analysis led by Stats SA for SDGs 6, 14 and 15. This followed a methodology set by Stats SA under the guidance of the UN monitoring framework, but in practice the process was highly iterative, with many complexities arising. These ranged from the lack of quality data, and methodological issues around the alignment of data and reporting timelines.

As of 2019, South Africa’s ability to report on SDG indicators still varies across the different goals. South Africa is able to report on twelve out of thirteen indicators for SDG 6, but only on two of the ten SDG 14 targets. Moreover, South Africa is only on track for one SDG 15 indicator. For SDG 15, six targets of twelve are reported and there are varying degrees of progress. For some targets, indicators still need to be domesticated or require baseline data to allow for reporting.

The final set of outputs was a series of reports that reported on the progress South Africa has made towards realising each indicator in terms of a goal target, and the reporting status in terms of what was finally reported. Overall, reporting on clean water and sanitations has had a substantial head start – largely due to an emphasis within the MDGs on water, and targeted water programmes and government activities in South Africa.

Despite progress with some targets and support by targeted government programmes and policies, certain indicators remain vastly out of reach for South Africa and the actual reporting also encountered key limitations. An overriding issue relates to the nature of accessing and integrating consistent baseline data aligned with a sufficient time series and aligned to the UN framework. On the other hand, the relevance of UN indicators for South Africa also needs to be addressed through discussions on indicator domestication or the use of additional data sources.

A final layer of analysis was to assess the interaction between the SDGs in order to inform decisions on potential points of alignment and areas of conflict. These interlinkages are especially important to manage  trade-offs between the impact on achieving one goal on another. Understanding these interactions can be a powerful tool to help decision-makers strategic decisions about the economic outcomes, environmental sustainability and shared development benefits. The application for prospecting rights on South Africa’s coastal zone, following the discovery of natural gas near Mossel Bay, illustrates such conundrums.

The goal reporting process  shows South Africa has a comprehensive and largely progressive policy framework that can be used as leverage for progress. However, there is a need for better baseline reporting coupled with integrated evaluation. This requires both dedicated task teams working within the SDG processes and across sectoral working groups in an ongoing manner to iteratively monitor and review progress. Future voluntary reporting also needs to engage in domestication in a manner that is supported by both domestic and international methodologies.

Schäffler-Thomson’s presentation was followed by an engaging discussion with the audience.  Many questions centred around the role of local governments in data provision and the VNR process more widely. Suggestions made and thoughts about how this role could be improved highlighted the need to go beyond the technical nature and importance of SDG reporting. This reflected an overall concern with the need for better and more inclusive forms of collaboration around the SDGs, down to the citizen level, and the ways in which the lessons learned from the reporting process can be used to improve reporting going forward. Possible opportunities to contribute to monitoring and reporting on the SDGs going forward are represented by important milestones such as the local government elections 2021 and the new national census of 2022.

The presentation and recording of the seminar is available upon request. Please contact Charmaine Smith or Sylvia Croese. The next SDG seminar is scheduled to take place at ACC on Wednesday, 18 September.