This article was first published in the June 2020 China edition of
Accounting and Business magazine.

The 10-year countdown to the 2030 target for achieving the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) has begun. But it is increasingly apparent that it is a target that will not be met. A 2019 assessment of progress found that not a single country is on track to achieve all 17 SDGs on time – and this was long before Covid-19 was thrown into the mix.

The 17 interconnected social, economic, environmental and institutional objectives were agreed five years ago by all UN member countries. They range from ending poverty and hunger (SDGs 1 and 2) to revitalising the global partnership for sustainable development (SDG 17). As a whole they tackle all the big issues of our times, including climate change and inequality, while aiming to deliver decent work, economic growth, health and wellbeing, global peace and justice.

The 17 SDGs are made up of 169 indicators and 232 targets. One of the challenges is the many difficult trade-offs involved. For example, wider energy access may decrease air quality and have a negative impact on health and climate change, depending on the type of energy used. But there are also synergies, where improvements in one goal area support those in another. For example, improving the quality of public education should boost the creation of quality employment, gender diversity at work and improving GDP per capita.

If the past five years have been a warm-up phase in SDG achievement, the UN has called the 2020s ‘the decade of action’. To encourage that action, it has set up a mechanism of voluntary national reviews for countries to report on their progress. Many countries are also developing online SDG dashboards to help citizens see the progress being made.

Key actors

The national bodies doing the work of tracking progress on the SDGs are the Supreme Audit Institutions (SAIs). They have been busy scrutinising the readiness of governments to deliver the multidimensional and cross-cutting objectives of the SDGs – monitoring implementation and identifying opportunities for improvement.

A recent report from ACCA, Auditing the SDGs: Progress to 2030, highlights the vital role that SAIs can play in supporting the global effort towards achieving the SDGs. SAIs are ‘key actors’ in delivery of the SDGs, says Jimmy Greer, head of sustainability at ACCA. ‘They have the people with the skills and abilities to audit and track progress across the many levels where the SDGs are relevant.’

SAIs have developed standards, guidance and processes to support new audit areas presented by the SDGs, including auditing guidance on issues such as land use and soil quality to combat desertification.

ACCA’s report highlights just some of the SAI audit work around the world related to SDG achievement. In Europe, for example, the European Court of Auditors undertook a project to assess whether moves by the EU to protect human health from air pollution have been effective. It found that although air quality has benefited from emission reductions (even pre-Covid-19), citizens’ health is still heavily affected by air pollution. Several of the EU’s air-quality standards were found to be weak, with member states often failing to comply with them. The auditors’ recommendations included prioritising air quality in EU policies and doing more to improve public awareness and information.

In Canada, provincial audit offices worked with the Office of the Auditor General to look at climate risks and action plans. The project found that most of Canada’s provincial governments were not on track to meet their various climate change commitments (such as emissions targets) and that far greater action was required countrywide.

Although the complete set of 17 SDGs are not likely to be met in full by 2030, the journey towards their achievement is of equal importance for governments. Many institutions and established ways of working will need to evolve along the way.

Greer says: ‘This decade of action can be alternatively understood as a decade of transition: moving from a model that’s no longer fit for purpose to a more appropriate one that is more resilient to emerging risks, corrective of inherent market and governance failures, and capable of opening up new opportunities for all.’

Around the world, SAIs are holding governments to account on the ambitious agenda of the SDGs, and are already having an impact through their work in assessing progress towards SDG achievement. But as ACCA’s report explains, that impact could be even greater. This is partly because achieving the SDGs is a system-building process. SAIs, governments and civil society need to collaborate in their efforts to achieve the SDGs. SAIs’ global approach to collaborative ways of working could therefore provide a model for others.

Collaborative advantage

SAIs have a strong ethos and practice of cooperative working, despite constraints such as different languages and varying cultural, political and economic development contexts. They have already developed peer-to-peer collaboration on SDG audit projects and have established global and regional knowledge-sharing systems and processes. They are also developing further learning tools and resources, such as the massive open online course (MOOC) on SDG auditing that has been created by SAI Estonia.

ACCA’s report suggests the delivery of the SDGs by governments could be improved by finding more ways to incorporate SAIs into SDG assessment as early as possible. For example, SAIs could help improve governments’ understanding of the many dimensions of the SDGs and so make government planning and decision-making more coherent.

SAIs could also have a wider role in raising awareness among civil society of the progress being made towards achieving the SDGs, particularly by ensuring their audits are highly visible. In this way, they could increase the impact of their audits and the pressure on governments to implement audit recommendations.

Sarah Perrin, journalist