This post by Peter Taylor, Associate Director for Think Tank Initiatives at Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC), describes a number of efforts currently underway to highlight how policy research institutions can make a real difference through contributing to the Sustainable Development Goals. In particular, a recent series of global consultations has demonstrated that high quality evidence, data, and analysis will be crucial to support progress towards the health-related SDGs. Equally important will be genuine, effective partnership and collaboration between policymakers and researchers, communities, and citizens.

“17 goals to transform our world.” The United Nations made this bold statement on 1 January 2016, when the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development officially came into force. The SDGs are both inspiring and challenging because they will apply universally to all. As the UN points out, signatory countries are already mobilising efforts to end all forms of poverty, fight inequalities, and tackle climate change, while ensuring that no one is left behind. But just how will individual countries connect their national development processes to the global SDGs? How will these processes in turn translate to action at the local level? What will the indicators and targets look like in different contexts? How will these national efforts combine to inform progress towards the SDGs at a global level? And how will what is learned globally, from past experiences with the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and now with the SDGs, help to catalyse and reinforce what happens at the national level?

These questions are exercising the minds of policymakers and researchers alike, and we have been reflecting on them at IDRC too, as a recent blog post by Sue Szabo indicates. At the same time, as awareness of the SDGs grows amongst citizens in many countries, there is increasing interest and demand for information about how they are expected to directly affect peoples’ lives. I’ve been fortunate to participate in a number of recent conversations and dialogues where questions like these have been discussed. In fact, the Think Tank Initiative is actively engaged in supporting work around some of these. Take, for example, the Southern Voice initiative – a network of 48 thinks tanks from Africa, Asia, and Latin America – which serves as an open platform for contributions to international discourses around the SDGs. By working to address existing power imbalances and the need for more inclusive participation of different actors in global development debates, this network is helping to share data and evidence-based policy analyses by researchers from low- and middle-countries that relate directly to the SDGs.

Another way that IDRC and the Think Tank Initiative are engaging in SDG discussions and processes relates to health. Goal 3 of the SDGs (Health and Well-being for All) is ambitious in its own right. But it’s clear that Goal 3 will not be achieved without progress being made towards all of the other, inter-related Goals as well. Similarly, progress towards Goal 3 will also contribute to the success of the other Goals. In recent months, we’ve been exploring ways in which policies and systems relating to individual and public health are already being strengthened. There is even greater interest in seeing what happens when these sound policies are implemented and the enhanced systems are put into practice. All of this raises the challenge of how progress can be catalysed and measured; this is precisely where policy research institutions add real value.

In November 2015, representatives of 60 think tanks and academic institutions from around the world met in Geneva at the Graduate Institute to explore how they could help to accelerate the implementation of the SDG agenda on global health. We learned that these two types of institutions are, in fact, key players in the knowledge-policy interface for health, largely through their high quality policy-relevant research and engagement, monitoring and tracking of progress around policy implementation, convening of spaces for policy dialogue, and bridging between national and global efforts relating to the SDGs. The dialogue in that first meeting generated a lot of enthusiasm and momentum to better understand what the role and contribution of policy research institutions could look like going forward.

As a result, the Graduate Institute and IDRC went on to convene a series of global and regional consultations during 2016, which served to widen our engagement with other interested stakeholders such as national public health institutions, policymakers, and funding agencies. Over the past year, consultations have taken place in Geneva, Berlin, Kampala, Rio de Janeiro, Vancouver, and Islamabad. These served as fantastic opportunities for understanding needs and challenges towards SDG implementation, sharing knowledge and experience, and also for generating ideas for collective action. Together we discussed how, in different countries and regions, the health-related SDGs are being integrated within national development plans; the need and role of data, evidence, and analysis in supporting efforts to make progress towards the health-related SDGs; the role of think tanks and academic institutions in contributing to these efforts; and ways in which policy researchers and other stakeholders can better work together to make this contribution as effective as possible.

Out of these conversations and consultations, we’ve heard some key, recurring messages:

  1. Inter- and multi-sectoral approaches are central to achieving the health outcomes outlined in the SDGs.
  2. Availability of quality, credible, and accessible data relating to all aspects of public health is crucial.
  3. Data collection alone will not be enough. In order to truly “leave no-one behind”, we will need to promote and facilitate meaningful engagement of citizens.
  4. We need to understand how progress towards the SDGs will be made, tracked, and reported on at the national level, as well as at the “local” or sub-national level.
  5. Policy processes are inherently political in nature – how can policy researchers navigate these processes in ways that are informed by a deep understanding of political realities, but without being partisan? This is a challenging endeavour, but crucial if real change is to be achieved.
  6. Generating useful data, analysis, and evidence that speaks to the inter-related SDGs will require new forms of collaboration and partnership between ministries, sectors and other different stakeholders, including citizen groups and organisations.
  7. Achieving good governance and strong, effective institutions is key to achieving the health-related SDGs.

Following the consultations, we are continuing to engage with participants on the role of think tanks and academic institutions in supporting progress towards the health-related SDGs. Drawing on what we’ve heard, we are working closely with the Graduate Institute in Geneva and many other collaborators to help establish guiding principles for a new global network called “THINK_SDGs”.  We believe this will help to maintain the existing momentum, while also growing engagement with wider audiences. At IDRC, we are also exploring ways to continue our work with policy research institutions who are engaged in work relating to health through an emerging “Think Health Initiative”. We look forward to seeing how all these different efforts can together help contribute towards “transforming the world” via the SDGs. Be sure to watch this space for more news as our efforts unfold.

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