2030 Agenda: Switzerland far off the mark

Article as analysis
The international community will meet in New York in July to take stock of the implementation of the 2030 Agenda. Switzerland too will put forward its plans for attaining the Sustainable Development Goals.

The 2030 Agenda was adopted in September 2015 in the presence of then Federal President Simonetta Sommaruga in New York. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) it contains illustrate the economic and societal changes that will be needed to pave the way for a sustainable future. Progress in attaining the goals must be reviewed at national, regional and global levels. Globally, this responsibility rests with the High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF).

The HLPF was created at the Rio+20 Conference in 2012. It is charged with making recommendations for promoting policy coherence and compliance with assumed commitments. This year, the HLPF will convene from 11 to 20 July in New York. Switzerland, along with Germany, China and 19 other countries will put forward their implementation plans. Countries are now only at the stage of setting out their next steps at national level, identifying gaps in their policies, determining measures and laying the requisite legislative groundwork. Progress will therefore be monitored not on the basis of achievements but of plans.

Policy coherence as the biggest challenge

One express goal of the 2030 Agenda is to improve political coherence, which means that all policy decisions should contribute to sustainable development. Therefore, if this Agenda is to be comprehensively implemented, every department and every federal office has to make its contribution. As a universal framework, the Agenda concerns Switzerland's national, social and environmental policies, as well as the orientation of development cooperation and the alignment of the country's financial and economic policies with global sustainable development.

Unlike most other countries, Switzerland does not have a presidential, prime ministerial or a chancellor's office that can incorporate the 2030 Agenda into political processes from the top down. Meanwhile, there is already a legislative basis for a kind of "SDG impact assessment", in that the Parliament Act requires the Federal Cabinet, in every dispatch on a new law, to explain "the consequences for the economy, society, the environment and future generations" (Article 141.2.g). This impact assessment can and must in the future be systematically required for every law, as a form of sustainability audit.

International responsibility downplayed

To implement the 2030 Agenda, the Federal Council is relying mainly on international cooperation and the Sustainable Development Strategy (SNE). The first SNE was drawn up as early as 1997, and the fifth edition for the period 2016-2019 was approved in January. On the basis of nine Action Areas  the sustainable development strategy develops a long-term vision, describes the most important medium-term challenges and lays out the measures that are to help meet them by 2019.

The measures are clearly piecemeal and insufficient. While the visions are generally closely correlated with the sustainable future outlined in the 2030 Agenda, the measures remain focused on the domestic level. The introduction to the sustainable development strategy does indeed define sustainable development as "a just and fair division of resources between generations (INTER-generational solidarity) and regions of the world (INTRA-generational solidarity)" (page 9). But thereafter, solidarity is limited to that between generations. As far as concrete measures are concerned, there is no discussion of, let alone endeavour to achieve balance between world regions. The Sustainable Development Strategy expressly mentions foreign policy activities only "where these are relevant to the achievement of the goals in Switzerland" (page 11). This reflects its failure to recognize the paradigm shift in the universal Agenda. It should have addressed not just implementation in Switzerland but also by Switzerland, in other words, it should expressly analyse how Switzerland's domestic activities influence or even hamper the attainment of goals by other countries.

Confederation not a model thus far

From the standpoint of Alliance Sud, the current review of the Federal Act on Public Procurement offers a unique opportunity for the Administration to set the course for sustainable consumption. With annual procurement worth some CHF 40 billion, communes, cantons and Confederation bear special responsibility in this regard. SDG 12 calls for responsible consumption and production patterns, the Sustainable Development Strategy 2016-2019 incorporates this goal in its Action Area 1 "Consumption and production" and underlines the exemplary role of the Confederation in this area. The relevant measures call for greater responsibility on the part of companies and private consumers, as well as more transparency. Yet there are no measures referring the public sector as a consumer, and the ongoing legislative revision is not even mentioned in the current strategy. The Federal Council's proposal as submitted for formal consultation also lacks criteria regarding environmental degradation and respect for human rights throughout the supply chain. The strong focus on price as the main criterion for government procurement tends to work to the disadvantage of suppliers that produce on a socially and environmentally sustainable basis, as compliance with fundamental labour and human rights, as well as careful resource management do come at a price.

Big promise, small budget

The main criticism levelled at Switzerland's implementation plans is the lack of resources for systematic implementation. The Federal Council does indeed recognize the Agenda as a new universal frame of reference and intends promptly to set about implementing the initiative; but without the corresponding resources, this remains pure rhetoric. Switzerland still lacks a strategy for stemming the outflow of tax money from developing countries. The outflow of these billions of francs continues owing to tax dodging and tax optimization, not least of all by companies with headquarters in Switzerland.

Challenges to civil society

With its universality and cross-referencing between the different goals, the 2030 Agenda is a major opportunity to tackle current global problems systematically and holistically. But it also represents a major challenge to players to rid themselves of the silo mentality and the belief that responsibilities are always clearly distinguishable. This is also a challenge to civil society, which is already contributing to the realization of one or several SDGs in fields such as human rights, development cooperation, health, gender equality or environmental protection. But like the various Federal Offices, non-governmental organizations too must look at the bigger picture and ascertain whether their contribution to individual SDGs is also in line with their approach to sustainable development in the broader context.
This calls for greater coordination and networking of civil society endeavours to support official Switzerland in implementing the 2030 Agenda and to urge the authorities follow consistent and coherent approaches. To this end, Alliance Sud will be holding an initial roundtable in September 2016.

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