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SDGs: leave no one behind

As we transition from the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) to the Sustainable Development goals (SDGs), it is crucial to examine South Africa’s MDG performance, especially for children. Absolute poverty has declined, and there has been a five-fold increase in the number of people benefiting from social grants. Primary education has also seen very high rates of enrolment and retention and South Africa has in effect achieved the goal of universal primary education in advance of the 2015 deadline. The country has also done extremely well in increasing the proportion of one-year-old children immunised against measles, and general immunisation coverage for infants under one year of age. 

From a policy perspective, South Africa has been proactive in ensuring that the necessary policies and implementation strategies are in place to reduce under-five mortality, through measures such as reducing malnutrition (especially underweight children), increasing immunisation coverage and providing access to free health care facilities. 

However, there are areas where South Africa has fallen short in meeting the MDG targets. The country faces a persistently unequal society and high unemployment rates, which have both contributed to poverty and hunger. There are still high levels of malnutrition, resulting in stunting and poor child health. Despite strong interventions in child health programmes (for example in PMTCT and the pneumococcal and rota virus vaccines), these have not been sufficient to reduce the under-five mortality rate to the MDG 4 goal of 20 per 1 000 births. Despite investment in public health and maternal care there remains a significantly high level of maternal mortality in South Africa.  

The 2030 Agenda is meant to improve the lives of the poor, most marginalised and the most vulnerable, especially children. What does this framework mean for ordinary South African children? How will it translate into concrete action for them? It is crucial to consider how the frameworks decided this year will turn into action and produce tangible results for South Africans.  

Reaching agreement on the 2030 Agenda was the critical first step to a more just, sustainable and prosperous future. However, this future will not happen automatically. The challenge now is to put the commitments made at the UN into action at national and global levels, and make concrete changes in policy, practice and financing that will help ensure genuine, accelerated progress towards each and every SDG.

Effective implementation will be critical to ensure no one is left behind and that all groups in our society benefit from development progress. There should be plans at national level to ensure that the 2030 Agenda frameworks turn into tangible results for people. In order to achieve concrete returns, the 2030 Agenda needs new, innovative and transformative means of implementation, including institutions that can work in an integrated, transparent manner, access to information, and monitoring and reporting for accountability.  The MDGs were not accompanied by a sufficiently robust system of people-centred accountability, with the UN secretary-general identifying this as one of the key reasons for shortfalls. 

The 2030 Agenda provides governments with an opportunity to address this accountability deficit to build on and go beyond the progress made in the last 15 years. It is an opportunity to build a world in which all children — no matter where they are born, who their parents are, what ethnic group they belong to, and whether or not they have a disability – can survive, develop, realise their rights and be empowered as agents of change to reach their full potential in life.

Particular  focus  must  be  placed  on  strengthening  national  accountability  for  sustainable development commitments between state and citizens in order to ensure sustainability and effectiveness in the long term. The South African government must ensure citizens have formal opportunities to engage in fiscal processes, based on access to comprehensive, disaggregated, timely and user-friendly information, to ensure accountability of the government to its commitments to development. Moreover, the government must put in place a participatory and transparent accountability and review mechanism for commitments made in the FFD (Financing for Development) Outcome Document.

The government has to establish plans to implement the SDGs in line with its national development plans, ensuring that the post-2015 development agenda builds on the best of the MDGs. To achieve this, the government has to look at its MDG performance, identify where it has fallen short and put in place ambitious yet measurable goals and targets, which must be underpinned by principles of equality, equity, universality and sustainability. Substantive gaps in the MDGs must be addressed including: ensuring quality service provision; protecting children from violence; and promoting open, transparent and accountable governance at all levels. The poorest and most marginalised, including the most vulnerable children, must benefit first from development progress.

Target zero

Moreover, there must be ambitious objectives in the country that can facilitate “getting to zero” on all dimensions of extreme poverty, including: ending preventable new-born, child and maternal deaths; ending all forms of violence against children; and ensuring all people have access to sustainable food, nutrition, water, sanitation and energy. If the government does this, then the international frameworks would mean something to ordinary South Africans, especially the children of this country.

The South African government should make sure that the post-2015 Agenda does not become an “unfunded” mandate. The government has to commit to pledging sufficient, efficient and equitable spending to key services that benefit children, in particular universal health coverage; free and good quality education; nutrition and child protection services.  To ensure equity South Africa must make spending on children visible in budget allocation. 

Moreover, the government must commit to ensuring that sustainable development financing has a strong, clear focus on tackling inequalities. The disparities in health, education and living standards will continue to grow unless the financing community takes steps not only to increase the volume of resources available, but also to ensure that they are allocated to reach poor and marginalised children. A key barrier to further progress is inadequate public finance, plus the inefficient and inequitable use of those resources. This restricts vital investments in education, child protection and health systems.  Ambitious sustainable development objectives will not be fulfilled without ensuring the growth of public revenue and its effective allocation into the correct places. 

Mobilising resources

Tackling many of the challenges facing South African children will require mobilisation of sufficient resources, equitable allocation and their efficient spending within transparent, participatory and accountable governance frameworks. Therefore, South Africa must make commitments to strengthening its tax systems, and ensuring that tax is progressive and that tax policies are addressing income inequality and poverty. Moreover, the government must attempt to increase tax to GDP ratio to at least 20%, while ensuring that taxes are progressive and effective tax policies are equitable and broad-based. 

Finally, almost everyone acknowledges that the road to achieving the 2030 Agenda will be long and hard. To support governments as they develop their implementation strategies, Save the Children presents five key questions for governments and other stakeholders to consider to ensure that implementation effectively delivers for all countries, people and segments of society.  

First, how will national policies, plans and financing integrate the 2030 Agenda? Secondly, how will institutions be strengthened to support implementation and co-ordinate activities across ministries and for all segments of society? Thirdly, what steps will government and other stakeholders take to ensure no one is being left behind by development progress at local, national and global levels? Fourth, how will government and other stakeholders increase data collection and sharing to inform planning and monitor progress toward the goals for all social and economic groups? Finally, how will government and other stakeholders ensure accountability for 2030 Agenda commitments at local, national and global levels?

The challenge to meet the 2030 Agenda targets is bigger than government, hence a partnership that includes all stakeholders is critical. The questions developed by Save the Children are for these stakeholders to ponder on.

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