Three challenges for Afghanistan’s Sustainable Development Goals adoption

Since the adoption of the United Nations resolutions to ‘transform our world by 2030’ and ‘leave no one behind’ – also known as the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development the Afghan government has shown a keenness to implement the resolution and march toward sustainable development. A three-phase Afghanistan Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) process including nationalisation, alignment, and implementation is laid out. Targets and indicators are nationalised, an alignment process is underway and the implementation phase is planned to commence in 2018. The Afghan government also produced a National Voluntary Review at the High Level Political Forum: SDGs’ progress report.

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Despite the progress, three issues are found in a scoping study of Afghanistan’s SDG process: the challenges of targets and indicators, a lack of strategy for means of implementation and a symbolic engagement of non-state actors.

1. The challenges of translating targets and indicators

In the process of nationalisation, the Afghan government assigned targets to specific sectors. Sectoral leads have produced tables that interpret global SDGs into national goals, targets, and indicators. In the case of health SDGs, for example, Afghanistan developed 21 national health indicators (out of 31, globally), and attempted to set a baseline for them and predict progress until 2030.

These technical aspects have shown several challenges including misinterpretation of the global indicators, a weak linkage between indicators and targets and a lack of baseline data. For example, the global SDG indicator 3.9.2 states: “Mortality rates attributed to unsafe water, unsafe sanitation and lack of hygiene (exposure to unsafe Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene for All (WASH) services)” is nationalised as “the percentage of access to improved drinking water sources in Afghanistan,” which is set at 65 percent. With the former focusing on the outcome and the latter on the availability of the service, the implicit assumption that accessibility actually translates to outcome is often hard to prove in the case of many Low and Middle-Income Countries (LMICs), let alone a fragile and conflict-affected state like Afghanistan. There is not a consensus on the baselines for Maternal Mortality Ratios (MMRs). The World Health Organization (WHO) has Afghanistan’s MMR around 400 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births. A recent national household survey has suggested that Afghanistan’s MMR was 1,200. There may be a misunderstanding that female mortality during reproductive age was wrongly presented as MMR in the survey, but that can be an excuse worse than the sin, pointing to a poor technical capacity to undertake a national survey.

2. Poor means of implementation

Notwithstanding the challenges in revising and contextualising indicators, the means of implementation at the implementing level are missing.

At the core of Sustainable Development Goals is a holistic approach to development: “The challenges and commitments identified … are interrelated and call for integrated solutions. To address them effectively, a new approach is needed.” The Afghanistan report on SDG progress also mentions that a whole-of-system strategy is needed to address the goals and that multi-sectoral committees at the highest level are formed. But sectoral divisions in implementing SDGs are as obvious at the outset of national arrangement as are the differentiation of tasks and roles among sectors. In other words, the current Afghanistan SDG arrangement shows that interventions will remain in silos of sectors at the provincial, district and community levels, and decision-making will be centralised and vertical with the president approving every decision, even at the district level. An initial step toward transformative governance in Afghanistan could be a decentralisation of decision-making and bureaucracy to allow sectors to mingle at the provincial and district levels. Having ministers sit around at a table would not be much of a multi-sectoral approach. However, health workers visiting schools, teachers, physicians and farmers sitting in on rural development committees, and health, education and agriculture departments at district and provincial level designing interventions collectively based on their own needs and contexts are examples of real multi-sectoral approaches. Unfortunately, the centralised system in Afghanistan does not allow for such contextual innovations.

3. Symbolic non-state involvement

Finally, the state ownership of Afghanistan-SDGs may have advantages, but the disadvantages are far more prominent. On a positive note, the public budget can be allocated to the national SDGs and national policies, programmes can be aligned with the goals and targets and a national statistics office can lead the effort to gather, analyse and share data. Yet, states can often be complicit in the creation of policies that run counter to sustainable development. In Afghanistan, the involvement of non-state institutions and actors, civil society, policy and research organisations, academia, and the public has so far been symbolic. All that can be found in the media regarding SDGs is one-sided information sharing. Consultative workshops and seminars with NGOs aimed at the engagement of them with the process of nationalisation appeared more like awareness raising campaigns. Although the Afghanistan SDG report mentions non-state engagement in the process, of the 19 policy think tanks identified as active in Kabul, none were engaged in the nationalisation phase of Afghanistan SDGs.

It is commendable that the Afghan government has taken the leadership to adopt SDGs, but its role should be more of a facilitator for all stakeholders including government agencies, NGOs, civil society, policy and research institutions, academia, the media and the public to engage in SDG nationalisation, alignment, and implementation. The 2030 global agenda is about the people and the planet, and thus Afghanistan SDGs should be in the hands of the people.


Initially published by Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit at


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