Discussion Paper

No. 2017-60 | September 12, 2017
Approaches to the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals – some considerations on the theoretical underpinnings of the 2030 Agenda


The paper discusses the theoretical underpinning of the concept of sustainable development, especially in relation to follow-up and review, including ex post evaluation of progress.  The purpose is to explore methodological aspects of applied approaches to the implementation process, e.g. ways to unravel possible interactions among the numerous SDGs and targets, and to assess trade-offs between interventions. The aim is to go beyond various sustainable development interpretations, by exploring how they perceive and approach implementation of the goals, taking the complexity of this substantial task into account. The paper surveys the theoretical economic underpinning of the 2030 Agenda and the role of neoclassical economic theory in this context. Implementation routes for sustainable development interpretations based on other theoretical frameworks are briefly sketched for comparison. The analysis leads to the claim that it is questionable whether interpretations of sustainable development founded on neoclassical economic theory – as the 2030 Agenda – are applicable in relation to every aspect of sustainability.

JEL Classification:

Q01, O44, F64


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Cite As

Lars Josephsen (2017). Approaches to the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals – some considerations on the theoretical underpinnings of the 2030 Agenda. Economics Discussion Papers, No 2017-60, Kiel Institute for the World Economy. http://www.economics-ejournal.org/economics/discussionpapers/2017-60

Comments and Questions

Anonymous - Referee Report 1
October 25, 2017 - 07:41

Review of: Approaches to the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals – sone considerations on the theoretical underpinnings of the 2030 Agenda
By: Lars Josephson. Http://www.economics-journal.org/Economics/discussionpapers/2017-60

What follows is a brief report focussing on two questions: (i) Is the contribution of the paper potentially significant? (ii) Is the analysis ...[more]

... correct? I will focus on the paper's main strengths and weaknesses.

The Paper is organised in 5 sections:

- Section 1 presents background and content of the 2030 Agenda,
- Section 2 discusses some critical perspectives voiced in the literature,
- Section 3 puts forward some general considerations on the process from goals to implementation,
- Section 4 discusses the three dimensions of sustainable development and various interpretations of it.
- Finally, section 5 concludes.

I find that the paper gives a good, interesting and reasonably comprehensive overview of the background and rationale for the development of the SDGs and the Agenda 2030 including goals, targets and indicators. The language is precise and the explanation of the various parts of Agenda 2030 illuminating. This is clearly the strong point of this paper. The material is covered in sections 1,3 and 4. This, by itself, makes the paper in my view potentially significant.

When it comes to the more critical part of the paper, in particular section 2 and part of section 4, the paper is weaker, but still of interest. It is difficult within a relatively short paper to give a full and faithful presentation of the many alternative frameworks previously presented in the literature. Thus, this part reads more like an extended reference list than a proper analysis. Still, pointing out the weak focus on some root causes for lack of a sustainable development is a valuable contribution.

The weakest part of the paper is the conclusion (section 5). The paper claims that the SDGs are based on neoclassical economic theory (NET). This is problematic as the paper at this point looses it’s previous precision and makes only a caricaturing description of what NET is. It goes on to criticise the SDGs although the criticism is directed at the caricature NET. It is also striking that the criticism is overly theoretical and do not discuss what is likely to be a practical way forward in a global context.

So overall, I find the paper nice in its descriptive parts, but weaker in its analytical parts. Still, I would recommend publishing this as a full paper, based on its illuminating description of the the SDGs and the various elements of Agenda 2030.