“The Importance of Evidence-Informed Policy Making for the SDGs”: my keynote address to the Conference of the International Network of Government Science Advice. Tokyo, Tuesday 6 November 2018

Tokyo INGSA 6 Nov 2018

In an age of “fake news” and “alternative facts”, we see populist governments ignoring science and evidence as inconvenient truths. In this speech in Tokyo, I spoke of the challenges of achieving the SDGs and why it is important to draw on all available knowledge and expertise to drive progress on implementation. Here is the text:

Rt Hon Helen Clark

“The Importance of Evidence-Informed Policy Making for the SDGs”

Keynote Speech at Conference of International Network for Government Science Advice (INGSA)

Tokyo, 9 am, Tuesday 6 November 2018.

 Let me begin by thanking INGSA for the invitation to address this year’s conference with its theme of “Science Advice for a Changing World”.

 Your programme is of interest to me for two reasons: for

  1. the focus it places on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and for
  2. its overall promotion of the importance of evidence-informed policy-making.

As one who has occupied senior leadership positions for many years in first, domestic politics, and then at the United Nations Development Programme, I have depended on and greatly valued expert and free and frank advice. To embark on decision-making without that input is a risky endeavour.

 Agenda 2030 and the SDGs constitute an ambitious agenda, which, if implemented in full would transform the prospects of the world’s peoples and ecosystems.

 Achieving that, however, is a huge challenge. Many barriers stand in the way of success, not least:

  • Entrenched poverty and hunger. The number of hungry people worldwide has risen for the past three years, and now stands at 821 million – or one in every nine human beings. Yet the 2030 Agenda aims to eradicate hunger by 2030. That can’t possibly be achieved with the trend going in the wrong direction. Bold action will be needed to reverse that trend.
  • The failure of economies to generate sufficient employment and livelihoods for fast growing populations. While the level of global unemployment has stabilised at around 5.6 per cent, vulnerable employment is on the rise and the rate of reduction of working poverty has slowed. Considerable uncertainty exists around what the age of artificial intelligence will mean for employment prospects. We are a very long way from achieving SDG 8 which aspires to full and productive employment and decent work for all by 2030.
  • Poverty of opportunity, along with conflict and insecurity, will continue to drive informal migration, which in turn leads for many to exploitation and for others to death and injury where dangerous passage is involved. SDG 10 calls for the facilitation of orderly, safe, regular and responsible migration and mobility of people through planned and well managed migration policies. Moral panic in a number of destination countries, however, currently stands in the way of that.
  • Inequality is on the rise almost everywhere in the world: that is the conclusion reached in the first World Inequality Report launched last year. Yet SDG 10 aims for measurable reductions in income inequality.
  • Environmental degradation has resulted in significant biodiversity loss, desertification, and a warming climate – with many consequences for human development. As the landmark 2015 Rockefeller Foundation – Lancet Commission Report on Planetary Health concluded, “we have been mortgaging the health of future generations to realise economic and development gains in the present”. That is not sustainable. There are three SDGs relating directly to the environment including one specifically on climate change – these will need much more commitment from all United Nations Member States if they are to be achieved.
  • High levels of conflict and citizen security make sustainable development an unobtainable dream for many. By the end of last year, the numbers of forcibly displaced persons worldwide stood at 68.5 million – a rise of 2.9 million on the year before. SDG 16 calls for peaceful and inclusive societies based on the rule of law – on current trends we are moving away from, not towards, that objective.

This short summary of the challenges in the way of achieving the SDGs shows that it will take an extraordinary effort to reach them. Best efforts will require drawing on all relevant knowledge and capacities, and organising governments and mobilising civil society, including academic and research institutions to contribute.

 That assumes that governments actually want to embrace the sustainable development agenda and take steps to implement it. Doing so must lead to being prepared to be open to analysis of and advice on what the challenges actually are and their scale, and then to consider responses based on that advice. 

Many governments are prepared to follow that path, but for others a dispassionate analysis of challenges and options is an inconvenient truth. In a “post-truth”, “fake news” setting, science will be challenged, and so will solutions based on it.  

Let me instance three areas where the evidence points one way, but where populism and/or denial and/or fear of short-term political consequences point in another direction:

  • Climate change – the most recent report from the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change suggests that the world is on track for more than three degrees Celsius warming by 2100. To stay below the Paris Agreement target of 1.5 degrees Celsius, there would need to be what’s described as a World War Two level mobilisation to stop the use of fossil fuels and to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere at a large scale. 

Yet how likely is that when major economies are far from executing such decisions? The role of coal is once again applauded by the USA Federal Administration; in China, local authorities appear to be proceeding with coal plant construction despite the central government trying to rein it in; and coal-powered plants are reported to be making a comeback in government thinking in India.

Overall, the scientific consensus on climate change points to the need for major change in the way the world produces and consumes – but the short-term political costs of action so often lead to delayed action. Yet, as the 2006 Stern Review of the Economics of Climate Change told us, we either pay now for the energy and other transitions required, or we pay much more later – and for less optimal results. 

  • Drug Policy. The 2030 Agenda exhorts us to leave no one behind in development. One group which is consistently marginalised and often demonised, however, is that of people who use drugs. A prohibitionist approach is mandated by the United Nations conventions which refer to drug addiction as an “evil”. It is a short step from that to seeing those who use drugs as evil and deserving of punishment. Yet the steps taken over decades with the aim of wiping out drug use and illicit supply have manifestly failed, and the classification of drugs bears little relationship to assessments of their potential for harm.

This is an area where we need to hear more from science and less from moralisers and populists. Drug policy in most countries is neither based on science nor informed by evidence of what works. Portugal, which has in effect defied the intent of the international conventions, decriminalised personal use and possession of drugs, and put in place major harm reduction measures, has seen its rate of drug-related deaths drop from being the highest in Western Europe in the 1990s to the lowest today. There has to be a message in that.

  • Addressing inequality: High levels of inequality place strains on social cohesion and have poor outcomes for the most disadvantaged. Yet often governments are resistant to acting on the evidence of such social stress, preferring to blame the victims of it for their plight. Being effective in tackling inequality will mean accepting that market mechanisms don’t work for all in accessing housing and other services, and that the state must be a player if more equitable outcomes are to be secured. The evidence of what works in this area, however, such as intervention to secure affordable housing supply and sustaining universal health coverage, is often dismissed on ideological grounds.

Other examples of policy which is driven by ideology and belief rather than science and evidence abound across: migration policy- leading to human rights abuses; penal policy – leading to unnecessarily high levels of incarceration; and education – leading to a narrow exams and results focus rather than to education for critical thinking and innovation.

My appeal to policy makers seeking to achieve the SDGs and national development aspirations would be always to seek the best advice they can, rigorously evaluate it, make decisions accordingly, and monitor the outcomes so course corrections can be made as required. 

Further my advice would be for governments to organise themselves to meet the demands of policy-making across complex sets of issues which are not the domain of any one sector or ministry.

  • Lifting health status, for example, is about far more than access to services and treatments: it also relates to tackling poverty, lifting education levels, and having a clean environment and peace in the society.
  • Tackling climate change will involve efforts across energy, transport, environment, agriculture, forestry, science and research, economic development, and finance ministries together with the engagement of social policy and other ministries. The perspectives and engagement of women, youth, minorities of all kinds, and the most marginalised who are most dependent on an equable climate must be sought.

Getting cross-departmental co-ordination and ensuring that each department can contribute meaningfully will mean resourcing their policy and advisory capacity, something on which government science advisors are themselves well-placed to advise. And let us also not overlook the critical role of local government – often the mandate and funding (if it exists) for action on the issues central to sustainable development will lie at the sub-national levels.

That capacity also needs to be applied to foresight on the future – to scanning the horizon continually for the new issues, challenges, opportunities and threats to which countries must respond. Building resilience into societies and systems and the capacity to adapt and innovate as new circumstances arise are critical in a world where more people are exposed to risk from weather-related and other disasters, and where economic globalisation exposes countries to events over which they have no control but around which they must manage.

The capacity to do all this may well not be available from and within standing government capacity – and so governments should be encouraged to engage with expertise in the academic and research communities to ensure that all knowledge relevant to decision-making can be tapped.

To conclude:

As a realist, I consider that very major, complex, and inter-linked challenges stand in the way of achieving the SDGs and national aspirations for human development.  As an optimist, I know that to address those challenges, we need a sound knowledge base, good analysis, and the right policy tools.

Those who work at the science-policy interface have a critical role to play in supporting the design of evidence-informed policy which can meet global and national goals. I wish this conference well in raising aspiration for what scientific advisors can contribute to that process.

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