** This article was originally published by The Conversation Africa. It was written by Willem Fourie. The original article is available here.


African policymakers need access to high quality evidence to implement the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) successfully. The SDGs are arguably the most broad-ranging development goals to be ratified by United Nations member states. Their overall aim is to “leave no one behind” by 2030.

Evidence based research proved key to meeting some of the goals that preceded the SDGs. This was particularly the case for meeting goals related to diseases such as HIV and Aids and malaria. According to UNAIDS, increased research output and better linkages between researchers and policymakers were important for reaching targets set under the Millennium Development Goals.

And yet linking African policymakers with the sort of research that’s relevant for implementing goals is difficult. This is not a problem unique to implementing development goals. But the broad ambition of the SDGs has made identifying and addressing barriers more urgent.

There are at least six main barriers to the use of research in policymaking. These are the complexity of evidence, absence of personal relationships between researchers and policymakers, the time it takes to do quality research, the perceived irrelevance of research, a lack of analytical capacity within governments, and budget constraints.

There’s no silver bullet to overcoming these barriers. But building strong relationships between researchers and policymakers is a good place to start.

The big six

Complexity of evidence: Researchers assume that peer-reviewed journal articles are the most important form of evidence. This isn’t always the case. Policymakers rely on different types of evidence, such as practical experience and political know-how.

But even using one form of evidence isn’t that easy. Peer-reviewed research often comes from competing sources with varying methodologies, perspectives and ideologies.

Absence of personal relationships: Personal contact between researchers and policymakers is important. Strong personal relationships are important for the uptake of research evidence. Their absence is seen as a key barrier.

Weak relationships have an impact on the relevance and even timeliness of research. The absence of strong relationships contributes to researchers often not knowing what the needs and challenges in governments are. A study on research based decision making in South Africa found that technical and exclusive terminology got in the way of research evidence being used. Terminology that excludes non-academic partners weakens relationships between researchers and policymakers as it effectively excludes them from the knowledge creation process.

Not enough time: Peer-reviewed research is time consuming. This partly explains why research time frames are often at odds with the urgency with which policymakers need to address and respond to challenges in their environment. Lengthy research processes are often identified as a barrier to the use of research evidence in policymaking.

Irrelevant research: A further barrier inherent to the research process is the perceived absence of research that is relevant to policymakers. This perception is more about how research is communicated than what it’s about. The conventions of academic writing at times obscure the practical relevance of research. This is why it’s important to develop actionable messages for decision makers. Actionable in the sense that researchers can suggest ways in which their findings can be implemented.

Lack of analytical capacity: A study done on Canada’s public service highlighted the lack of analytical capacity among government workers as a barrier to the update of research evidence. Some policymaking institutions don’t have the analytical capacity to respond adequately to challenges including time pressures and the sheer volume of evidence available to them.

Budget constraints: Policy makers also face budgetary constraints. Evidence-based policy interventions can be very expensive.

Overcoming the barriers

A good response to research barriers within policymaking circles would be to include building relationships that are based both on expertise and mutual respect.

Researchers must focus on building expertise as well as sharing research through networking and partnerships. Building relationships between researchers and policymakers must go hand-in-hand with gathering research evidence. Strong relationships will lead to language being used that everyone can understand as well as productive partnerships. They might even improve academic responsiveness, and lead to better and more usable results.

It’s no surprise that the UN’s 2030 Agenda emphasises the importance of creating partnerships. It is now understood that the use of research evidence in the implementation of development goals isn’t merely a technical processes.

Lorren Haywood and Nikki Funke from the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) recently released a report on key actors, roles, relationships and gaps related to implementing the Sustainable Development Goals in South Africa. In the report, they use SDG 17 and its emphasis on the need for partnerships and collaborative relationships to enable the realisation of the SDGs as point of reference.

It is not the sole responsibility of government to implement the ambitious goals but rather that of all actors in society. By investigating the SDG landscape in South Africa they were able to identify the five core clusters of actors and their functions in terms of their roles and responsibilities in the implementation of the SDGs. These are discussed further in the briefing note, which can be found below. The research specifically highlights the need for partnerships to go beyond the traditional public-private partnerships and rather be inclusive accountable, and people- and planet-centred. Such an integrated partnership approach implies reducing the barriers created by institutional silos and strengthening sectoral and subnational coordination across implementing entities. The CSIR conducts research to develop an understanding of the systematic challenges and opportunities that characterise each of these goals. The findings of this research have the potential to enable the respective actors to define innovative means to address the particular development objectives which they are most closely linked to.

Click here for access to the report.


** This article is based on the SDG Index and Dashboards press release.


The newly published SDG Index and Dashboards Report 2017 illustrates that world leaders need to strengthen their joint efforts to realize the global goals. Not only does a rising trend of nationalism and protectionism impede the implementation of the goals, but as the report shows, industrialized countries are not serving as role models. Many of the richest countries in the world are nowhere near achieving the global policy objectives but also deteriorate the implementation process for poorer countries because of negative spillover effects.

The study was written by experts of the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) and the Bertelsmann Stiftung, under the lead authorship of UN Special Advisor and world-renowned economist Prof. Jeffrey Sachs. The SDG Index and Dashboards collect available data for 157 countries and assess where each country stands in 2017 with regard to achieving the SDGs. The SDG Index ranks countries based on their performance across the 17 Sustainable Development Goals. The SDG Dashboards use a traffic-light chart to assess where a country stands on each of the 17 SDGs. It helps countries identify priorities for early actions and shows that every country faces major challenges in achieving the SDGs.

The United States ranks 42nd on the 2017 SDG Index, placing it ahead of only 4 other OECD countries (Chile, Israel, Mexico and Turkey) and behind many European states such as Latvia (32nd) or Greece (38th), as well as Cuba, which takes the 29th place, and Argentina (41st). It is one of the few G20 countries with as many as 8 SDGs rated as “red” on its SDG Dashboard, alongside India, Mexico and Turkey. The US Dashboard thereby highlights key challenges in overcoming gender and income inequality (SDGs 5 and 10) as well as in addressing unsustainable consumption and production (SDG12), taking climate and environment action (SDGs 13 to 15), ensuring peace and security both at home and abroad (SDG16) and supporting the global partnership for the SDGs (SDG17).

“SDG Index and Dashboards highlight the need for urgent action on the part of G20 countries in making sustainable development a reality both within and beyond their borders. If the world is to achieve the SDGs, all countries must take up the goals as part of their national development strategies and ensure that they take responsibility for their impact on the rest of the world,” said Jeffrey D. Sachs, Director of the SDSN.

Even the richest countries fall short on their promises

The countries which are closest to fulfilling the goals are not the biggest economies but comparably small, developed countries: Sweden, Denmark and Finland are the top three performing countries. Among the G7 countries, only Germany and France can be found among the top ten performers. The United States ranks 42nd on the Index, while the Russian Federation and China rank 62nd and 71st, respectively. Still, every country faces particular, often major challenges: One of the greatest obstacles in achieving the global goals for high-income countries are poor performances regarding sustainable consumption and production. All countries that score lowest on electronic-waste generation, for example, are high-income countries. Sweden, the frontrunner for the overall SDG index ranking is, alongside the United States, Germany and France, one of the countries that produces the most electronic waste: an average of 23.7 kilograms per person each year. In comparison, Burundi, Congo or Malawi, which are among the poorest countries in the world and perform badly overall, only produce 0.2 kilograms. Low and middle-income countries from Africa are, moreover, among the top ten performing countries when it comes to municipal waste. They tend to produce only half the amount of municipal waste that high-income countries such as the United Kingdom or France produce.

Even more striking is the finding that high-income countries owe their good performance due to so-called “negative spillover effects”. These effects occur when the actions of one country, or the lack thereof, affect the ability of others to fulfill their obligations under the SDG Agenda. The bottom 20 performers on spillover effects are rich countries which generally do better than poor countries in the overall ranking. This suggests that good SDG outcomes are often associated with negative spillover effects. The report is a first attempt to measure these processes, which include unsustainable consumption patterns that externalize environmental and social costs to other countries, as well as unfair tax competition and opaque financial systems that foster money laundering and insufficient financing for public global goods. Altogether only six countries (Sweden, Norway, Luxembourg, Denmark, Netherlands and UK) spend the committed 0.7% of GDP on Official Development Assistance.

Agenda 2030 in danger? World leaders need to act now

Poor and developing countries understandably score lowest on the SDG Index as they still face significant challenges in tackling poverty and providing basic services, while often having comparably little resources at their disposal. The Central African Republic, Chad and the Democratic Republic of the Congo are at the bottom of the Index and still have the longest way to go in achieving the SDGs. The complete SDG Index and Dashboards report provides full details for each country.

“The G20 nations should send out a strong signal towards the achievement of the global goals. Our findings show that politicians, businesses and society altogether must urgently intensify their efforts and commit themselves to this agenda,” said Aart De Geus, CEO and Chairman of the Bertelsmann Stiftung.

About the study

The SDG Index and Dashboard 2017: “Global Responsibilities: International Spillover Effects in Achieving the SDGs” is the first worldwide study to assess for 157 countries where each country stands in 2017 with regard to achieving the historic global goals. The SDG-Index should help governments and civil society alike to track progress and ensure accountability. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), unlike its predecessor the Millennium Development Goals, set standards not only for emerging and developing countries, but also for the industrialized nations. SDSN is an association of research institutes formed to support the new UN objectives under the auspices of the UN Secretary General. The SDSN is committed to supporting the implementation of the SDGs at local, national, and global scales. The Bertelsmann Stiftung is one of the largest foundations in Germany. It works to promote social inclusion for everyone. It is committed to advancing this goal through programs that improve education, shape democracy, advance society, promote health, vitalize culture and strengthen economies.

* This story originally appeared on the IISD's SDG Knowledge Hub.

June 2017: The South African Sustainable Development Knowledge Hub (SA SD KH) has recently unveiled an expanded and improved website.


In collaboration with the South African Government’s Department of Science and Technology, the SA SD KH has added its first cohort of African sustainable development innovations. The additions provide development actors with access to African innovations, tagged in terms of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Ten innovations have been added, and more will be included in the coming months.

The first cohort of innovations includes a number of innovations that respond to SDG 6 (clean water and sanitation). Many of these innovations are the result of the Water Technologies Demonstration Programme, a South African multi-stakeholder innovation initiative. These innovations include African reverse osmosis technologies, efficient and cost-effective toilets, and domestic water management technologies.

Subsequent cohorts of sustainable development innovations will be added towards the end of the year, and will focus on additional SDGs. Current innovations on the SA SD KH tackle infant mortality (SDG 3) and respond to the need to monitor and co-ordinate climate change mitigation strategies (SDG 13). Additional updates to the SA SD KH include an enhanced search function.

The SA SD KH was launched with a view to linking development partners with relevant and potentially transformative African evidence. It currently contains more than 600 full-text peer-reviewed articles on the 17 SDGs. The SA SD KH was recently admitted as a Sustainable Development Solutions Network African member.