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Leading by Example: the SDGs, the U.S. and Global Leadership

Second in a series of articles based on the Brookings Institution Report, “The State of the Sustainable Development Goals in the United States”. The first article provided the main findings and recommendation from the report. This follow up article discusses specific findings of the Brookings Report and Engage AI’s comments on the report.

As noted in the previous article (read here), the Brookings Report (the Report) states that SDGs are essential for U.S. development.

“…[]the SDGs offer the U.S. a concrete framework for benchmarking progress in key domestic priorities. The goals offer a tool to help set priorities around shared outcomes, and a common vocabulary for holding policymakers accountable to addressing the needs of the millions of people for whom goals like quality education, access to clean water, good health, decent jobs, and fair administration of justice are bread and butter issues.”[1]

Unfortunately, the U.S. still has a long way to go in terms of achieving the SDGs, and this not only affects the U.S. domestically, but also internationally.

The Report maintains that SDGs can assist the U.S. in asserting global leadership, through taking the lead on engagement on achieving the SDGs with other countries. The SDGs are universal; they apply to all countries that deal with issues similar to those with which the U.S. has to deal. There are more chances for cooperation, collaboration and partnership between the U.S. and its allies. The U.S. is the world’s largest bilateral donor and is largely responsible for establishing the multilateral development system, and thus can take an essential role in stimulating progress on achieving SDGs.[2]

The Report takes the perspective that as a global superpower, the U.S. should have the geo-political leadership in promoting the global achievement of the SDGs. However, the Report does not directly mention that aside from political clout, the U.S. has a moral responsibility to advance the SDGs nationally and internationally, a responsibility it is currently not exercising. The Report quotes President Biden’s first address to the U.N. General Assembly, where he stated that the U.S.’s international agenda is to “lead not just with the example of our power, but… with the power of our example.”[3] Given the current state of the SDGs in the U.S., the U.S. is not yet able to lead by example.

The Report acknowledges that the U.S. has not yet integrated the SDGs into policies guiding international development investments and strategy; and it is the only one of 20 principal OECD-DAC donors which has not done so. This is a missed opportunity. SDGs are now considered the lingua franca of the global development community and are slowly being accepted as such by the international business community. The U.S. has proposed initiatives, such as the Build Back Better World Partnership with its G7 allies[4], and the success of these initiatives, through the building of partnerships and stimulating investment, partly depends on the U.S.’ being able to show progress on achieving the SDGs.[5]

”By integrating the SDGs into its country strategies, the U.S. can show how it aligns to and is meeting the investment needs of its partner countries, as well as how it is enabling global progress.”[6]

The U.S. has also not submitted or even committed to submitting a Voluntary National Review (VNR), in contrast with 36 of the top 40 U.S. aid recipients in 2019[7] and with some of its cities and states.[8] In addition, the Report noted that the lack of disaggregated data makes it more difficult to track how particular classes and groups of people in the U.S. are doing in terms of the SDGs, and producing disaggregated data is something the U.S. must address to achieve the SDGs and reduce inequality in the country.[9]

The Report mentions the U.S. Feed the Future Initiative, part of its Global Food Security Strategy (GFSS), which is closely related to the SDGs attempts to address global food security and links it to poverty, health, and economic growth, recognizing the interdependence of the SDGs and how the issues countries face are intersectional. The GFSS already uses SDG indicators in monitoring progress, which shows that SDGs can easily be incorporated into government’s initiatives and can encourage coordination among U.S. agencies and other actors. The indicators provide common performance measures between the U.S. and its Feed the Future partner countries, which could put all parties on the same wavelength, and unite civil society, partners, potential partners and investors.[10]

However, the Report also notes that food insecurity within the U.S. is an issue where the U.S. is falling behind in meeting the SDGs. According to the Report, even before COVID-19, food security was a major concern, with significant breakthroughs required to meet the SDG target of ending hunger, and ensuring access to safe, nutritious and sufficient food. Data shows that food insecurity has greater impacts on minority populations. For example, black and Hispanic families suffered more from food insecurity than other populations in the U.S. Households with children, persons with disability, and those headed by single mothers also experienced more food insecurity.

Rate of food insecurity in households with children compared to all households (Figure 4, Page 8)

Another area where the U.S. lags behind is maternal mortality, as, according to the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN), maternal mortality rates in the U.S. are around three times higher than in OECD countries. The SDSN report also notes that black and indigenous people are two to four times more likely to be affected by maternal mortality. The SDSN report raised concerns that data on maternal mortality is sorely lacking, with official statistics only released since 2018, and for only 25 of 50 states.[11] Without addressing the issues in its own backyard, it would be extremely difficult for the U.S. to lead by example.

Moreover, the assertion that the U.S. can lead by example assumes that it is in a better position than other countries, and that other countries should learn from the U.S. However, as shown by the previous examples of food insecurity and maternal mortality, the U.S. does not have the monopoly on best practices, and can, and should, in fact, learn from the examples of other countries that have successfully implemented the SDGs. A concrete example is in the area of housing and homelessness, which are issues of grave concern in the U.S., and where race, economic status and gender are factors connected to being homeless.[12] Finland, however, has managed to greatly reduce homelessness through its Housing First program. While the program has not eliminated homelessness, it has reduced the number of homeless persons from 20,000 in the 80s to 4,300 in 2021. Finland’s Housing First Program views housing as a right, and not a commodity, and its definition of homelessness is broader than that of the U.S. Also, in Finland’s program, a dwelling is not a reward that a homeless person receives once their life is back on track. Instead, a dwelling is the foundation on which the rest of life is put back together.”[13] The U.S. Government should rethink its housing program, and look at Finland’s model for ideas.

The Brookings Report also encourages a “whole of society” approach, noting that the U.S. Government can learn from some of its cities, states and other internal actors, such as businesses, universities and civil society. According to the Report, while the federal government has not published or committed to publish a VNR, cities and states like New York, Los Angeles, Hawai’i, Pittsburgh and Orlando have published Voluntary Local Reviews (VLRs), and other cities and states have expressed interest in doing the same. Businesses, philanthropies, universities and civil society are also working on the SDGs, and exploring ways the U.S. can achieve them. The U.S. Government can work with the states and with these internal actors, not just eliciting but also listening to and incorporating their input on how best to achieve the SDGs.[14]

State rankings on 2021 US state Sustainable Development Report (Figure 1, Page 9)

The federal government also needs to encourage the states that are falling behind. In its report, the SDSN pointed out that when signing on to the SDGs, the U.S. committed itself to the policy of “Leave No One Behind”, which aside from meaning that the U.S. must ensure the protection of the most vulnerable[15], also means that the U.S. has the responsibility to ensure that no state is left behind.[16] The SDSN report produced rankings on states’ compliance with the SDGS, noting that progress on the SDGs is stagnating in all 50 states. New York, Hawai’I, California, Pennsylvania, which have cities that produced VLRs, are in the top half of the rankings (despite Orlando submitting a VLR, Florida ranks 33rd). The states with the lowest rankings are Oklahoma, Arkansas, Louisiana, West Virginia and Mississippi.[17] The SDSN report also noted that “US states on average perform the worst when it comes to racial disparities in homelessness, school suspension, and youth incarceration. On average, US States receive a score of 0/100 for homelessness, 3/100 for school suspension, and 3/100 for youth incarceration.”[18]

The Brookings Report and the SDSN Report have not received much coverage. There is a lack of public awareness on the SDGs, with less than half of American adults knowing about them. However, the United Nations Foundation and Morning Consult did a public poll and found that when people were informed about the SDGs, 72% agreed they were important. Moreover, 60 percent consider implementation of the SDGs as the responsibility of the federal government, with contributions from all sectors.[19]

The U.S. Government has to take immediate, serious action on the SDGs; the recommendations in the Brookings Report are a good start. The U.S. must make progress on the SDGs domestically, leaving no one behind, dealing with inequalities and working with the states, the private sector and civil society. Only then will it have the moral and geo-political authority to take the lead in encouraging other nations in achieving SDGs, while remaining open to learn from the experiences of other countries who are making more progress with the SDGs.


[1] Page 10, The State of the Sustainable Development Goals in the United States, [2] Page 12, The State of the Sustainable Development Goals in the United States, [3] page 14, The State of the Sustainable Development Goals in the United States, [4] The Build Back Better World (B3W) Partnership aims for a global economic transformation in the recovery from COVID-19. This initiative seeks to mobilize new investment for climate, health and health security, digital technology, and gender equity and equality. See page 12 of the report. [5] page 12, The State of the Sustainable Development Goals in the United States, [6] Ibid. [7] The four countries that have not submitted or committed to submit VLRs are Yemen, South Sudan, Haiti, and Myanmar. See Ibid. [8] Pages 14-15, The State of the Sustainable Development Goals in the United States, [9] Id at page 10. [10] Id at page 13. [11] Lynch, A., Sachs, J. (2021): The United States Sustainable Development Report 2021. New York: SDSN, page 25. The SDSN is the Sustainable Development Solutions Network, a global initiative for the United Nations. [12] Id at pages 22-23. [13], accessed on 20 August 2022. [14] Pages 15-17, The State of the Sustainable Development Goals in the United States, [15] Vulnerable groups refer to those living in poverty, minorities, indigenous peoples, children, older adults, persons living with disabilities, women, migrants, LGBTQIA+, refugees and others. Page 13, Lynch, A., Sachs, J. (2021): The United States Sustainable Development Report 2021. New York: SDSN. [16] Ibid. [17] Page 9, Lynch, A., Sachs, J. (2021): The United States Sustainable Development Report 2021. New York: SDSN. . [18] Id at Page 21 The score 0-100 represents how close the state is to achieving the SDGs with 100 representing achievement of the SDG. [19] Page 15, The State of the Sustainable Development Goals in the United States,

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Feb 09, 2023

This is very informative, thank you.

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