Implementing the UN Sustainable Development Goals in the Balkans

Arthur Lyon Dahl
International Environment Forum
Geneva, Switzerland

Paper presented at the European Center for Peace and Development (ECPD)
12th International Conference on
"Future of the World between Globalization and Regionalization"
Belgrade, Serbia, 28-29 October 2016

It is now more than a year since the UN General Assembly Summit on the 2030 Agenda adopted the Sustainable Development Goals (UN 2015, Dahl 2015). Some governments have already started reporting on their progress in implementing the SDGs to the High Level Political Forum established by the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) in 2012. Montenegro was one of the first countries to report in 2016 (Montenegro 2016); Slovenia will report in 2017. The goals are to be achieved by 2030, which is now only 14 years away. This is very short for the fundamental transformation of the economy and society called for in the 2030 Agenda.

The Paris Agreement on Climate Change of December 2015, anticipated in the 2030 Agenda, and already with sufficient ratifications to come into force on 4 November, requires all countries to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions rapidly to keep global warming below 2°C and preferably approaching 1.5°C, achieving carbon neutrality in the second half of this century. Present national commitments are far from achieving this, so much more needs to be done. This basically requires phasing out all fossil fuel energy sources and replacing them with renewable forms of energy within a few decades.

Together, these global agreements at the highest level commit all countries to a fundamental transformation in their economies and societies towards greater justice and sustainability. The aims are ambitious, and the question now is whether they are simply pious hopes, or can be transformed into concrete actions. This paper addresses the challenges of implementation at several levels.

Government leadership

Each government should prepare its national strategy building on the SDGs. "We encourage all member states to develop as soon as practicable ambitious national responses to the overall implementation of this Agenda. These can support the transition to the SDGs and build on existing planning instruments, such as national development and sustainable development strategies, as appropriate." (UN 2015 §78) This should not be just a plan, but an inclusive process. "We also encourage member states to conduct regular and inclusive reviews of progress at the national and sub-national levels which are country-led and country-driven. Such reviews should draw on contributions from indigenous peoples, civil society, the private sector and other stakeholders, in line with national circumstances, policies and priorities. National parliaments as well as other institutions can also support these processes." (UN 2015 §79)

As indicated above, Montenegro has recently updated its National Strategy for Sustainable Development to incorporate the SDGs (Montenegro 2016), and Slovenia is preparing a report for 2017. Information on other Balkan countries is not so readily available.

Balkan collaboration

The countries of the Balkans share similar environmental characteristics, economic possibilities and constraints, and social challenges. It would therefore make sense to consider close collaboration between the countries of the Western Balkans in implementing the SDGs. Joint consultations could be organized around different sets of goals. Common efforts could help to strengthen statistical services in data collection and the calculation of indicators. Best practices could be shared. Municipalities across the region could exchange experience. Regional coherence could be sought in nature conservation and managing transboundary environmental problems. Renewable energy sources could be developed collectively. Economic innovations and job creation could achieve economies of scale in the region.

The SDGs could provide the inspiration for a whole series of regional efforts in cooperation that could at the same time build trust and a sense of joint purpose. Organizations like ECPD that work for regional reconciliation and peace-building could use the SDG process to extend their impact and build wider support. The region needs to learn more systemic approaches to its challenges, and the call for integration in the SDGs provides a powerful lever to take this forward and work for changes in the ways that governments, academia and the institutions of society operate, breaking down the silos that have traditionally led to narrow perspectives and unanticipated impacts of plans and projects.

Particular attention needs to be paid to marginalized groups, whether the Roms or religious and ethnic minorities, to ensure that no one is left behind as called for in the 2030 Agenda. Many of the problems in the Balkans have come from marginalisation and exclusion of parts of the population. Regional approaches can help to overcome national resistances.

Involving the wider society

The 2030 Agenda is too broad for governments to implement by themselves. Academia and the scientific community, the private sector, civil society organizations, and the public at large all need to become involved. Changes at such a fundamental level require widespread support and collaboration. The SDGs provide many opportunities for dialogue and multistakeholder participation. Organizing processes by stakeholder groups would make it easier to bypass political tensions.

There are many opportunities for cooperation in academic research and teaching, since the SDG framework is far from complete, and all of tomorrow's leaders need to know and appreciate the UN 2030 Agenda. Similarly, business and regional economic actors need to see the business and employment opportunities that the SDGs present for the region. The challenges of urbanization and infrastructure, energy and transport could all benefit from regional discussions and approaches which could then draw in governments as they advance. A lot can be done through civil society organizations and communities to address poverty and marginalization. The region has great needs for environment and natural resource management and restoration, waste management, climate change adaptation and nature conservation in which the wider society can take the lead. Youth can easily network throughout the region and organize for community service and innovation. Culture and the arts across the region can take up and express SDG themes. Faith-based groups and interfaith collaboration can address the deeper moral and ethical issues underlying the SDGs and build motivation for change in individual lifestyles and in more sustainable communities.

Local communities

There is great potential for implementation of the SDGs at the city or municipal level. By one estimate, 107 of the 169 targets under the SDGs can easily be implemented at the community level (Dahl 2016). In many countries, municipal governments are leading where efforts are slow or blocked at the national level. City officials are closer to their citizens, and actions can be taken that are more practical and provide demonstrable results, building public understanding and support. Already after the Rio Earth Summit in 1992 and its Agenda 21, many local governments adopted their own local Agenda 21s. These can now be updated to become local Agenda 2030s. A 15-year time frame is a reasonable one to show progress.

Individual initiatives

There is no reason why people who believe in a more just and sustainable society and are willing to work for the necessary transition should wait for action at other levels. Individually, or in their families, neighbourhoods, local associations or religious groups, they can adopt their own sustainable development goals inspired by the global goals. Examples are given in the TABLE (Dahl 2016). This can be very motivating, as it provides a positive vision of the future and gives young people a sense of purpose and hope that things will get better despite all the problems in the world. Through individual action, people acquire a sense of ownership and responsibility for the SDGs.


One of the drivers of change needs to be mechanisms for transparency and accountability. For the first time at such a global scale, the nations of the world have agreed to a broad framework of targets and indicators to hold themselves accountable for what they have agreed to. The formal governmental processes will involve their statistical services and regular reporting to the High Level Political Forum for the SDGs, and to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change for the nationally-determined commitments to greenhouse gas reductions.

Beyond this, it will be up to the scientific community and the actors of civil society to be vigilant and to hold their governments accountable for progress towards the 2030 goals. Many are organizing to do this. Within the Balkans as well, it would be useful for independent voices to build public support for the SDGS, to question the progress being made, and to hold governments to account publicly for their progress towards these goals that reflect the hopes of all of humanity.


The 2030 Agenda with its Sustainable Development Goals define a paradigm change in all countries to move the economy and society towards a just and sustainable world. This creates many opportunities for governments, the academic and scientific communities, the private sector and civil society to develop positive projects for the next 14 years. Setting positive goals can be very motivating. In the specific context of the Balkans, this can become a powerful force to support sustainable development, reconciliation and human security in the region within a global framework where all countries are advancing together with a common vision of the future we all want.

"The pathway to sustainability will be one of empowerment, collaboration and continual processes of questioning, learning and action in all regions of the world. It will be shaped by the experiences of women, men, children, the rich, the poor, the governors and the governed as each one is enabled to play their rightful role in the construction of a new society. As the sweeping tides of consumerism, unfettered consumption, extreme poverty and marginalization recede, they will reveal the human capacities for justice, reciprocity and happiness." (BIC 2010)


Goal 1. No poverty
• Contribute to local efforts to eliminate poverty in your community

Goal 2. Zero hunger
• Support community efforts to ensure everyone access to safe, nutritious and sufficient food all year round
• Encourage and support local small-scale food producers
• Support sustainable food production systems that improve land and soil quality

Goal 3. Good health and well-being
• Choose a healthy lifestyle for yourself and your family
• Avoid narcotic drugs and harmful use of alcohol
• Drive safely
• Plan your family size
• Avoid using hazardous chemicals, try not to live in polluted areas

Goal 4. Quality education
• Get the best education possible, and educate your children
• Give your small children pre-primary education
• Help others to get skills for employment, decent jobs and entrepreneurship
• Encourage education for girls and the vulnerable
• Educate yourself, your family and community about sustainable development and sustainable lifestyles, human rights, gender equality, peace and non-violence, global citizenship and appreciation of cultural diversity

Goal 5. Gender equality
• Avoid discriminating against women and girls
• Shun violence against women and girls
• Share responsibility within your household and family
• Encourage women's participation in leadership and decision-making
• Support women's equal rights
• Promote the empowerment of women with technology

Goal 6. Clean water and sanitation
• Encourage safe drinking water and sanitation, practice good hygiene
• Avoid polluting water
• Use water efficiently
• Contribute to improving water and sanitation in your community

Goal 7. Affordable and clean energy
• Prefer renewable energy sources
• Use energy efficiently

Goal 8. Decent work and economic growth
• Consider a career in a sustainable productive activity involving creativity and innovation
• See your work and that of others as a service to the community
• Help young people to find training and employment
• Encourage all workers' rights to a safe and secure working environment, including migrants

Goal 9. Industry, innovation and infrastructure
• Work to improve your local community infrastructure
• Look for ways to make your workplace more resource-efficient and sustainable
• Learn to use information and communications technologies and help others

Goal 10. Reduced inequalities
• Participate in the life of your community, and empower others irrespective of age, sex, disability, race, ethnicity, origin, religion or economic or other status
• Support equal opportunities for everyone in the community
• Be welcoming to migrants, since you may also migrate

Goal 11. Sustainable cities and communities
• Choose your housing to be safe and sustainable
• Use sustainable forms of transport
• Participate in the sustainability planning of your local community
• Protect your local cultural and natural heritage
• Reduce your vulnerability to disasters
• Contribute to community gardens and green spaces

Goal 12. Responsible consumption and production
• Consider sustainable natural resource use in your purchases
• Stop wasting food
• Reduce your use and release of chemicals
• Reduce your wastes through prevention, reduction, recycling and reuse
• Inform yourself, and help to educate others about sustainable development and lifestyles in harmony with nature

Goal 13. Climate action
• Educate yourself and others about climate change mitigation, adaptation, impact reduction and early warning

Goal 14. Life below water
• Reduce your use of plastics and dispose of them responsibly
• If you live near the coast, support coastal (river, lake and lagoon) protection
• Avoid releasing chemicals, and other toxic products into the water

Goal 15. Life on land
• Support the conservation and sustainable use of terrestrial and freshwater ecosystems, especially forests, wetlands, mountains and drylands
• Use paper, wood and charcoal from sustainable forestry
• Protect local natural habitats and biodiversity

Goal 16. Peace, justice and strong institutions
• Avoid all violence
• Protect children from abuse
• Fight local corruption
• Demand accountability and transparency from your local institutions
• Participate in local decision-making
• Avoid all discrimination in your community

Goal 17. Partnerships for the goals
• Contribute time and resources to local sustainability efforts
• Invent, adopt and share environmentally sound technologies
• Join in local partnerships for sustainability


Bahá'í International Community. 2010. Rethinking Prosperity: Forging Alternatives to a Culture of Consumerism. Bahá'í International Community's Contribution to the 18th Session of the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development, 3 May 2010.

Dahl, Arthur Lyon. 2015. The Sustainable Development Goals and their implications for the Western Balkans. Paper presented at the European Center for Peace and Development 11th International Conference, Belgrade, Serbia, 24-25 October 2015.

Dahl, Arthur Lyon. 2016. Looking at the Sustainable Development Goals from the Bottom Up. Paper presented at the International Environment Forum 20th International Conference, Nur University, Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia, 7 October 2016. Published on line at

Montenegro. 2016. Montenegro National Voluntary Review at the High-level Political Forum, Executive Summary. United Nations Sustainable Development Knowledge Platform.

UN. 2015. Transforming Our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Outcome document of the Summit for the adoption of the Post-2015 Development Agenda, New York, 25-27 September 2015. A/70/L.1. New York: United Nations.

Last updated 29 October 2016

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