The independent resource on global security

Against all odds: using the Sustainable Development Goals to overcome fragility

Sustianable Development Goals projected onto the UN headquarters building, 2015.
Dr Gary Milante and Kate Sullivan

As evidence demonstrating the relationship between conflict and underdevelopment mounts, the task of building and sustaining global peace seems almost unattainable. This relationship is particularly precarious in countries experiencing high levels of fragility, where a failure to address conflict and underdevelopment in parallel could result in increased violence, poverty and inequality. Over the past 15 years, the world has spent at least 1.7 trillion dollars on official development assistance, and yet 700 million people still live in poverty on less than $1.90 a day. Today, 450 million of the world’s poor live in the 100 most dangerous places. In these countries, 350 000 people die from violence every year and another 60 million have been displaced.


Innovation and integration for global development

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, adopted at the United Nations Sustainable Development Summit in September 2015, is the first international policy to explicitly recognize peace, justice and inclusive institutions as the foundation for sustainable development. Comprising 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and 169 targets, the 2030 Agenda has been criticized for being too ambitious, even unrealistic. Yet its scope and breadth is well founded. On one hand, the ambition of the SDGs reflects the shortcomings of their predecessor: because the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) did not sufficiently address the priorities of fragile and conflict-affected countries or the implementation challenges they face, progress on the MDGs was uneven. 

On the other hand, the scope of the SDGs also reflects shifting security dynamics, wherein new and evolving threats challenge long-held distinctions between humanitarian and development needs and their associated responses. For instance, the global migration crisis—which is largely attributed to forced displacement emanating from fragile and conflict-affected countries—cannot be resolved through humanitarian or development responses alone. While humanitarian-only responses risk perpetuating persistent emergencies by ignoring underlying root causes, the development-only responses lack the capacity and flexibility of resources to respond to urgent demands. 

Despite the scale and complexity of the challenges posed by fragility, the international community is making strides towards delivering more collaborative, better-coordinated responses. For example, in March 2016, a host of UN agencies, NGOs and multilateral development banks agreed to work together to bridge the humanitarian–development divide. Their joint commitment aims to leverage new financing mechanisms, greater investment in research and multi-stakeholder interventions based on institutional synergies. Similarly, in April 2016, the Fifth Global Meeting of the International Dialogue on Peacebuilding and Statebuilding (Global Meeting) convened to renew members’ dedication to the principles of the New Deal and to articulate additional commitments in the Stockholm Declaration on Addressing Fragility and Building Peace in a Changing World.


Where the rubber meets the road

Wide-reaching global agendas and high-level pacts are indeed important, but the test of any policy lays in its implementation. As such, at the third annual Stockholm Forum on Security and Development, held in conjunction with the Global Meeting, participants delved deeper into some of specific operational challenges associated with implementing the 2030 Agenda in fragile situations. Co-hosts SIPRI and the Swedish Ministry for Foreign Affairs joined forces with 13 partner organizations and numerous individual experts to move from the theoretical ‘what’ towards the practical ‘how’. Among others questions, considered the following with regard to specific SDGs and geographic regions: 

  • How should global development targets be adapted to reflect national contexts?
  • How can governments develop institutional monitoring capacity within the constraints of their limited infrastructure and resources?
  • How can scenarios, new technologies and other tools be used to manage risk and improve security?
  • How do existing institutional structures, mandates and financing streams exacerbate or reduce the effectiveness of security and development interventions?
  • How does exclusion inhibit the full implementation of the SDGs and what mechanisms could facilitate the participation and protection of marginalized populations? 

Some Forum sessions—like those on complex violence, migration and violent extremism—sought to generate a more nuanced understanding of known challenges. Broadly speaking, these sessions illustrated how interventions that try to simplify complex threats to fit political narratives or traditional security frameworks without analysing conflict dynamics are less likely to achieve success than more comprehensive approaches. Other sessions—like those on service delivery, inclusivity and women, peace and security—focused on identifying possible solutions. These sessions used new research to demonstrate the value of evidence-based approaches that oblige practitioners and policymakers to question their assumptions and incorporate lessons learned from past interventions.


Toward a common future

A handful of themes exemplifying the universality of the 2030 Agenda emerged from the Forum’s 18 roundtables and plenary sessions. The first theme was inclusivity, which arose in various forms during the two-day programme. From the political and social inclusion of women, youth and other marginalized groups, to the inclusion of civil society and non-state actors in peacebuilding and service delivery, each session touched on the pitfalls of excluding stakeholders from development processes, particularly in fragile situations. 

Although underdevelopment and insecurity impact all countries, their effects are multiplied in fragile and conflict-affected contexts. In this vein, the second theme that emerged relates to the challenge of prioritising different security and development needs. In countries with a combination of weak institutions, poor governance, poverty, violence and inequality, it can be difficult to determine how best to sequence interventions and appropriate resources to maximize impact. It may also be more convenient, for political or financial reasons, to prioritise certain needs over others. In the session on military expenditure, discussants carried the prioritization theme further by assessing what relative spending levels (military vs. social) indicate about national governments’ perception of threats and their sources. 

Perhaps the most important theme related to the absolute necessity of horizontally and vertically integrated implementation approaches. Again and again participants highlighted the interconnectedness of the individual SDGs and their humanitarian, development and security components. For example, the importance of horizontal integration in relation to addressing human rights within the 2030 Agenda’s implementation framework was poignant in the session on the role of human rights defenders. Discussants in that session demonstrated the relationship between the physical safety of watchdogs and advocates and the health of a country’s governance and justice systems. As United Nations Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson remarked on the second day of the Forum, ‘To end violent and intractable conflicts in today’s world, we need comprehensive, holistic approaches. Political and security actors, humanitarian, human rights and development actors must work in parallel around the common challenges.’ 

A conference report on the third annual Stockholm Forum on Security and Development is forthcoming in May and will made available at


Dr Gary Milante is Programme Director and Focal Point for the Global Registry of Violent Deaths (GReVD) initiative.
Kate Sullivan was the Programme Coordinator for the Peace and Development Programme.