Peter Taylor: Health, SDGs, and public policy—the role of policy research institutions

The start of a journey
In January 2016, shortly after 194 countries signed on to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and an ambitious, universal, and transformational vision for global development, The BMJ published an editorial titled “Accelerating achievement of the sustainable development goals.” The article drew on ideas that had emerged from a meeting—hosted in Geneva by the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies—of over 60 policy research and academic institutions working towards improved health outcomes.

Participants concluded that think tank and health policy institutions are key players in the knowledge-policy interface for health, largely through their high quality, policy relevant research and engagement; their ability to carry out the monitoring and tracking of progress around policy implementation; and as places for policy dialogue and the bridging between national and global efforts relating to the SDGs.

That first meeting generated considerable enthusiasm and momentum. Yet it also highlighted a danger: for although the SDGs have the potential to be a game changer in global health, “if the millennium development goals and other global goals are any indication, initial progress will be slow. The cost of this slow action is likely to be measurable in lives lost.”

So, a strong message was framed by participants in response to this challenge: that unless knowledge sharing, capacity building, and innovation across the full extent of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development are intentionally supported and sustained, progress towards achieving the health related SDGs could be severely compromised.

Some difficult questions for think tanks and institutions emerged from the discussions:

In the context of global health, can policy research institutions really help catalyse progress towards the SDGs?

Is it sufficient, or feasible, that they engage in broader policy development?

Can they measure the outcomes of policies, identify determinants of success, and act as knowledge brokers?

Will they give voice to civil society by holding governments and multilateral entities accountable?

How can they help strengthen global and national healthcare systems by helping to create, measure, evaluate, and disseminate innovation in a timely way?

How could they catalyse action by helping address the “North-South” divide by enabling more “South-South” partnerships and disseminating the best ideas widely, no matter where they originate?

Why is this important now?
The “first 1000 days” of implementation have been identified as critical to the SDGs’ success. To avoid the dangerous perception that there is still plenty of time to act before 2030 draws near, the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) and the Think Tank Initiative (TTI), collaborating closely with the Graduate Institute, Geneva and other partners, have convened a series of global and regional consultations in Geneva, Berlin, Kampala, Rio de Janeiro, Vancouver, Islamabad, London, Montreal, and most recently in a meeting of West African representatives in Dakar, Senegal.

A real sense of urgency
These consultations have conveyed a real sense of urgency: it is clear that policy making processes can no longer remain business as usual. There is a pressing need to put in place now the thinking and collaboration required to catalyse progress towards the SDGs.

Health policy is such an important entry point to achieving the multi-sectoral, interdisciplinary nature of the SDGs, given its interrelation with social determinants such as income, employment, food security, education, gender, water and sanitation, and climate.

The SDG mantra of “leaving no one behind” applies resoundingly to the pervasive health inequalities that challenge all countries. Leaving no one behind will only be achieved if the most marginalised are brought into the discussions of how to solve health inequalities. And, as Kickbusch notes in the first article of this new series in The BMJ, without good governance in health policy making—coupled with adequate support for the policy research institutions that are generating sustained flows of high quality evidence, data, and analysis—the desired progress towards achieving the SDGs may not be realised.

Continuing the dialogue
To help respond to these challenges, IDRC and the Graduate Institute have helped support the emergence of a new global collective “Think_SDGs” (Think Tanks, Health policy Institutions, Networks, and Knowledge), which aims to collaborate in generating and sharing knowledge, and to combine the efforts of those working at global, regional, national, and local levels.

As a key part of its response, IDRC understands that public engagement is crucial; and so is very pleased to collaborate with The BMJ and Think_SDGs in supporting a collection of articles that will include a guiding framework for policy researchers seeking to catalyse progress towards the health related SDGs; an exploration of the relationship between health and trade, using antimicrobial resistance as a case study; and a country example from Guatemala of how citizens can become actively engaged in accountability mechanisms relating to the SDGs.

More articles in this series will follow in due course, and The BMJ is also keen to publish opinion pieces about emerging dialogue around health and the SDGs. We hope many readers will also take advantage of this facility to share their views and we welcome responses to the ideas and experiences conveyed in this series.

Articles in this series:
Role for academic institutions and think tanks in speeding progress on sustainable development goals

Trade is central to achieving the sustainable development goals: a case study of antimicrobial resistance

Peter Taylor is associate director for Think Tank Initiatives at Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC). He tweets ​@ptaylor_ottawa

Competing interests: I have the following interests to declare: I work for the IDRC, which works to support progress towards the SDGs.

Note: ​The SDG series ​is ​commissioned by The BMJ and funded by the ​IDRC. The BMJ retains​ full editorial control over the selection of authors, external peer review, editing, and publication.

Jha A, Kickbusch I, Taylor P, Abbasi K. SDGs Working Group. Accelerating achievement of the sustainable development goals. BMJ 2016;358:i409.

World Health Organization. WHO Programmatic and Financial Report for 2014-2015. Sixty ninth World Health Assembly, 2016.