Book Review – From Summits to Solutions: Innovations in Implementing the Sustainable Development Goals

By Gregory Stiles - 18 February 2019

Book Review – From Summits to Solutions: Innovations in Implementing the Sustainable Development Goals edited by Raj M. Desai, Hiroshi Kato, Homi Kharas, and John W. McArthur. Washington D.C: Brookings Institution Press 2018.

Based on a collaboration between the Japan International Cooperation Agency and the Brookings Institution, From Summits to Solutions recognises the culmination of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the Paris Agreement and the Addis Ababa Action Agenda as a triumph of multilateralism. Importantly, the editors acknowledge the rising threats to effective multilateralism, agreeing that shifts in the global political climate may precede a faltering in the anticipated need for transformative thinking that will be required to meet the United Nations Agenda 2030 aims. Yet, it is interesting to note that the authors response to this conundrum lies not in adapting to changing political climates, but in doubling down on the need to expand the scope and scale of global and national action through what they term ‘multistakeholder governance’ and ‘peer learning’ to establish ‘common understandings’ of the nature of the required action in meeting the SDGs. Rejecting the ‘business-as-usual’ approach to sustainable development, the wide-ranging chapters in the book provide an interesting insight into potential technocratic solutions to meeting the SDGs through three broadly thematic policy areas.


It is the work of Jeni Klugman and Laura Tyson (Chapter Two) in addressing the economic gender gap that establishes the importance of inclusionary development policies. Through the exploration of the disproportionate burden of unpaid care upon women, the authors highlight the key linkages between discriminatory social norms and the subsequent level of access and benefits available to women through easily accessible finance. These assessments of structural barriers to inclusion are developed further by Bettina Prato’s analysis (Chapter Seven) of rural inequality. The focus on the impact that the urban-rural divide has upon the opportunities of women and young people provides the basis for the author’s theoretical ideas regarding a policy shift towards ‘decentralised’ improvements in agrifood and infrastructure access.

These inclusionary underpinnings for a policy shift to meet the SDGs are contradicted though by Reuben Abraham and Pritika Hingorani (Chapter Ten) for whom the focus of sustainable development lies with the positive shift towards urbanisation. They see the primary lever for this transformation as labour market growth through the specialisation of city governance frameworks. Although supported by economic data, the analysis leaves the reader wondering, as Prato does, about the impact and inequality levels of those who are left to fall between the cracks of the urban-rural divide in development policy.


The importance of accurate assessment of both policy and resultant action in meeting the SDGs provides the thematic basis for Amina Mohammed’s anecdotal narrative of her time as Environment Minister for Nigeria (Chapter Three). This chapter provides an interesting insight into the practical implications of targeted finance driven development policy. Yet, it is the metrics of how these ‘Green Bonds’ are both certified and measured as to their effectiveness that clearly remains a key roadblock to progress. This ethos of accurate assessment is developed further by Jane Nelson (Chapter Four) with an ambitious policy programme of shifting global market activity towards a model of sustainable growth through the establishment of common metrics of assessment for financial incentives that would nudge the private sector into alignment with the SDGs. In this, Nelson is supported by the policy ideas of Mahmoud Mohieldin et al (Chapter Sixteen) on the role of Multilateral Development Banks (MDBs) in providing both the impetus, and the accurate targeting parameters, for private finance to fill the investment gaps required to meet the SDGs. This is then further reinforced by Rogerio Studart’s case study (Chapter Six) on the lack of sustainable domestic finance in maintaining private sector investment in Brazil’s national infrastructure development programme.

Moreover, it is Ikuo Takizawa’s work on global health architecture (Chapter Fifteen) which identifies the need for accurate assessment tools to deal with increasingly complex issues of programme overlap and agenda setting distortion in respect of donor funding for health development. These policy requirements are provided with a technological solution in the work of Linda See et al (Chapter Eight), for whom the focus upon satellite data to improve assessment metrics is key. However, the authors clearly note the limitations regarding levels of accuracy and inherent bias in data interpretation that mean the deployment of these advances should be seen as a contribution to the field, rather than a panacea for assessing the progress of the SDGs

Importantly, it is Ann Florini’s contribution (Chapter Five) that begins to develop solutions to these problems by identifying the existing skills gap in collaborative expertise across business, government and NGO sectors. Florini identifies educational training as key to bridging this gap, with a particular focus upon developing specialised higher education qualifications for practitioners. Yet, the crux of Florini’s policy solution lies in going beyond technocratic training, or technological advances, and instead focusing on the broadening of understanding in practitioner mindsets as to how different industries and sectors work in order to improve the effectiveness of collaborative development projects. Naoko Ishii’s ‘system theory’ approach to resource allocation (Chapter Fourteen) provides further impetus for the efficacy of successful collaborative development projects in providing solutions to the SDGs


Margaret Biggs and John W. McArthur extoll the virtues of leadership in development policy through their case study of Canada (Chapter Twelve) as a ‘North Star’ with which to guide developing countries in meeting the SDGs. Although the data shows that Canada still has a way to go in meeting development targets, it is interesting to note their argument focuses on using domestic policy overlap as the key driver to leading by example. This leadership principle is expanded upon by Ryuichi Tomizawa and Noriharu Masugi assessment of Japan’s International Cooperation Agency activities in supporting the development of statistical and measurement capacity within developing countries (Chapter Nine). It is clear that both of these chapters focus upon the positives of developed country guidance in meeting the SDGs: the question remains, however, as to the efficacy of externally led, and financed, programmes and their sustainability in building domestic resilience in developing countries.

Interestingly Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah’s work highlights the important role of civil society organisations (Chapter Thirteen) in holding developed and developing countries accountable for their performance relating to the SDGs. This leadership principle is then challenged by Enric Sala and Kristin Rechberger’s ambitious policy programme (Chapter Eleven) for meeting SDG 14’s aims of ocean conservation through the creation of marine reserves equivalent to half the world’s oceans. This rejection of a business-as-usual approach to the SDGs does not, unfortunately, elaborate on how this proposal could be established, beyond the already agreed level of protections in the SDG framework. However, it does provide a litmus test for both Canada and Japan as agenda setters for the SDGs.


From Summits to Solutions provides a challenging assessment of the improvements needed to achieve the SDGs and the authors provide innovative policy ideas. The theme of a ‘multistakeholder’ approach runs throughout, and yet it is a shame that the book has itself not engaged in its own ‘peer learning’ through the linkage of its authors key ideas into a viable programme of solutions.

For example, Prato, and Abraham and Hingorani’s chapters on the urban-rural divide of development would have benefitted from a comparative assessment of how the authors ideas could be amalgamated into a sustainable programme for reform. Moreover, Amina Mohammed and Jane Nelson’s chapters on green bonds and private investment would have benefitted from collaboration with Mahmoud Mohieldin et al’s work on the leadership potential of MDBs in this area. It is also evident that the chapters by Tomizawa and Masugi, as well as Biggs and McArthur, provide interesting insight into the leadership capabilities of developed nations in providing assistance to developing countries in meeting the SDGs. Yet the analytical structure of the book would have been enhanced by a further exploration of Sriskandarajah’s work on developing accountability for both developing countries, but also developed countries’ agenda-setting power and an assessment of the efficacy of their development led programmes.

That being said, From Summits to Solutions engages with some of the most important challenges facing the fulfilment of the SDGs and provides innovative ideas and solutions for these issues. It is a clarion call to policymakers worldwide that the ‘business-as-usual’ approach to global governance is no longer sustainable.



Gregory Stiles is a Doctoral Researcher at the University of Leeds.

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