Universal goals - universal approaches? - Supreme Audit Institutions (SAIs) and the SDGs

Thursday 28 june - Opening speech ms Francine Giskes

Distinguished guests, dear colleagues and partners,

It gives me great pleasure to welcome you to this conference on Supreme Audit Institutions and the Sustainable Development Goals. This conference is also a celebration of our unique Sharaka partnership with colleagues in the Arab region. Our thanks go out to the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs for making this possible.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Let me tell you about 3 journeys:

I made the first journey long ago, in 1977. A journey in Africa, travelling from Congo Brazzaville to Algiers.

I was a young woman, and as you can imagine, travelling in a continent so different from my own country made a deep and lasting impression on me. Hitchhiking from town to town on dirt roads, I realised how important clean water is. The drought in the Sahel; dry riverbeds; the serious consequences of a sudden leak in my water bottle – quite a revelation when you are used to living in one of the wettest countries in the world.

We didn’t call them SDGs at the time, of course, but with hindsight you could say that this journey was my first experience of the importance of the SDGs and SDG 6 in particular – access to safe and affordable drinking water.

Many years later, I was appointed Mayor of Texel, an island off the north coast of the Netherlands. ‘Water in abundance’ you might think, and yes, there was. But sea water is not drinking water. We once had a breach in the water pipe from the mainland and this made me realise: even on an island in the Netherlands, clean drinking water, so crucial for public wellbeing, can’t always be taken for granted. The SDGs have global relevance and ever since that journey in Africa, the recognition of our interconnectedness and common challenges has stayed with me.

In 2015 the countries of the world embarked on a new collective journey, as you know. The second journey in my story.

The heads of all UN member states took a historic decision. A decision to ‘transform our world’. They agreed on 17 universal goals including zero poverty, banishing hunger, access to safe water, sustainable production and consumption and combating climate change.

The heads of state committed themselves – and I quote – ‘to working tirelessly’ for the full implementation of this Agenda, leaving no-one behind.

We, the international community of Supreme Audit Institutions, members of INTOSAI, share the same sense of urgency and commitment, as you just heard from Doctor Al Amini.

But how can we, as external auditors, help? What is our added value?

Well, we can check if our governments deliver on their promises. We can critically monitor the implementation of the SDGs, the use of resources and help parliaments hold governments to account. And we will. That is how we, with our unique mandates, can make a difference to to the lives of citizens.

However, we have also realised that to be of added value, SAIs have to be relevant and timely. We need to look again at our role and step out of our comfort zone. We cannot afford to take the traditional approach and wait until 2031 to conduct ex-post audits and analyses once the dust has settled. That would be too late to make a meaningful contribution.

In order to spur governments into timely action and provide relevant advice, we need to extend our traditional audit focus to oversight, insight and foresight.

We need to play a pro-active, innovative role to help our national governments achieve their SDGs effectively. And the best way to move ahead quickly and to learn on the job is to work in partnership.

So, together with our colleagues from six countries in the Arab region, we embarked on our own ‘journey’.

Which brings me to my third journey: an exploratory journey to take us out of our comfort zone, try new techniques, engage with stakeholders and take on our new, pro-active role. A journey to review our governments’ overall preparedness to implement the SDGs. Some of us have gone even further and conducted in-depth reviews of one or more of the SDGs, such as water or health. The reviews have provided more concrete insights into the challenges of preparing to implement the SDGs.

Since we started our journey in The Hague in March 2017, we have met several times to discuss progress, share results and challenges and exchange experiences and lessons.

What was our new approach, you may ask?

Thorough preparation, SMART policies and adequate resources are key to achieving the ambitious SDGs. Within INTOSAI we have developed a seven step approach to review government preparedness. Each step looks at a key prerequisite for meeting the national SDG challenges. The model starts with a review of the political commitment to the SDG Agenda. It then considers stakeholder engagement, the allocation of resources and responsibilities, concrete implementation plans, the data framework and so on.

This preparedness review provides a crucial reality check. A broad snapshot of the policies and systems in place at the start of the implementation of the SDG Agenda. It can identify gaps and provide suggestions for further improvements.

It has been an inspiring journey so far with a lot of new insights. Each of us has been able to work on a national ‘snapshot’ with specific recommendations. Today, I would like to share with you the key common findings that came out of our harmonised, or should I say, universal approach to reviewing government preparedness to implement the SDGs.

Let me begin with the good news – all the governments we reviewed have demonstrated a clear commitment to implement the SDG Agenda, and they are all following up with concrete policies and activities. The degree of implementation differs from one country to another, but stakeholders have been consulted, responsibilities and resources have been allocated and policy plans have been drafted.

However, there is significant room for improvement in the policy frameworks of all our countries. Policy plans, for example, should clarify what policies are already in place, what new policies need to be drafted, what the ultimate and intermediate goals are and how exactly they will be reached. Such SMART, concrete plans are a prerequisite for success and for government transparency.

Our second cross-cutting observation is that accountability provisions need to be strengthened. This requires a good SDG Data and Monitoring Framework. Data are critical to inform policies and decision-making, monitor progress, ensure meaningful accountability and participation and to take action if progress is lacking. Most of our countries made a good start, but serious efforts are needed to get the whole framework up and running.

This afternoon’s workshops will, I am sure, provide an opportunity to elaborate on these two observations in more detail.

I firmly believe that these preparedness reviews have made a difference. By offering early observations and advice from our unique vantage point, we are also showing that we are keeping a close watch on progress – on behalf of our countries’ citizens.

Of course, more can be done and this is only the beginning of the SDG journey, but the reviews have provided an important base from which to move forward.

We have learned a lot as SAIs and have written up the experiences and lessons of our journey in this practical guide. The guide presents our review approach, enriched with our experiences and the lessons of the Sharaka programme. Please allow me, Ms Brandt, to present you with this first copy of the guide, knowing that you will be part of the Dutch delegation to the UN High Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development in New York next month. We hope our work as SAIs will assist governments in meeting the ambitious targets of the 2030 Agenda and that sharing our experience will inspire others to follow the route of partnership and innovation.

In conclusion,

Today we celebrate our Sharaka partnership and the results of the SDG Government Preparedness Reviews. This is the end of one journey.

But the ‘great collective journey’ to a better world in 2030 that our governments have embarked upon, does not end here. 2030 sounds a long way away, especially for policy-makers and politicians. However, there is actually very little time if you consider the urgency and size of the issues at stake.

This afternoon, let’s explore the challenges and opportunities to move forward in our current or new roles as Supreme Audit Institutions and make sure that our governments deliver on their promises.

Thank you for your attention.