Influencing SDG Policy in South Africa and Beyond – the SDG Hub at the University of Pretoria

The South African SDG Hub is online platform that aims to connect South African policy makers with the reearch and innovation they need to implement the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). Given the breadth of the SDGs, and the key role that policy makers have in creating an enabling enviornment for them to be reached, giving these policy makers accesses to up to date research that could influence this policy is cruicial. I spoke with Willem Fourie, co-ordinator of the project and Associate Professor at the University of Pretoria’s Albert Luthuli Centre for Responsible Leadership about the impact that the Hub is already having.

Introduce the SDG Hub

The South African SDG Hub is a collection of online and face-to-face platforms aimed at linking African policy makers with the most relevant and impactful research and innovation needed to implement the SDGs. The Hub is hosted by the University of Pretoria’s Albert Luthuli Centre for Responsible Leadership, which is located in the Department of Business Management.

Why have it?

Policy makers across the world – and also in Africa – are looking for access to SDG-relevant research and innovation. And researchers and innovators want policy makers to use their work. But for some reason evidence-informed policy making (and policy implementation for that matter) remains an elusive ideal. The South African SDG Hub wants to do its bit in linking policy makers with the best and most relevant research and innovation.

How did it come about?

During the negotiations that led to the adoption of the 2030 Agenda and its SDGs I was involved in a number of processes in Africa aimed at increasing the effectiveness of development co-operation. My colleagues in the African Union indicated to me that improving access to African research and innovation could play a major role in making development more effective. This is how the seed for the Hub was planted. We were privileged to get the buy-in from government partners soon after launching the first rudimentary version of the Hub – so much so that the South African Minister in the Presidency actually launched the Hub for us.

What are the key features of the programme and how does it work. 

The Hub has four work streams, namely knowledge sharing, policy advice, dialogue promotion and capacity building. Our key activities are, respectively, the online platform, a number of roundtables and SDG Bulletin, engagement with government departments and we’re launching a new interdisciplinary degree on SDG implementation.

Who else is involved and how?

Our first formal partnership was established with the national Department of Science and Technology. Our group of advisors are from all the major SDG implementing government departments, the United Nations and from development partners. The University of Pretoria is also playing a major role in enabling the activities of the Hub.

What have been some of the challenges? Successes?

We’re really glad about the level of interest amongst government actors. I would say the main challenge is now including all other relevant researchers and innovators in South Africa. This requires a significant expansion of our activities, as the SDGs cover such a wide range of topics.

How does the Hub fit into other activities happenig at the School?

Towards the end of last year we decided to infuse our first years’ Business Management course with theory on the SDGs. We were forced to do this in an innovative fashion, as around 2 500 students are enrolled for this course. We decided on a flipped classroom approach, according to which students had to prepare by watching videos on themes related to the SDGs. The classes were devoted to panel discussions and interaction via mobile technologies. We were grateful that a number of prominent people from business, government and civil society were willing to participate in the panel discussion.

What advice would you have for other schools thinking of putting something similar into place?

It’s worth the effort – there are more than enough researchers and policy makers out there interested in bridging the gap between African research and innovation and policy making processes.

What’s next?

Well, at this point we’re hoping to solidify our activities in each of the work streams. I’m particularly excited about an Artificial Intelligence grant from Microsoft which will enable our team to develop deep learning technologies that might dramatically improve the online platform’s search functionality. We’re also quite excited about publishing our first SDG publication this year and hosting the first series of roundtables. In 2019 we’ll be welcoming our first cohort of students in the new degree programme, which is similarly exciting!

We’ve grown at a rate the even surprised the most optimistic team members. So we’re ready to expand and we’re engaging potential partners on this.

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