15 Sep

The physics of political momentum: How to accelerate progress on the #SDGS

P= M x V / E: Creating a formula for progress

There have been several mentions of increasing political momentum on the SDGs in the past year. It was a focus for the President of the 71st session UN General Assembly, Peter Thomson, who released this report at the end of his tenure. The current President of the UN General Assembly, Miroslav Lajčák, has chosen political momentum on the SDGs and climate change as one of his six priority areas.  His announcement came shortly before the findings of the High Level Political Forum that progress towards SDGs is slower than expected and implementation of the SDGs should be accelerated.

Despite many references to increasing political momentum, there is no clear definition of this term and specifically why it will accelerate implementation on the SDGs. It is important to unpack this assumption because it has implications for exploring the way politics and social change interacts, in this case, for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

In other words, we need a working formula for political momentum which helps us understand its relationship to social progress.

What do we mean by political momentum?

Momentum is the force of an object which keeps it moving in a certain direction. In physics, the equation for calculating the momentum of an object is:

P(momentum) = M (mass) x V (velocity)

whereby M is the object’s mass and V is the velocity, the speed of an object in a particular direction.

Applying physics to political momentum

When we apply this formula to the term ‘political momentum’ we get,

P (political momentum) = Mass x Velocity

My initial reaction was to assume that the Sustainable Development Goals was the Mass, i.e. the object we are trying to keep moving:

P (political momentum) = Mass (SDGs) x Velocity

However, the SDGs are not an object but rather a direction that the world is trying to move towards (sustainability). The Sustainable Development Goals are the process of reaching a new vision of the world that is environmentally, economically and socially sustainable. Referring to our formula, we now have:

P (political momentum) = Mass (?) x Velocity (SDGs)

So that leaves us with the big question, what is Mass (?)

Mass = ?

Mass represents the political and institutional settings which affect the level of progress towards sustainability. When we talk about increasing political momentum on the SDGs, what we mean is altering the existing political and institutional settings so that we can implement the SDGs and reach our ultimate vision of sustainability.

If we apply it to the original formula, this is what we get:

P (political momentum) = Mass (political-institutional settings) x V (SDGs)

Nazli Choucri wrote a paper exploring the political logic of sustainability and the conditions which must be met for progress on sustainability to be made. According to Choucri, there are five problems in the political-institutional settings of a country that prevent ‘effective analysis and policy responses’ on sustainability. These problems are:

  • conceptual ambiguities
  • information overload (of data)
  • obstacles in tracking progress (quality and co-ordination of evaluations)
  • absence of knowledge networking between different actors around the world
  • limited feedback between different stakeholders on what is/is not working


Some of the existing solutions to increase political momentum on the SDGs focus on the context of a country. The level of co-ordination in the planning and financing of national public policy, for example, affects the level of progress. Germany has set up an inter-ministerial committee to co-ordinate implementation of the Goals at the national level.

The degree of coherence between different policies on the SDGs also affects the level of progress. This is known as Political Coherence for Sustainable Development (PCSD). PCSD assesses the effectiveness of progress based on its impact on development internationally and on future generations. What’s interesting about PCSD is that it extends the sphere of impact of a policy geographically (here and there) and temporally (present and future).

The Overseas Development Institute (ODI) recently conducted a survey of 50 countries to identify the factors affecting progress on the SDGs. They identified strong leadership and ownership, local support, well-managed financing towards the SDGs, the degree of erratic policymaking due to incoherent policy planning and/or political patronage, strong civil society support and external factors such as climate change.

The World Resources Institute also recommends integrating different actors in the implementation, monitoring and review of SDGs progress and improving the quality of monitoring processes to better capture progress and inform action.

The importance of relationships

For Choucri, however, the factors affecting progress on the SDGs are to do with the relationships (power dynamics) between the actors rather than the political and institutional frameworks. According to Choucri, to ensure progress on sustainability, three conditions must be met. Firstly, all actors should recognise that the policies are legitimate. Secondly, all actors should voluntarily commit to the policies and finally, buy-in should be gained from as many actors as possible to improve the chances of co-ordinating action between all stakeholders.

The known unknowns

It is easy to conclude that political momentum on the SDGs is simply affected by the political-institutional settings and the power dynamics between the actors. However, social change is very different from physics. There are some known unknowns which make a difference to progress. They include:

  • The goal(s) in question
  • The degree of progress
  • The ecosystem of relationships, resources and networks which cause change to happen
  • The existing level of knowledge on the issue
  • The context (political, economic, social, economic, environmental)
  • The resources available to accelerate progress
  • The level of awareness between stakeholders on the gridlocks and possibilities in moving forward.

Perhaps the formula for momentum in physics should be different from the formula for momentum in global development to factor in these unknowns.  We can expand the previous formula from:

P(Political momentum)  = M(Political-institutional settings) x V(Political-institutional settings/SDGs)


P(Political momentum)  = M(Political-institutional settings) x V(Political-institutional settings/SDGs)  ÷ E (External factors).

Yes, this formula is more complex but it provides a pathway to understanding the term and its relationship to social progress. Here’s to another 13 years of positive momentum 😊

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