The 2030 Agenda for sustainable development calls for a new way of working for the UN development system in terms of policy integration across thematic areas with partnerships at the core. The UN Secretary-General, in his Report, “Repositioning the UN development system to deliver on the 2030 Agenda – Ensuring a Better Future for all”, is responding to this challenge by offering a bold vision on the repositioning of the UN development system.

The Report highlights the need to deliver coherently through strengthened and accountable leadership. This entails a revision of the profile, competencies and skillsets of UN Resident Coordinators and calls for a new generation of UN Country Teams. Key capacity gaps in the areas of supporting policy integration, partnerships and financing, and data management are also identified.

In light of this move towards a UN development system that is “fit to serve all its partners”, the UNSSC Knowledge Centre for Sustainable Development is well-positioned as a learning and training partner of choice to enable members of the UN system and beyond to deliver on the 2030 Agenda.

In fact, the UNSSC Knowledge Centre for Sustainable Development opened a little over a year ago with the gracious support from the Government of Germany. In this relatively short time, we have had a privileged opportunity to witness the conceptual shifts and interrogations among staff from UN entities across the board.

What have we found?

As soon as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were adopted in 2015, many UN entities hurried to place a claim on “their” SDG. The first reflex was territorial—to ensure an agency owns a goal and has the primacy in terms of reporting about related progress. SDGs were treated as “MDGs+”, just with a few more objectives. Many UN representatives were fast in diving into the sea of targets and indicators, identifying ways to align results frameworks for projects, sections, divisions and entire organisations to the SDGs, without really questioning what sits behind the transformative shifts, which the Agenda demands. In fact, the advice given to governments was (and often still is) first and foremost to align their national plans to the SDGs to ensure national progress reporting is streamlined. Yet, this technical approach, which suggests that objectives are pre-determined from the outside, is not likely to foster the drive and long-term ownership required to achieve the 2030 Agenda. It puts the cart before the horse and is exactly what the 2030 Agenda is NOT calling for.

The Agenda calls for a holistic approach to identify the right answers to complex challenges

The 2030 Agenda, including the Sustainable Development Goals, builds on a number of agreements, which were adopted in the lead up to—and after the adoption of—the SDGs. The Addis Ababa Action Agenda spells out the need to move from donor funding to a more complex system of financing, seeking ways to strengthen domestic resources, including through more efficient tax systems and by harnessing public-private investments. The Paris Agreement on climate change is directly linked to SDG 13, but extends much beyond the climate goal, as efforts to achieve the Paris Agreement will be a prerequisite to achieve many of the SDGs and vice versa. The Sendai Framework for Disaster Reduction, the Samoa Pathway, as well as the New Urban Agenda are all also part of the puzzle, articulating the need to address development challenges from a holistic perspective, based on partnerships and leveraging the knowledge and expertise of stakeholders across the board.

Instead of diving into individual SDGs to begin with, the Agenda rather demands that we first take some distance to identify the opportunities and challenges of a given context and explore their connections, allowing for integrated solutions. Building on the original three dimensions of sustainable development, the Agenda introduces the idea of the 5 P’s—adding Peace and Partnership to social inclusion (People), environmental protection (Planet) and economic growth (Prosperity). The 5 P’s acknowledge that peace, justice and accountable institutions are a means, as well as an end, influencing the capacity to reach the ambition of the agenda and dependent on progress on the other goals at the same time. Partnerships and stakeholder engagement will be equally crucial, as the Agenda acknowledges that member state governments alone will not be able to operate the transformative shifts required at a systemic and behavioural level.

Development objectives cannot be determined from the outside. If they are perceived to be, they are doomed to fail. Sustainable development objectives need to be developed and defined from the inside, through an integrated analysis and based on national stakeholder engagement. This will drive ownership and commitment to operate the changes required. Once concrete policy approaches are defined, the targets and indicators would then allow us to measure progress and provide comparable data at a global scale. The technical approaches for alignment and data analysis are indeed crucial, but they should kick in as a result of the effort to define core challenges and opportunities, including the collective way forward—and not the other way around.

Sustainable development requires long-term thinking and long-term approaches. Those can only be brokered when leadership is coupled with ownership, and participatory approaches drive the collective way forward.

Changes required for the UN System

For the UN System to be able to remain relevant and support governments in delivering on the agenda, a number of major shifts will be required. The UN Secretary-General has highlighted them in his recent Report. There, he has spelled out ways to enhance functions and capacities within the UN development system to deliver on the 2030 Agenda. For each of them, the UNSSC Knowledge Centre for Sustainable Development offers tailored courses and learning offerings:

 1.      Strengthened and accountable leadership:

For Resident Coordinators, the UNSSC Knowledge Centre offers a number of specific opportunities to acquire skills and competencies needed in the context of the Agenda, especially in the area of advocacy, leadership, communication, and partnership building. These competencies have also been further reinforced by the Secretary-General, who stressed that “Sustainable development must be the DNA of Resident Coordinators” during the 39th meeting of the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). In this sense, the entire suite of our offerings can address these learning needs. For instance, our course on Leading in Sustainable Development is especially relevant as it explicitly focuses on the leadership and skills needed to meet the ambition of the 2030 Agenda.

For UN Country Teams, the UNSSC Knowledge Centre’s offerings in country programming principles and policy support are specifically tailored to enable Country Teams to support the respective country-contextual needs of member states in an integrated and holistic way. Country Teams can refer to our suite of country programming learning formats, and look forward to our upcoming UN Country Programming course.

  1.       Supporting policy integration, partnerships and financing, and data management:

Our core offerings aim to build understanding and in-depth knowledge around sustainable development and the 2030 Agenda. These include the Foundational Course on Sustainable Development, UN Summer Academy, and online Sustainable Development Talks (SD Talks) on topics ranging from financing to data, and climate action.

Delivering on the 2030 Agenda also depends upon a critical mass of convincing advocates. Some of our initiatives in fact help build up this pool of advocates such as our explainer videos in eight languages with accompanying primers, which communicate key concepts of the Agenda to the wider public. For UN staff, our course on Communicating as One in collaboration with UNDOCO is geared towards enabling effective communication to enhance results at the national level.

Policy integration and support is also important in ensuring a more “cohesive UN policy voice”. Some of our upcoming initiatives include an online course on policy coherence for sustainable development, online modules on policy innovation, and a simulation exercise on the political economy of sustainable development.

In the area of partnerships, many of our courses and learning events provide a forum for different stakeholders to engage with each other, sharpen capacities for building and convening inclusive alliances and partnerships, and enhance capacities in multi-stakeholder partnerships to leverage south-south cooperation.

Data management and literacy have also been identified as important in strengthening the accountability of the UN development system. Our courses such as Leveraging Big Data for Sustainable Development respond to this demand and the Knowledge Centre itself is highly committed to advancing knowledge in Big Data and data management through our contribution to the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data.

Related to data management, we also offer trainings to strengthen performance management and evaluation. These include our courses on Results-Based Management and Monitoring and Evaluation for Sustainable Development.

The Secretary-General has also highlighted the lack of thematic coverage of SDGs particularly in water and sanitation (SDG 6), energy (SDG 7), the environment (SDGs 13-15), sustainable consumption and production (SDG 12), and industry and infrastructure (SDG 9). In anticipating these gaps, we have already rolled out an online course on sustainable consumption and production (SDG 12) and a six-month SD Talks special series on climate action is ongoing.

The ambition of the 2030 Agenda requires a paradigm shift for the UN development system to go beyond technical support. In line with these new demands, the UNSSC Knowledge Centre for Sustainable Development offers a space for reflection on the major conceptual shifts and changes in the ways of working that are required to address the challenges of the sustainable development agenda in an integrated manner. The UNSSC Knowledge Centre’s methodologies emphasise catalysing action and innovation in tackling complex and interlinked development challenges. Together with our partners, and in line with the UN Secretary-General’s vision to reposition the UN development system, we support the UN development system in cultivating an approach to sustainable development that is centred on leadership, cohesion, accountability and results.

 A full overview of our courses for 2017 is available here.