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The 2030 Agenda states that the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are integrated and indivisible, and should balance the economic, social and environmental dimensions of sustainable development. To achieve this balance, the Agenda includes SDG Target 17.14 to enhance policy coherence for sustainable development (PCSD) as an essential means of implementation for all the Goals.
Policy coherence to support the achievement of global goals is not a new concept. The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) included MDG8 which focused on aid, trade, debt relief and increased access to essential medicines and technologies, all of which were indispensable for creating an enabling international environment for developing countries to achieve the MDGs.
The OECD played a pivotal role during this period in promoting “policy coherence for development” (PCD). This approach emerged from the OECD’s Development Assistance Committee (DAC) discussions in early 1990’s in a context of growing concern with aid effectiveness. The assumption was that domestic policies from developed countries in areas with important cross-border dimensions such as trade, investment, and agriculture could undermine development co-operation objectives and negatively impact on the development prospects of poor developing countries.
This continues to be a key focus of the 2030 Agenda with its global aspiration to eradicate poverty in all its forms and dimensions. But eradicating poverty will be more challenging on a planet facing natural resource degradation, scarcity, and climate change. Given the complex interconnections between economic, social and environmental challenges that the SDGs aim to address – as well as their multiple global-domestic linkages – policy coherence takes on a whole new dimension.
Governments and stakeholders are increasingly recognising the need to work differently to effectively address the integrated nature of the SDGs. This means breaking out of institutional and policy silos to fully realise the benefits of synergistic actions, identifying unintended negative consequences of policies, and effectively managing unavoidable trade-offs across the SDGs. The 2030 Agenda, however, does not provide guidance on how to ensure an integrated and coherent implementation of the SDGs. And according to many of the Voluntary National Reviews (VNRs) presented by UN members to the High-level Political Forum (HLPF), enhancing policy coherence is one of the most difficult challenges to implementing the SDGs.
The OECD has therefore been working to “unpack” the complex topic of PCSD and support countries to translate it into concrete action. The OECD now sees PCSD as an approach to understand the barriers to, and the drivers for, sustainable development; and as a policy tool to integrate the economic, social and environmental dimensions of sustainable development at all stages of policy-making. From this perspective, PCSD has three main objectives, to: (i) foster synergies and minimise trade-offs across sectors; (ii) reconcile domestic policy objectives with internationally agreed objectives; and (iii) address the transboundary and long-term effects of policies.
Policy coherence is critical to deal with three main implementation challenges that all countries face in addressing a universal, integrated and transformative agenda: (i) ensuring integration; (ii) fostering alignment across local, national and international actions; and (iii) overcoming fragmented or siloed policy actions.
Policy coherence is essential to advance integration for three main reasons. Firstly, to ensure that actions (either environmental, social or economic) under one SDG or target reinforce progress on other SDGs. For instance, fostering sustainable agricultural practices to achieve zero hunger (SDG2) would be essential to support water-use efficiency targets and achieve clean water for all (SDG6), especially as agriculture is the major user of water accounting for about 70% of the world’s freshwater withdrawals.
Secondly, to avoid the risk of making progress in one goal at the expense of another. For example, an increase in agricultural land use to achieve zero hunger (SDG2) could undermine efforts in halting biodiversity loss and preserving terrestrial ecosystems (SDG15). Land-use change for agriculture is one of the main sources of biodiversity loss worldwide.
And thirdly, to ensure global and long-lasting progress. With increasing global interconnectedness, decisions in one country can impact on other countries. For example, support measures for fossil fuels – amounting to USD 510 billion worldwide in 2014 – can have implications at home, elsewhere and for the future. Such subsidies can have economic costs by distorting trade and competitiveness; environmental costs through overuse of resources and carbon emissions that spillover globally; redistributional and health impacts affecting livelihoods - air pollution kills more than 3 million people across the world every year.
Policy coherence can help policy-makers better understand how their policy choices today can affect the future population, and how their choices could impact on wellbeing and sustainable development elsewhere.
Fostering alignment across local, national and international actions
A successful achievement of the SDGs will require enhancing vertical coherence. This means fostering aggregated and coherent actions at the local, subnational, national and international levels. This is essential in an interconnected world where sustainable development challenges have global-domestic links that need to be managed at different levels. For example, combatting climate change (SDG13) as well as other systemic risks need to be addressed globally through international collective action, but also require aligning efforts at national or subnational level in terms of legislative changes in economic, fiscal, trade, and energy policies, etc., and at the local level, in terms of more specific details on land use; human settlement patterns; infrastructure or transportation planning.
Subnational and local governments are critical for delivering essential public services as well as the economic, social and environmental transformations required to achieve the 2030 Agenda. Most underlying policies and investments are a shared responsibility across levels of government and it is estimated that 65% of the 169 targets will not be reached without proper engagement of, and coordination with, local and subnational governments. Within the OECD countries, subnational governments were responsible for 59% of total public investment (and for almost 40% worldwide) in areas such as education, health, social infrastructure, water and sanitation, waste management, transport and housing.
Overcoming fragmented policy action
A major challenge for achieving the SDGs lies in developing coherent, integrated cross-sectoral strategies for implementation, particularly to address complex issues.Yet, governments and many stakeholders tend to operate in sectoral silos resulting in fragmented government action, and ultimately also in other institutions as well such as parliaments, international organisations and agencies, and civil society organisations. Experience shows that policy coherence does not happen automatically. It is a political choice by governments. It requires deliberate interventions to ensure that there are coordinated institutional structures, connected processes, shared information, as well as working methods and a collaborative administrative culture that systematically take into account the sectoral interconnections and their effects for the achievement of the SDGs. Key preconditions for policy coherence include: ensuring political will to make it happen; investing in building capacity to do it right; and providing the incentives to all actors to act now.
Experience also shows that there are key institutional mechanisms (building blocks) essential to enhance policy coherence in SDG implementation.
Building blocks for coherent implementation of the SDGs
The experiences of OECD countries in promoting policy coherence for development over the past two decades, as well as in implementing national sustainable development strategies (NSDS) in accordance with Agenda 21, has led the OECD to identify eight building blocks essential for coherent SDG implementation (Box). These bulding blocks relate to structures, processes and working methods that can facilitate improvements in policy coherence and are applicable to countries regardless of their administrative and political traditions.
OECD (2018), Policy Coherence for Sustainable Development 2018: Towards Sustainable and Resilient Societies, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/9789264301061-en.
OECD (2017), Policy Coherence for Sustainable Development 2017: Eradicating Poverty and Promoting Prosperity, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/9789264272576-en.
OECD (2016), Better Policies for Sustainable Development 2016: A New Framework for Policy Coherence, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/9789264256996-en.
OECD (2015), Better Policies for Development 2015: Policy Coherence and Green Growth, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/9789264236813-en.
Ernesto Soria Morales is a Senior Policy Analyst at the OECD’s Policy Coherence for Development Unit and one of the speakers in UNSSC’s ‘Policy Coherence for Sustainable Development’ online course. Interested in learning more about policy coherence in the context of the 2030 Agenda? Join the first edition of our online tutored course by registering here.