Implementing policy coherence: A challenge inherent to the 2030 Agenda

This week, we were in New York for events organised alongside the 2019 UN High-Level Political Forum, dedicated to implementation of the 2030 Agenda. There was a lot of talk about policy coherence for sustainable development, which is articulated in target 14 of Sustainable Development Goal 17 (‘partnerships for the goals’). However, there is still a serious lack of clarity on how to pursue policy coherence in practice.

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    The need for policy coherence permeates the entire concept of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which are based on the idea that the multiple facets of development do not occur in isolation, but are impacted on by many actors and policies. Successful implementation therefore relies heavily on governments taking an integrated approach to policy-making, with policy coherence at its core.

    The High-Level Political Forum (HLPF) is certainly useful for exchanging ideas on how to address interlinkages between SDGs at national level. A number of events made serious efforts to discuss policy coherence for sustainable development (PCSD) in some depth. For instance, a learning session organised by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the Global Network of Civil Society Organisations for Disaster Reduction (GNDR), the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR) and the Millennium Institute, provided an interesting discussion on lessons learnt in Nigeria, Luxembourg, Finland, Mexico and Indonesia.

    Equally, an expert group meeting organised by the OECD, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN DESA) included a specific session on how to enhance PCSD with valuable experiences from Nepal, Sri Lanka and South Africa. These discussions undoubtedly raise awareness about policy coherence and help share emerging approaches, including on institutional mechanisms, to enable integrated policy-making.

    Yet, this year again, major aspects of policy coherence were left unaddressed. Concrete cases of policy incoherence and their causes were hardly mentioned during the HLPF. The link is not being made between SDG 17.14 and various major policy issues relevant across all countries, for example, the trade-offs needed between current trade and fiscal policies, and decarbonisation objectives. As a result, opportunities to advance the dialogue on policy coherence on solid grounds are missed.

    Furthermore, the cross-border dimensions of policy coherence, due to interactions between national and international policies (see graphic below), remain largely absent from the discussions. They are nonetheless in the background of many development problems mentioned during the HLPF. These included: educational outcomes in countries such as Nigeria that are negatively affected by the proliferation of small arms, sustainable agriculture and food systems that are heavily dependent on trade and investment policies, or interactions between migration, education and labour policies that shape social outcomes, for example in Luxembourg.

    Four dimensions of policy coherence for the 2030 Agenda – ECDPM

    These types of interlinkages can be particularly hard to grasp, especially for non-specialists who may not be well equipped to discuss such policy issues in detail. However, one is left with the feeling that the HLPF avoids topics of contention and circumvents debates about difficult trade-offs among objectives as well as global systemic issues that involve transnational conflicts of interests.

    At ECDPM, to get a wider view, we conducted a rapid assessment of the 40 plus Voluntary National Reviews (VNRs) prepared for the HLPF. A majority of them do mention policy coherence, with at least some lip service paid to its importance. Other keywords that suggest some efforts to consider policy coherence in different ways, such as ‘mainstreaming’, ‘whole of government/society approach’, ‘nexus approach’, or ‘synergies’, are also mentioned – though less frequently.

    Only a minority of the 2019 VNRs refer to policy coherence in relation to policies in specific sectors. Some of them do look at the SDG targets one by one, but, when it comes to target 17.14, roughly half skip that target. Among the VNRs that do address target 17.14, most comments provided are of limited relevance, and only a few cases discuss the government architecture for implementation of the SDGs as suggested in the UN’s VNR Handbook.

    Thus, while most countries do recognise the relevance of policy coherence (or related concepts), so far there is no clarity on how to report on 17.14, and only a few countries follow the available guidance.

    The fact that the VNR Handbook only gives limited guidance on how to report on policy coherence could be one reason for this limited uptake. On page 60, where it discusses the incorporation of the SDGs in national frameworks, the Handbook suggests that the VNR could “outline critical initiatives that the country has undertaken to adapt the SDGs and targets to its national circumstances, and to advance their implementation including examining policy coherence and interlinkages”.

    On page 61, in a section on adapting institutional mechanisms, the Handbook suggests that the VNR could highlight, “efforts to mobilize institutions around the SDGs, improve their functioning, and promote change to achieve policy coherence across sectors”. But that is really all the Handbook says.

    Working out how best to use target 17.14 on PCSD is the responsibility of UNEP, which has been developing a methodology and an indicator to assess where countries stand. UNEP is conducting a last round of consultations and a piloting phase with a few countries in the coming months. Adoption of the indicator is then expected by the beginning of next year.

    So starting in 2020, there should be much more specific guidance to report on PCSD in VNRs. Rolling out this indicator can be expected to be challenging. Much of the conceptual work and guidance on policy coherence has been developed for OECD countries, whereas UNEP has to develop an indicator applicable to all UN member states.

    The fact that the HLPF gives little space for independent contributions challenging the (generally positive) results reported by the official VNR documents, could be another factor in explaining these gaps. It was frequently repeated that genuine multi-stakeholder engagement is crucial in fostering policy coherence, although in practice this engagement lacked necessary controversy.

    Non-state and local actors are widely seen as being in a good position to identify synergies and resolve trade-offs between different policy areas, by informing policy processes with local evidence and fostering transparency around policy incoherencies. Yet there is little space for such debate in the official programme.

    From the side events we attended and discussions taking place in the corridors, it was apparent that government officials, while recognising the need for policy coherence, still grappled with what PCSD means in practice and were resigned to the lack of progress. Although the SDGs in many countries have been integrated into national development strategies, the shift in policy-making required by the interlinkages between the SDGs has yet to be operated.

    There was nonetheless a feeling that the sharing of experiences among countries and the networks of actors brought together at the HLPF should be instrumental in accelerating the process of trial and error, to hone approaches to promoting policy coherence.

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