Policy Coherence in 2017: Lessons from the United Nations High Level Political Forum

The concept of ‘policy coherence’ has progressively gained prominence among the international development community. This year’s High-Level Political Forum (HLPF) showed that thirteen years from the deadline of the 2030 Agenda, there is a broad consensus on the need for policy coherence. Yet views differ substantially when it comes to deciding what exactly it covers, and how to measure it to hold countries accountable for their commitments. This calls for a renewed research agenda.

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      For some, the ‘elephant in the room’ and the main obstacle on the way to sustainable development is the fact that industry, trade and foreign policy – among others – are not in coherence with countries’ commitment to environmental, economic and social sustainability. Others consider policy coherence as yet another ‘devspeak’ buzzword with little practical implications or criticise it for overlooking the complexity of politics underlying policies which make full coherence impossible to achieve. So, what does ‘policy coherence’ stand for today?

      The 2030 Agenda is the main international framework for sustainable development. There, policy coherence for sustainable development (PCSD) is listed as a ‘systemic issue’ under the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 17, target 14 on “strengthening the means of implementation and revitalising the global partnership”. This is a strikingly modest place since the whole 2030 Agenda can be understood as a statement about policy coherence, where each and every SDG is already formulated in an integrated way, cutting across several traditional policy fields.

      What matters in the spirit of the 2030 Agenda is coherence between policies to achieve the SDGs rather than PCSD in itself – a slightly dull acronym inspired by the European PCD initiative to promote coherence for development since the 1990s.

      A consensus for coherence


      Policy coherence was frequently mentioned at the UN Political Forum, both during official sessions – such as Voluntary National Reviews, where countries present the steps they take towards sustainable development – and during the multitude of side events organised by civil society, research and international organisations. In fact, hardly any event went by without some mention of coherence issues, and several events even made coherence their main entry point.

      Civil society seemed to embrace the principle of coherence in favour of sustainable development with more eagerness than governments – for whom the call for coherence can easily amount to a questioning of their current policies.

      The challenge of agreeing on a definition


      While ‘coherence’ is an elusive state of affairs – most recognisable when it is missing – policy circles describe ‘policy coherence’ as a principle. It is the need for policies to be designed in an integrated manner while keeping sustainable development as the highest priority, the need to build on synergies between policies designed in parallel, or the need for individual policies to do no harm to a set of sustainable development priorities.

      This broad definition does not fully account for the ways in which the words have been used at the UN-HLPF 2017. Sometimes policy coherence was equated to coordination and to the existence of joint decision-making mechanisms. At other times, it was presented as a highly technical issue to be addressed through a thorough mapping of linkages between and within SDGs. It was also sometimes used as an activist slogan: a yellow card to call out specific policies or sectors deemed incoherent.

      In the last few years, the OECD initiated an advanced reflection on Policy Coherence for Sustainable Development (PCSD) offering conceptual tools that do not override these various uses of the phrase so far. As a result, technical definitions – sometimes used approximatively – co-exist alongside more intuitive ones.

      The challenge of measurement


      The UN-HLPF is an occasion to evaluate how states progress on the path to the 2030 Agenda based on indicators and targets. So far, no convincing indicators capture the largely qualitative issue of policy coherence, and international discussions favour quantitative indicators of contributions.

      The proposed measurement of total official support to sustainable development (TOSSD) accounting for a range of other flows than aid, sheds a welcome light on some aspects of policy coherence. It allows to say, for instance, whether a country encourages private investment in developing countries, or whether it tackles some global challenges from its own end. But the international development community has missed the opportunity to quickly start evaluating the policy coherence of countries in light of the impact of their policies on public goods that cannot be quantified.

      An open research agenda


      Many countries support coherence in policy making at a general level, under a diversity of names. These countries have embraced some generic elements of policy coherence systems, which materialise differently in every country and shape national decision-making procedures.

      In the future, it will be important to take a closer look at the effects of these (institutional or other) elements, also with respect to features of countries such as their political culture. The international community also needs good indicators covering policy coherence to hold governments accountable for their impact on global sustainable development.

      Civil society and the media frequently pay attention to a set of broad issues in which policy coherence is a sensitive question, such as illicit financial flows, tax justice, remittances, access to medicine, food security, etc. Multidisciplinary policy research on these thematic issues is a priority shared by many countries, foundations and international organisations. Political economy analysis can be a powerful tool to inform policymakers and the general public on these issues. It can help uncover why such coherence issues exist and understand which increments are not just desirable but also feasible to the benefit of sustainable development.

      ECDPM recently held a workshop on the use of political economy analysis to support civil society organisations in their advocacies for international tax justice and private sector mobilisation for sustainable development. Actors within civil society who have traditionally stood in favour of change and who can influence public policy are pivotal as front-line players to foster greater coherence. Their advocacy would gain a lot from such action-oriented research on policy coherence.

      The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of ECDPM.

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