SDG Implementation: from Policy Dilemmas to Smart Prioritizing


The Asia-Pacific Knowledge Exchange: Supporting Policy Coherence for Accelerating Progress Towards the 2030 Agenda took place in Manila, 2–4 October 2017. It was organized by the UN Development Programme.

Will the citizens of the Philippines accept lower economic growth and fewer jobs for the sake of more sustainable development? Should Nepal invest its scant resources into infrastructure and leave climate change responses for later?

Policy-makers trying to mainstream the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) into national development strategies and budgeting processes cannot afford to treat these as either-or choices. As a representative of the Nepal government put it at the Asia-Pacific Knowledge Exchange meeting in Manila, in October:

We don’t have the leisure to sit and wait for targets to be achieved one at a time.

The answer is integrated policy solutions that push progress on clusters of SDG targets, or at the very least minimize trade-offs between them. But to plan them, policy-makers need an understanding of how targets will interact; and to put them into action, they need buy-in from different policy sectors. New work being done at Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) aims to support both these processes.

Old habits vs the new Agenda

The 2030 Agenda and the SDGs call for a balanced, integrated approach to sustainable development in its three dimensions: economic, social and environmental. For governments with scant resources and limited cross-sectoral policy coherence this is not an easy task. At the same conference[1], participants from around Asia-Pacific exchanged experiences on the challenges they face in implementing the 2030 Agenda. A representative of the host government argued that more balanced and sustainable development will imply moderating present economic growth. In this respect, the short planning horizon of most governments is a major obstacle, along with the fact that different branches of government have their own planning cycles and goals.

Which targets, when?

Any attempt to foster cross-sectoral cooperation needs to build on a common understanding of the potential gains and of how uncoordinated policies could undermine each other.

The representative of Nepal said his government does not have the answers on how to prioritize and sequence SDG targets. In the first implementation phase of the SDGs, he said, his government needed to focus on strategic infrastructure projects. Yet resources were also needed for targets requiring sustained investment over time, for example gender equality and climate change.

Interactions mapping for smarter prioritizing

Recognizing the challenges presented by the 2030 Agenda, UN agencies, NGOs and institutes like SEI are developing tools and methodologies to guide governments.

The approach developed by SEI aims to assess how targets affects each other in a country, not just individually but in terms of the larger system of targets. By assessing interactions through the use of advanced network mapping techniques and cross-impact balance analysis the approach helps to identify the most effective combinations and sequencing of policy actions. To better capture the different ways policy areas can influence each other the interactions are not merely translated into a binary language of synergies and trade-offs but scored with a nuanced seven-point taxonomy.

From network maps to policy

The SEI approach has so far been applied from a sectoral point of view in a study commissioned by the International Council for Science (ICSU) in 2017.  In a recent article SEI researchers tested the approach on the case of Sweden to illustrate how priority setting, with the objective of enhancing progress on all 17 SDGs, might change if systemic impacts are fully understood.

The next step in developing the approach will be to pilot test it in government-led processes in which multiple stakeholders will provide context-specific information and analyse the results and their implications for policy-making. The first pilot in Sri Lanka has just started and is being run by SEI in partnership with the Centre for Poverty Analysis (CEPA) and supported by UNDP.  

Implementing Agenda 2030 is complex, and the SEI approach is no quick fix; there will still be many difficult decisions. But with a more structured, nuanced picture of how the available policy options could interact, policy-makers are better equipped for the task.



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