It is important to look systematically at the implications one approach or policy has on the achievement of other goals and targets.
For example, while a top-down agricultural policy in Rwanda led to progress towards SDG 1 (no poverty), it did not necessarily lead to a reduction in inequality, as called for by SDG 10 (reduced inequalities).
A systems approach can support achievement of cross-sectoral implementation and achievement of the SDGs.
Agriculture is a “common thread for sustainable development” that can enable achievement of the 2030 Agenda and its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Though it impacts most directly on SDG 2 (zero hunger), a focus on agriculture also contributes towards the achievement of eight other SDGs.1 For instance, agriculture’s role in eradicating poverty (SDG 1) has been highlighted extensively.2
While we note the positive linkages between agriculture and poverty, it is important to look systematically at the implications one approach or policy has on the achievement of other goals and targets. The case of agricultural modernization in African countries like Rwanda, where almost all rural households depend directly or indirectly on agriculture for their livelihoods, is instructive.3
According to cross-country estimates, GDP growth originating in agriculture is at least twice as effective in reducing poverty as GDP growth originating outside agriculture.4 Research on the impact of agricultural growth in several Sub-Saharan countries reconfirms this positive correlation on an aggregate level.5 However, when national impact is disaggregated to sub-national or local levels, a decrease in poverty rates nationally may be accompanied by a rise in social inequality and inequity within local communities.
For example, Green Revolution policies in Rwanda resulted in falling poverty rates on the national level. However, a disaggregated analysis demonstrated that only a relatively wealthy minority benefited from agricultural modernization that was imposed on local communities, while the policies exacerbated landlessness and inequality for poorer rural inhabitants.6
Such findings reveal that while this top-down agricultural policy led to progress towards SDG 1, it did not necessarily lead to a reduction in inequality, as called for by SDG 10 (reduced inequalities). In fact, the results may have pitted the achievement of one goal against another. The case provides a valuable lesson on the importance of developing more consistent and holistic policies to achieve the SDGs. This lesson is in line with the spirit of the SDGs, which were created as a guide for breaking down economic, environmental, and social “silo” approaches to development.7 In this regard, a systems approach can support achievement of cross-sectoral implementation and achievement of the SDGs.
Systems approaches are especially useful for gaining a common understanding of a system among policy stakeholders, examining formal and informal rules by which a system is governed, and considering boundaries that constrain the parts of the system about which the development community cares. A system must be modeled such that behavior is insensitive to excluded variables, i.e. boundaries (geographic and conceptual) must be thoughtfully considered. Such considerations were largely ignored in Rwanda, where imposed modernization and crop specialization disrupted complex local knowledge systems, as well as existing networks of trade, communications, and social relations between villages and their inhabitants.8 Arrangements through the National Land Policy decreased tenure security for the majority of inhabitants, while reallocation of land to cash crops under contract farming agreements led to dramatic shifts in land control.9 If access to resources for vulnerable populations and sub-national context had been considered, the policies may not have exacerbated such disparities.
Moving forward, systems approaches can be used to examine contradictions and synergies among the SDGs, especially the three focused on ending poverty, hunger and inequality. This is particularly relevant as SDGs 1 and 10 are linked by nine targets, making them the most strongly connected of all the Goals.10 To avoid unintended, or even negative outcomes, as in the case of Rwanda, policymakers must consider the power dynamics, feedback loops, and nonlinear relationships that influence the results of a given policy intervention. They can rely on systems approaches to ascertain helpful insights that can improve project implementation by taking into account local needs and values.
Ultimately, strengthening the capacities of development practitioners and partners to conduct systems approaches and assessments will be an important precondition towards achieving the SDGs, and may mitigate negative interactions between the Goals. Applying systems approaches to develop comprehensive impact assessments, to support collaboration, learning, and adapting (CLA)11, as well as to consider impacts at local (or implementation) levels, can minimize implementation pitfalls as in the Rwandan case, and support the pursuit of genuine pro-poor policies across the SDGs.
The authors, Benedict Bueb, Megan Peters, and Elizabeth Yepes, are graduate students at The George Washington University, in Washington, DC, US.
1 David Le Blanc. 2015. “Towards Integration at Last? The Sustainable Development Goals as a Network of Targets.”. DESA Working Paper No. 141.
2 The World Bank. 2008. “Agriculture for Development. World Development Report”, p. 6.
3 Xinshen Diao, Peter Hazell, and James Thurlow. 2010. “The Role of Agriculture in African Development.” World Development, 38(10), pp. 1375–1383, p. 1375.
4 The World Bank. 2008. “Agriculture for Development. World Development Report”, p. 6.
5 Xinshen Diao, Peter Hazell, and James Thurlow. 2010. “The Role of Agriculture in African Development.” World Development, 38(10), pp. 1375–1383.
6 Neil Dawson, Adrian Martin, and Thomas Sikor. 2016. “Green Revolution in Sub-Saharan Africa: Implications of Imposed Innovation for the Wellbeing of Rural Smallholders.” World Development, 78, pp. 204–218.
7 United Nations. 2015. “Transforming our World: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.” General Assembly 70 Session, p. 5.
8 Neil Dawson, Adrian Martin, and Thomas Sikor. 2016. “Green Revolution in Sub-Saharan Africa: Implications of Imposed Innovation for the Wellbeing of Rural Smallholders.” World Development, 78, p. 213.
9 Ibid., p. 214.
10 David Le Blanc. 2015. “Towards Integration at Last? The Sustainable Development Goals as a Network of Targets. DESA Working Paper No. 141. p. 5.
11 Feed the Future Value Chain Market System Monitoring (MSM) activity. 2017. “A System Mapping Framework for Facilitative Development Projects”. Working Paper.
Integrated Model for Sustainable Development Goals Strategies (iSDG)