17 March 2016
Translating the SDGs to High-income Countries: Integration at Last?
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The Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI), Keio University and PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency have explored what the 2030 Agenda means for domestic policy-making in their respective countries (Sweden, Japan and the Netherlands).

How is the new development agenda relevant for these high-income countries and how can they act on it?

With the adoption of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, UN Member States committed to the implementation of a set of universal goals and targets, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Now, countries must deliver on their commitment. The Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI), Keio University and PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency have explored what the 2030 Agenda means for domestic policy-making in their respective countries (Sweden, Japan and the Netherlands). How is the new development agenda relevant for these high-income countries and how can they act on it?

A truly universal development agenda

The 2030 Agenda is a new type of development agenda, distinctly different from its predecessor, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). For one, it is much more comprehensive. It integrates the economic, social and environmental dimension of sustainable development into its goals and targets, and addresses the systemic barriers to sustainable development. Secondly, it is a universal agenda that applies to all countries, rich and poor, recognizing that development is much more than the eradication of extreme poverty. Universality not only means solidarity between countries (like in the MDGs), but also represents a shared responsibility and action by all.

As a result, the 2030 Agenda shifts the policy space for global development from development cooperation alone to essentially all policy areas on national and international levels. Furthermore, it shifts the role of high-income countries from that of donors to that of actors that must deliver both internationally and domestically.

Stakeholder engagement is key for getting national ambitions right

Although the 2030 Agenda is a universal agenda, national implementation will vary, given differences in needs, capabilities and demands. A key challenge is translating the SDGs to relevant national actions while staying true to the global ambitions. The 2030 Agenda gives little guidance on how this may be done. Many SDG targets are broadly defined, vague in terms of what is expected, address multiple issues at once and do not specify whether they concern national or global phenomena. If the targets are viewed as visions, this is not an issue, but where they are treated as specific actions, the lack of clear end points provides a real challenge for national translation. Furthermore, the entry point adopted strongly influences how targets will be interpreted. Are they to be integrated in the domestic policy agenda, development cooperation agenda or the international policy agenda?

As countries move to setting their national action plans, institutionalizing governance arrangements, and preparing for follow-up and review, they must pay specific attention to how the SDGs are interpreted, so that the universal ambitions will not be lost in translation. Bringing together various stakeholders and perspectives to explore the issues, challenges and priorities therefore will be a key step in getting national ambitions and actions right and strengthening ownership for the agenda.

Integration with existing policies instead of new policy elements

The three country studies reveal that few SDG targets introduce new policy areas in these high-income countries. Sweden has policies in place on essentially all SDG areas, and for many SDG targets Japan and the Netherlands have existing policy targets in place. However, those policy targets are mostly set for 2020, whereas the SDGs aim for 2030. Furthermore, current policy efforts often fall short of achieving those existing targets. This means that the majority of SDG ambitions cannot be considered fully reflected in these countries’ policy frameworks, and much work remains to set new and updated policy targets and to step up policy efforts to deliver on the three governments’ SDG commitments. (See IISD’s recap of the PBL Netherlands report here.)

In sum, for Sweden, Japan and the Netherlands, Agenda 2030 does not call for many new separate policy elements, but rather for reviewing national sustainability ambitions in the light of the global SDG ambitions. National implementing of the SDGs is therefore mostly a matter of integrating a country-specific version of the SDG targets into existing policies and plans. The Dutch plans for integrating the SDGs in their Green Growth policies and the Future Agenda for Environment and Sustainability is a fine example.

Policy coherence crucial for effective delivery

Agenda 2030 sounds a clear bell that a “silo approach” to SDG implementation should be avoided. The three country studies, likewise, highlight a need for integrated policies on environmental, social and economic development. A fundamental transformation towards an integrated approach to SDG implementation is thus required. This calls for close coordination of policy efforts and responsibilities between various ministries and provincial and local authorities. Agenda 2030 also provides an opportunity for making domestic and foreign policy more coherent, in a way that considers the impact of targets and actions along both sectoral and global-national dimensions, with policies reflecting a deep understanding of the various interlinking relationships.

Integration at last?

The SDGs are about a new direction of international development, which means that states, from north to south and rich to poor, are now at the starting blocks of a new race towards global sustainability. However, translating the SDGs to high-income countries is not only a matter of stepped-up development cooperation and international sustainability efforts. Real national implementation is about integration; involving all stakeholders, integrating the SDG targets into existing policies, and increasing coherence between national policy processes and between national and international development agendas.

Sweden’s focus on its Policy for Global Development, which is strong on policy coherence, and its shared leadership for SDG implementation, that reflects the attention for both domestic and international policy agendas, is promising. In Japan, a steering mechanism for national SDG implementation is called for as part of their leadership as the host of the G7 Summit later this year. Finally, the Netherlands recently appointed a national coordinator for domestic SDG implementation, who will not be looking only at horizontal and vertical policy integration, but also at broad stakeholder involvement. These are all promising first steps towards national SDG integration. In the end, strong political leadership is required to get this difficult job done.


This article is based on three country studies in Sweden, Japan and the Netherlands:

Weitz, N., Persson, Å., Nilsson, M. and Tenggren, S. (2015). Sustainable Development Goals for Sweden: Insights on Setting a National Agenda. Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI): Stockholm, Sweden, Working Paper 2015-10.

POST 2015 (2016), Prescriptions for Effective Implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals in Japan, POST2015 Report: Fujisawa, Japan.

Lucas, P.L., Ludwig, K., Kok, M.T.J. and Kruitwagen, S. (2016). Sustainable Development Goals in the Netherlands: Building blocks for environmental policy for 2030. PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency: The Hague/Bilthoven.

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