24 June 2021
What Makes National SDG Bodies Effective?
Photo credit: Antenna/Unsplash
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Integrating multi-stakeholder bodies into national institutional SDG architectures and equipping them with a compass function in national sustainable policy cycles, supports navigation through the complexity of structural change.

Relationship-building, mutual respect and trust are the enabling environment that allows for reciprocal relationships between the MSB body and national governments to jointly deliver SDGs and anchor them in national and local processes.

By Zosa De Sas Kropiwnicki-Gruber, Bashar Alsaeedi, Hannah Janetschek, and Felix Meyerhoff

In July 2021, countries from around the world will report on the progress that they have made in relation to the 2030 Agenda at the UN High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development. Besides reporting on the development of trends, the compilation of Voluntary National Reviews (VNRs) will contain insights on processes for stakeholder engagement in the drafting process.

In the Decade of Action, many countries are submitting their second or third VNR and have started to recognize that permanent and institutionalized stakeholder engagement committees have multiple benefits. A working group within the Global Forum for National SDG Advisory Bodies mandated the British Columbia Council for International Cooperation (BCCIC) to prepare a report titled, ‘Pathways for National Sustainable Development Advisory Bodies.’ Launched in May 2021, the report provides insights on governance mechanisms in eight such institutionalized or emerging Sustainable Development Councils, Commissions or similar bodies in Belgium, Namibia, Portugal, Georgia, Kosovo, Mexico, Romania, and Senegal.

This research reveals diverse pathways and contextual nuances that have contributed to national and international policy-making for sustainable development. The report identifies several factors, but what stands out the most is that consensus-building for Realpolitik advice is at the heart of what makes SDG advisory councils so relevant and impactful. 

The core mandate of effective SDG advisory councils’ centers on convening representatives from different stakeholder groups and providing advice on controversial issues that transcend but include these multiple views. In this way, councils are able to generate advice that promotes a common view that is wider and more embracing than any single angle or perspective. These councils are therefore crucial for dealing with competing interests and identifying areas where synergies can be promoted, and trade-offs mitigated. Herewith they promote Realpolitik that bridges opposing interests and heightens the potential for social acceptance.

Although certain positions have been difficult to reconcile, particularly when industry and environmentalists seem to be pitted against each other in contentious debates on energy and resources, there are numerous examples of success (e.g. in relation to carbon taxes and biofuels), where consensus has informed strong advice or recommendations that were implemented by policy-makers.

Consensus-building will only work if governments actually engage with the advice provided, as this provides an important incentive for finding a common ground among actors with opposing interests. In long-term established councils, institutionalized feedback mechanisms were created to ensure government engagement with the advice submitted by MSP-advisory councils. This required the establishment of constructive and trustful partnerships with the government. Moreover, positioning councils close to the center of government and establishing a reciprocal working relationship is key for meaningful results in the long run.

Other key elements are creating a conducive ecosystem for councils, and fostering a shared understanding of the moral obligation or legal mechanisms for ensuring that government ministers give feedback on whether and how the advice is utilized. In one case study, the government is only obliged by law to provide feedback if the advice is unanimous, which really drives home the institutional value placed on consensus-building. These exchange and feedback loops are strengthened by the publication of the advice provided (as well as government response) to enhance accountability and transparency, and to ensure long term engagement, and an interest in compromise among diverse stakeholders.

Within the MSP-advisory bodies, trust-building is fundamental to the achievement of consensus and to evolving social acceptance hereafter. Established councils demonstrate a shared commitment to evidence-supported arguments and a willingness to find a constructive common ground. What feels initially like a compromise will lead to transformation and a greater collective good for a more just, equal, and prosperous society for all.

Although there is no single normative or aspirational model, reciprocal relationships, trust, learning, and constructive advice are ingredients for pathways towards institutionalized stakeholder engagement in the long run. Their multiple purposes serve as a rich resource of impetus for change and the identification of socially accepted pathways ahead.

To achieve the 2030 Agenda and the accompanying complex and transformational changes it requires, reflexive governance and sharing of knowledge and lessons learned are essential. As this report reveals, institutionalized multi-stakeholder bodies and their anchoring in national sustainable development policy processes are one element among many for the accelerated implementation of the SDGs in this final Decade of Action.

For more information and insights, join us for VNR Lab 9: SDG advisory bodies and their role in national sustainable development policy cycles taking place on 12 July.

This guest article is authored by: Zosa De Sas Kropiwnicki-Gruber, Policy Director and Gender Specialist at the British Columbia Council for International Cooperation (BCCIC); Bashar Alsaeedi, Policy Analyst at BCCIC; Hannah Janetschek, Coordinator of European and International Affairs at the German Council for Sustainable Development (RNE); and Felix Meyerhoff, Project Manager at RNE. 

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