2 December 2020
What We Can Learn from Europe’s Record on Policy Coherence for the SDGs
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The world is struggling to make the most of its commitment to policy coherence, which has dedicated targets under SDG 17.

We can learn from countries in Europe, some of which have over 25 years of experience promoting policy coherence for development.

A new study draws key lessons from these efforts to help other countries translate PCSD into sustainable development practice.

By Martin Ronceray

The quest for policy coherence is age-old: how can we ensure that one part of government does not undo what the other is trying to do? In other words, how shall governments “break the silos,” or even make them “dance”? Some say the answer lies in whole-of-government strategies, while others suggest mainstreaming one issue at a time, until everything aligns with everything else.

The obstacles for countries in Europe remind us that policy coherence is more political than it is technical.

In the 2030 Agenda, governments recognize policy coherence for sustainable development (PCSD) as one of several means of implementation for delivering the SDGs at the global level, with dedicated targets, to be pursued by all governments. But how?

Some countries are lucky enough to have government units dedicated to coherence, or receive support from the policy coherence team of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) or other organizations. An actionable indicator developed by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) now allows countries to track the progress of their overall mechanisms to promote coherence. But the majority of countries cannot afford a full-time policy coherence unit, and for them there is a growing feeling that PCSD is both too important to drop, and too ambitious and complex to actually do something about it.

Europe’s Uphill Journey

In this puzzlement, we can learn from European countries’ experience when they committed to policy coherence for development by making it an integral part of the treaty that shaped the European Union in 1992. Since then, both the EU and its member states have dedicated energy to making their policies work for development. They have done so in a variety of ways and with diverse results.

Two highlights of this European policy coherence journey stand out. First: the reduction of export subsidies to European farmers. Those subsidies had meant that African markets became flooded with cheap food and other products, undermining local production. Reducing the subsidies was a result of policy coherence for food security.

Second, in an example of policy coherence for anti-corruption, efforts were directed at removing fiscal incentives that led to bribing foreign officials to obtain trade or investment deals. The eradication of these incentives (across OECD countries but especially in Europe) is an endeavor that started in the 1990s and is ongoing today.

One coordination meeting and one task force at a time, Europe is still fighting to achieve policy coherence: it remains an uphill battle. Strong forces govern trade rules, financial regulations, migration policies and many more areas still display policy incoherence. Resistance can be fierce when it comes to changing practices in a policy area to ensure coherence with other policy priorities – for instance, promoting environmental considerations in industrial policy, or mainstreaming gender equality against deeply rooted conservatism. These obstacles remind us that policy coherence is more political than technical, and it is important to remain realistic when assessing how, and at what cost, we can advance towards policy coherence.

Is It Worth the Climb?

Despite the difficulties, there is no lack of incentives to achieve policy coherence. Most countries care about being portrayed as efficient champions of sustainable development, or at least try to avoid bad press. Occasions such as the voluntary national reviews during the annual sessions of the UN High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF) give countries a chance for good PR, and international rankings (like the recently overhauled Commitment to Development Index) can shed a good or a bad light on their actions. Blacklists of tax havens, for instance, frequently force a reaction by showing that a specific government is undermining the principle of fair taxation.

Civil society has been at the forefront of placing coherence on the institutional agenda and reminding countries of their duties. In Europe, the NGO umbrella organisation CONCORD is playing this role, together with national civil society organizations targeting their own governments. Civil society can act as watchdog, bringing controversial cases of incoherence to the public eye to force states to act. There is untapped potential in partnerships between officials committed to policy coherence and their civil society counterparts.

Two Lessons from Europe’s Efforts

There are lessons to draw from European efforts, as highlighted by recent research within the CASCADES project on cascading climate risks. Here are two overarching ones.

First, set clear priorities. The 2030 Agenda does not guide the setting of priorities among its goals and targets. Instead, all 17 Goals and 169 targets are presented as sustainable development priorities, making it difficult for countries to know where to begin. This is why a concise list of key areas for fostering coherence can go a long way to making PCSD more than just wishful thinking – especially if supported by a clear action plan, distribution of tasks, and mechanisms to arbitrate trade-offs. The European Commission has a long history of crafting shortlists of policy coherence priorities.

Second, find your own way. It is necessary to tailor methods to context by working with the grain – building PCSD from the bottom up – rather than applying a general blueprint to every country. In that sense, general checklists and the SDG indicators can be somewhat misleading: countries may be better off building on existing practices. For instance, the Netherlands set up routine government reporting to parliament on policy coherence, to provide an incentive to keep things moving. Switzerland works with universities to track its own coherence in the areas of financial secrecy and commodity trading, knowing that a strong evidence base can help outweigh the forces for incoherence.

Depending on the country’s culture, it can be best to give a positive spin to coherence efforts, by focusing on synergies rather than trade-offs. In some places, ‘mainstreaming’ is associated with heavy reporting burdens, so it makes people wary. ‘Whole-of-government’ approaches (for sustainable development overall or for a specific area like anti-corruption in the case of the UK) have worked in some places and backfired in others. Acronyms such as PCSD work better in some countries than in others, where a translation is in order. Hence turning PCSD into reality is more a matter of inventing a national model than applying international best practices.

There is a world of lessons learned for effectively advancing PCSD. These lessons point us toward the practical political economy of decision making, to avoid mere wishful thinking, missed opportunities and wasted resources. They also show the need for creativity from governments, civil society champions and experts alike, in working together. Five years into the SDG era, there is still time to take these lessons onboard.

This article is authored by Martin Ronceray, Policy Officer for Learning and Quality Support, European Centre for Development Policy Management (ECDPM). The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the ECDPM. 

To learn more, see ECDPM’s dossier on policy coherence.

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