10 October 2016
Towards Integrated Implementation: Tools for Understanding Linkages and Developing Strategies for Policy Coherence
UN Photo/Kibae Park
story highlights

The opening of the UN General Assembly's 71st Session included a celebration of the first anniversary of the adoption of 2030 Agenda on Sustainable Development and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The moment also served as a reminder to the international community that only 14 years remain to achieve the ambitious targets set out in the SDGs.

For any government or other actor that has not yet done so, it is high time to get started on implementation, but taking the first step to implement this complex agenda may be the most difficult.

The opening of the UN General Assembly’s 71st Session included a celebration of the first anniversary of the adoption of 2030 Agenda on Sustainable Development and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The moment also served as a reminder to the international community that only 14 years remain to achieve the ambitious targets set out in the SDGs. For any government or other actor that has not yet done so, it is high time to get started on implementation, but taking the first step to implement this complex agenda may be the most difficult.

Recognizing the challenges of getting started, many groups and organizations have focused their efforts during this first year on developing tools and approaches to kick-start SDG implementation. This policy brief is the first in a series that will explore how governments, civil society, the private sector, academia and other communities are getting started on the SDGs. The series will identify tools and approaches being used around the world and report on their experiences, in order to stimulate ideas and new learning among policy makers and practitioners.

This first brief looks at tools designed to tackle one of the most daunting challenges of SDG implementation: integration and policy coherence. As almost anyone involved with SDG implementation is aware, measures that contribute to achieving one Goal may not always be beneficial for achieving other SDGs, due to “trade-offs” between outcomes. In other cases, potential synergies are left by the wayside because policies and measures that could be mutually supportive were not coordinated or sufficiently aligned to realize those co-benefits. The need for integrated implementation is among the most important lessons to be learned from the Millennium Development Goals. It is particularly relevant for the 2030 Agenda, which was adopted in a year of similarly momentous agreements in other areas, such as climate change, disaster risk reduction, and financing for development. The 2030 Agenda recognizes that “[t]he challenges and commitments contained in these major conferences and summits are interrelated and call for integrated solutions.” It also notes that “interlinkages and the integrated nature of the Sustainable Development Goals are of crucial importance in ensuring that the purpose of the new Agenda is realized.” This importance is also reflected in SDG 17 (Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development), which aims to address several “systemic issues” including target 17.14 to “enhance policy coherence for sustainable development.”

The following sections take a look at some of the approaches and tools currently available to analyze and understand linkages, and to examine the impacts of specific policies and strategies on interlinked issues.

Understanding Linkages

A first step towards integrated implementation is to understand the linkages among the SDGs, both at the Goal level and among their targets. Several tools and approaches aim to foster a better understanding of these relationships by modelling the network of interlinkages and analyzing clusters of issues.

First, a study from the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA) uses a network mapping technique derived from social network analysis to provide a map of direct references in SDG targets to other SDGs, based on the wording of the targets (LeBlanc 2015). The result is a visual representation of the references between SDGs and targets that the author describes as “unequally knit network,” with some SDGs displaying strong linkages to many other SDGs, whereas other Goals appear more isolated. For example, SDG 1 on poverty, SDG 8 on growth and employment, SDG 12 on sustainable consumption and production and SDG 10 on inequality are each linked to ten or more other Goals. In contrast, SDG 7 on affordable and clean energy, SDG 9 on industry, innovation and infrastructure, and SDG 14 on conservation and sustainable use of the oceans are each linked only to three other SDGs. The author suggests that, by making these linkages explicit, the SDGs can become a tool for greater integration in the efforts of development institutions whose work often focuses on the issues within a specific Goal. For instance, organizations focusing on health will not only be guided by the targets under SDG 3 on health and well-being, but can also pursue related targets under other SDGs, by using the network mapping. The author cautions however that mapping SDG linkages based on their wording reflects “political” linkages created through negotiations, rather than linkages based on physical or socio-economic considerations.

One approach that is often used to explore and display physical and socioeconomic interlinkages is the Nexus Approach (see for example: Boas et al. 2016). A nexus is a cluster of issues that are linked in such a way that interventions focusing on one issue are highly likely to have positive or negative impacts on other issues within the nexus. Based on the idea that policy objectives in different domains are often “intrinsically connected,” the Nexus Approach singles out issues with particular interdependences to support research on those linkages and possible solutions for integrated policy making. Investing in a coherent governance approach that minimizes trade-offs and enhances synergies can thus be expected to have positive returns in terms of overall policy effectiveness and efficiency. The most popular nexus is the one linking climate-water-energy-and-food. It recognizes that population growth will lead to higher demands for food, energy and water resources, which will lead to higher greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and greater pressure on ecosystems. These impacts create potential for synergies and risks of trade-offs between policies aiming to address poverty reduction (SDG 1), food security (SDG 2), climate action (SDG 13), access to energy (SDG 7) and sustainable use of biodiversity and ecosystem services (SDG 14 and 15). The Nexus Approach is particularly useful to define a research agenda on specific issue clusters and to develop frameworks for interpreting the evidence and knowledge gathered through that research. Nexuses on different issue clusters have therefore been the subject of large science-policy conferences. The concept is also used frequently to structure in-depth discussions of issue clusters in international reports such as the special themes in the Global Sustainable Development Report (GSDR). For example:

  • Water, energy and food security (2011 Bonn Nexus Conference; GSDR 2014)
  • Infrastructure, inequality and resilience (GSDR 2016)
  • Oceans, seas, marine resources and human well-being (GSDR 2015)
  • Water, soil and waste (2015 Dresden Nexus Conference)
  • Health, poverty, gender and education (Clancy et al. 2002)
  • Education, health and water (Kitamura et al. 2014)
  • Education, health and food (Igutchi et al. 2014)

This list also shows that over time the use of the nexus approach has expanded from issues that focused primarily on interconnections in the use of natural resources to issues that are linked through socio-economic interactions including health, poverty and education.

Addressing Linkages in Policy Making

The tools and approaches discussed in this section allow policy makers to go one step further and analyze linkages between objectives, policies and programmes in a country-specific context. The following five tools can be used to explore or model the impact of proposed measures before implementation and provide useful feedback for policy review towards improved coherence.

ICSU’s Framework to Characterize SDG Interactions

The International Council for Science (ICSU) has developed a framework to characterize interactions among SDGs and their targets using a scoring system (Nilsson et al. 2016a; Nilsson et al. 2016b). The scores range from completely adverse relationships where action on one Goal makes it impossible to reach another Goal to perfectly supportive relationships where achieving one Goal is inextricably linked to achieving another (Table 1) (Nilsson et al. 2016). The authors state that the scale can be used to “organize evidence and support decision-making about national priorities […] to help policy makers to identify and test development pathways that minimize negative interactions and enhance positive ones” (Nilsson et al. 2016b).

Table 1: Scoring the influence of one SDG or target on another (Source: Nilsson et al. 2016)

Name Explanation Score
Indivisible Inextricably linked to the achievement of another Goal +3
Reinforcing Aids the achievement of another Goal +2
Enabling Creates the conditions that further another Goal +1
Consistent No significant positive or negative interactions 0
Constraining Limits options on another Goal -1
Counteracting Clashes with another goal -2
Cancelling Makes it impossible to reach another goal -3

The framework can help policy makers to think systematically about interactions and identify sectors that are positively or negatively affected by a given interventions. The authors suggest using the framework to map interactions between policies starting from a specific goal that may be in line with the mandate of a particular ministry to explore interactions with all targets under the 16 other SDGs. Interactions with positive scores represent opportunities to create partnerships, whereas negative scores point to the existence of trade-offs that may require additional policy action, such as regulation or investments in research to develop technologies or solutions that may be able to bridge the divide. The authors suggest four additional criteria to evaluate the effects of interactions: whether the effect is reversible (e.g. land conversion) or irreversible (e.g. species loss); whether the impact of interaction is mutual for the goals involved or unidirectional; the strength of the interaction; and how certain it is that the interaction will occur in practice. They further draw attention to the importance of context, timescale and spatial scale. Context is important as interactions will vary among countries with different conditions. Timescale is relevant as some interactions may appear only with significant time lag. Finally, impacts may vary with spatial scale including situations were negative local impacts may be outweighed by greater benefits at national scale.

Stakeholder Forum’s Classification of Type and Nature of SDG Interlinkages

The Stakeholder Forum, in collaboration with Bioregional and Newcastle University, has developed a similar approach to identifying and classifying interlinkages (Coopman et al. 2016). The authors define eight types of interactions that are grouped into three categories: Supporting; enabling/disenabling; and relying (table 2). They allocate a score to each type of interlinkage that represents the relative “strength” of the linkage: a score of 0 indicates negative or no interlinkage, whereas scores of 1-3 indicate increasing positive interactions.

Table 2: Classification of Type and Nature of SDG Interlinkages (Source: Coopman et al. 2016)

Category Type and Definition Score
Supporting Commonly supporting: both targets contribute to the same objective 1
Mutually supporting: target A’s objective is achieved by target B’s means of implementation and vice versa 2
Enabling Disenabling: Implementing target B may hinder or reverse target A 0
Indirect enabling: implementing target B indirectly enables achievement of target A 1
Direct enabling: implementing target B indirectly enables achievement of target A 2
Direct enabling in both directions: implementing target B indirectly enables achievement of target A and implementing target A directly enables achievement of target B 3
Relying Partial reliance: target B is a subcategory of target A 1
Full reliance: target B’s implementation is necessary for, but not intrinsic to, target A’s achievement 2

The study performs a full analysis of the interlinkages between targets under SDG 12 on sustainable consumption and production and targets under all other SDGs. The analysis shows that most pairs of targets have medium strong linkages. The authors suggest that identifying the type of interlinkage can help policy makers amplify the impact of policies, for example:

  • In cases of partially relying targets, where one target is a subcategory of a broader target or goal, policy makers can design policies aiming to achieve the specific target with its contribution to the broader target or goal in mind.
  • In cases of commonly supporting targets, where achieving different targets contributes to the same policy goal, policy makers can consider developing combined or streamlined policies.
  • In cases of enabling targets, where achieving one target facilitates achieving another target or goal, policy makers can consider coordinating policies such that the enabling effect is maximized.
  • In cases of potential for conflict, where interlinkages have been classified as disabling, policy makers can aim to interpret ambiguous or vague targets in such a way that the resulting policies support the same objective and avoid offsetting progress on the targets involved.

The authors also identify a number of “missing linkages,” for example between the targets under SDG 12 and targets under SDG 11 on reducing inequalities where linkages could support a better integration of policy making. For these cases they suggest that policy makers can consider ways of creating such linkages through national policies that ensure further integration of SDG implementation in accordance with national priorities and circumstances. The authors also discuss several challenges and drawbacks of the approach including some targets being too ambiguous to clearly classify potential interactions with other targets or goals. They also note that the absence of negative scores does not allow differentiating between negative interactions and the absence of interactions.

Integrated Sustainable Development Goals Planning Model (iSDG)

The Millennium Institute developed the Integrated Sustainable Development Goals Planning Model (iSDG) as a simulation tool to help policy makers understand the interconnections among the SDGs and their targets, enabling them to design synergistic strategies for SDG implementation. The model simulates the fundamental trends and developments that will affect SDG implementation until 2030 under a business-as-usual scenario. Using this base scenario, policy makers can test the likely impacts of policies before they are adopted, or analyze their effects after implementation. Users can generate country-specific scenarios to analyze the implications of specific policies on progress towards the SDGs.

For each SDG, the Model offers a range of interventions that are expected to affect progress towards that Goal. Policy makers can select different levels of investment for each intervention and see how the country’s progress towards that goal and all other SDGs changes. The Model includes a broad selection of tools to conduct an in-depth analysis of the simulated outcomes. For example, the Synergy Assessment Tool enables users to assesses the contribution of each policy within a broader SDG strategy and reveals the synergies or trade-offs that might emerge from interactions among different policies. The current version of the model covers all 17 SDGs including 78 indicators or proxy indicators.

OECD New Framework Policy Coherence for Sustainable Development

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) released a revamped version of its Framework for Policy Coherence for Sustainable Development (PCSD), which was revised in the context of the 2030 Agenda and the SDGs. The PCSD tool aims to assist countries in updating current institutional mechanisms, processes and practices towards policy coherence to ensure they are “fit for purpose” for SDG implementation. It is designed to be a flexible tool that can be adapted to national circumstances and allows policy makers to develop their own strategies for policy coherence.

The PCSD Screening tool consists of three components.

  • The analytical framework assesses actors, policy interlinkages, enabling conditions and sources of finance.
  • The institutional framework assesses government approaches, such as awareness, political commitment, priority setting, and stakeholder involvement, as well as aspects of policy coordination, such as coordination mechanisms, country-specific SDG targets, and interlinkages across governance levels.
  • The monitoring framework assesses the need to strengthen and adapt monitoring and reporting mechanisms.

Each section of the three frameworks is explained in detail using examples from OECD countries to illustrate how the tool can be applied in practice. The report also includes chapters that apply the toolkit to the three priority areas identified for policy coherence in the 2012 OECD Strategy on Development, namely: food security; illicit financial flows; and green growth. Another chapter describes options for monitoring policy coherence in these areas, including data, indicators modeling tools and other approaches available to track institutional mechanisms, policy interactions, and policy effects. The final chapter provides an overview of the initial efforts of 18 countries in implementing and adapting the 2030 Agenda to their own country context and priorities.

UNDG Reference Guide

The UN Development Group has produced a Reference Guide to UN Country Teams to support governments and national stakeholders in adapting the 2030 Agenda to national contexts (UNDG 2016a). The Guide contains a variety of tools and approaches for SDG implementation, including a section titled “Creating Horizontal Policy Coherence (Breaking the Silos).” The guidance provided in this section is divided into three categories: integrated policy analysis, coordinated institutional mechanisms; and integrated modelling. For each category the document describes existing approaches and provides links to resources as well as case studies of countries that have already gathered experiences with these approaches.

The category integrated policy analysis covers tools that aim to ensure that proposed policies, programmes and targets support national SDG priorities and targets. It includes a description of Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness (GNH) Screening Tool, which assesses and reviews all draft policies, programmes and projects with regard to their impact on the nine dimensions of GNH. The tool provides feedback and recommendations for reviewing and refining policies before their implementation. Another example is Switzerland’s use of sustainability assessment for evaluating whether Federal Government Initiatives comply with the principles of sustainable development.

The category coordinated institutional mechanisms shows how formal partnerships across sectoral line ministries and agencies can support integrated policy making. It describes Bhutan’s GNH Commission and the Finish National Commission for Sustainable Development and a number of horizontal institutions created in Colombia for mainstreaming and implementing the 2030 Agenda.

The final category on integrated modelling of the system of interconnected targets and goals discusses DESA’s mapping exercise and the iSDG modelling tool also covered in this brief, as well as the World Bank’s Marquette for MDG Simulations (MAMS) model. This section also discusses the use of decision theatres that combine integrated modelling and multi-stakeholder deliberation through the use of visually-immersive environments.

UNDG has also published a report on partnerships and actions for SDG implementation at the country level including 16 success stories from different countries. Several of these case reports include reports on actions on and experiences with horizontal policy integration.

A Growing Toolbox for Policy Coherence

The tools and approaches discussed in this policy brief are but a few examples of a growing toolbox for integrated SDG implementation and policy coherence that is being provided by governments, international organizations, academia and other groups. The discussion shows that interlinkages between the SDGs and their targets are not only unavoidable because of biophysical and socioeconomic interactions, but to some extent these interlinkages are intentional to improve integrated decision making, policy effectiveness and efficiency of the measures taken to achieve the SDGs.

As more countries “get started” with SDG implementation, more tools and experiences will become available for decision makers to draw on when designing their own policies, programmes and measures in line with their countries’ priorities and conditions. As with other aspects of SDG implementation, collaboration, partnerships and exchange of experiences will be crucial to advance the integration of SDG implementation at local, national and global levels. A future policy brief in his series will take stock of the existing platforms and publications that are available right now to exchange knowledge and experience about policy coherence.


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