ODI Paper Outlines Ways to Address SDG Synergies and Trade-offs
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An ODI paper provides examples of countries where synergies between SDGs and their targets have been successfully exploited and trade-offs been addressed, and outlines recommendations for governments and stakeholders.

Authors David Donoghue and Amina Khan argue that while the annual meetings of the HLPF under the auspices of ECOSOC have not adequately highlighted the interconnectedness of all the Goals and targets, issues of a cross-cutting nature, or the practical implications for policy-makers of a wide-ranging and integrated agenda.

July 2019: In a working paper released by the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), David Donoghue and Amina Khan examine the implications of synergies and trade-offs among the SDGs. They stress that realization of the 2030 Agenda depends on the extent to which governments can manage trade-offs, mitigate their “more harmful impacts” and keep countries on track in overall terms.

Titled, ‘Achieving the SDGs and “Leaving No One Behind”: Maximising Synergies and Mitigating Trade-offs,’ the paper defines synergies as interactions across the 2030 Agenda’s Goals and targets that have positive effects, and it defines trade-offs as interactions with negative effects and that hinder or reverse sustainable development. It draws from both relevant literature and case studies documented as part of a 2010-2016 ODI Development Progress project.

According to data from a UN paper, the authors indicate that 60 SDG targets refer explicitly to at least one Goal other than the one to which they belong, and seven targets across four of the SDGs refer to more than ten other Goals. Despite these interactions, they report that, based on Voluntary National Reviews (VNRs) carried out from 2016 to 2018, relatively few governments have provided evidence of actions which have “transcended ministerial boundaries in pursuit of good SDG outcomes,” even though they have established structures to facilitate internal coordination on SDGs implementation.

The authors provide examples of countries in which synergies have been successfully exploited and trade-offs addressed in their policy-making, noting excellent results in countries that have adopted holistic and integrated policy approaches. In the case of Ethiopia, for example, they state that the country took a multidimensional approach to the achievement of poverty eradication. This approach encouraged different line ministries to work together more comprehensively and consistently on poverty reduction measures, led to integrating social sectors into broader economic planning, and resulted in “tremendous successes” in poverty reduction, as well as gains in education, health and employment. Other examples are shared from the Republic of Korea, Ghana, Ecuador, Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe.

Donoghue and Khan outline recommendations to better address synergies and trade-offs. They suggest that countries establish a unit or mechanism, ideally in or close to the office of the president or prime minister, that would: examine the implications of each potential government decision relevant to SDG implementation from the perspective of either synergies or trade-offs; identify opportunities or risks; and inform the coordinating ministry and all other ministries of these implications ahead of the relevant cabinet discussions, among other roles. The unit also would make recommendations as to how the potential synergy or trade-off might be handled and, in the case of the trade-off, mitigated.

Other recommendations suggest that governments:

  • implement budgetary incentives, such as reserving a certain portion of government spending for activities that take advantage of synergies across a number of Goals;
  • ensure their VNRs highlight linkages between individual Goals and targets, particular synergies they have been able to exploit and trade-offs they have had to manage, and wider impacts that these may have outside their own jurisdictions; and
  • provide publicly available reports, at regular intervals, that would follow-up to the commitments made in their VNRs.

At the international level, the authors argue that while the annual meetings of the UN High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF) under the auspices of the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) have included debates on individual Goals and general themes of the 2030 Agenda, they have been less successful in highlighting the interconnectedness of all the Goals and targets, issues of a cross-cutting nature, or the practical implications for policy-makers of a wide-ranging and integrated agenda.

In the context of the intergovernmental HLPF review that will take place during the 74th session of the UN General Assembly (UNGA), the authors recommend, inter alia, organizing voluntary discussions by groups of countries, within regions or cross-regional, on specific challenges they have faced. They also suggest remodeling the “thematic review” that is part of the annual HLPF meetings to put less focus on the individual Goals and more on cross-cutting challenges.

The authors also suggest using the September 2019 SDG Summit as a platform to highlight the importance of acting on synergies across the Goals and targets. [Publication: Achieving the SDGs and ‘Leaving No One Behind: Maximising Synergies and Mitigating Trade-offs]

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