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How Policy Coherence Helps The SDG Wheels Turn

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By Livia Bizikova and Peter Denton

The 71st Session of the UN General Assembly opened last week with its new president, Peter Thomson, announcing it was time to get the wheels turning on the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), adopted by the UN a year ago.

Thomson remarked on the sincerity of the efforts already made toward integrating the SDGs into national planning processes, but also observed "the great majority of humankind has yet to learn of the Agenda."

Now is the time to make sure that the right policies and processes are in place to guide sustainable development according to the timeline that the 2030 Agenda requires -- there can be no time for confusion or delay.

When new research and policy priorities emerge, they either require new language or they assume old words and give them new meaning.

As the meaning and implications of the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda are being unpacked, a new phrase is increasingly appearing in discussions about SDG implementation. People are now concerned about "policy coherence" (or "policy integration").

Clearly both coherence and integration seem like a good idea when tackling the mammoth task of shifting the world toward a sustainable future. In practice, this means we need to make sure our policy ducks are lined up, because there is neither room for error nor time to correct mistakes.

There needs to be coherence with the 2030 Agenda at a national level, with member states reviewing current strategies to ensure that they are aligned with the SDGs.

So what is policy coherence and where does it come from? The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), which has been one of the leaders in this area for over a decade, describes policy coherence as:

"[L]ooking for synergies and complementarities and filling gaps among different policy areas so as to meet common and shared objectives. It includes setting and prioritising objectives in collaboration with stakeholders, coordinating policy and its implementation through formal and informal working groups across the government and finally using monitoring, analyses and reporting publically to correct actions."

The term was introduced to streamline policies to allocate and use funds efficiently in the countries involved in the implementation of the Millennium Development Goals. It has even more relevance when it comes to implementing the SDGs. There is a critical need to align our policies so they are not only coherent, but build on each other to increase their overall effectiveness, thus making it possible for the more ambitious SDGs to be achieved.

"Policy coherence" therefore needs to develop new meaning and significance as part of the 2030 Agenda. It has already begun to guide the implementation of the SDGs in a number of countries.

There needs to be coherence with the 2030 Agenda at a national level, with member states reviewing current strategies to ensure that they are aligned with the SDGs. Some countries have identified overlap between national initiatives and SDG goals or targets, especially in states that had focused on sustainable development in the past (such as Germany and Finland) or those with new cross-ministerial groups created to take on this coordination role (such as Colombia).

The flipside is the detailed review of national policies and instruments to make sure they don't encourage actions that work against the SDGs. In the European Union, for instance, identifying direct and indirect contributions of the recently developed Europe 2020 Strategy demonstrate that its intended outcomes already cover approximately one third of the SDGs.

"Policy coherence" also requires indicators and monitoring efforts for assessing progress toward the 2030 Agenda. Here the critical step is not only the actual data collection, but also creating communication materials and easy-to-understand reports, so everybody can follow progress in implementing SDG targets at the national and global levels.

Focusing on policy coherence therefore seems like a good idea. It might be the new catchphrase, but what it means is growing in significance as it is linked to specific analyses and decision-making in systematic work toward achieving the 2030 Agenda. It also seems to be the missing ingredient in recent problematic attempts at sustainable development.

As President Thomson observed, implementation of the SDGs is now in the hands of policy-makers. They must roll up their sleeves and ensure that the wheels are turning toward what the 2030 Agenda requires.

Policy coherence is therefore essential, to enable those wheels to turn smoothly and in the same direction. Neither resilience nor adaption by themselves will be enough to ensure a sustainable future for the next generation.

Livia Bizikova is Director, Knowledge for Integrated Decisions, at the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD); Peter Denton is an independent consultant based in Winnipeg.

The views expressed in this blog are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the positions of CCIC or its members.

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