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6 Lessons on Sustainable Development from the High-Level Political Forum

Nearly a year ago at the United Nations, world leaders endorsed the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) aimed at putting the world economy on a sustainable track. In July, much more quietly, the High-Level Political Forum on sustainable development convened at the UN to help make this promise a reality by reviewing countries’ efforts so and offering a place for policymakers from around the world to exchange ideas on how to accelerate this transition.

While the forum did not assess progress on the SDGs, it did launch a key discussion on enabling policy frameworks to implement the goals, focusing on this year’s theme of “leaving no one behind,” based on 22 countries’ voluntary national reports.

WRI’s SDG Delivery Team emphasized the need for policy coherence, joining with the governments of Sweden and Mexico, the OECD and a coalition of think tanks to organize a discussion based on country experiences on policy and institutional shifts that can help advance this far-reaching agenda in a consistent, effective manner. Findings from the country case studies and a synthesis report on policy coherence were presented to frame and feed this debate.

Six main lessons emerged:

  1. The universal dimension of the SDGs is fairly well understood. Reporting countries from the OECD showcased their commitment to implement the SDGs at home. Echoing a phrase that crystalizes the difference between SDGs and previous international development goals, Norway Prime Minister Erna Solberg affirmed that “SDGs have made us all developing countries,” meaning that all countries have work to do to make their societies more equitable and environmentally responsible. Germany highlighted three “closely interwoven” levels of action in this context: with regard to domestic impacts, to transboundary impacts in other countries and on global public goods, and to supporting other countries through development policies.
     
  2. Countries are starting to quite methodically engage in “localization processes” to integrate the global SDGs into their national policies, through a mapping of existing plans and gap analysis. For instance, Finland identified a urgent need to focus on climate change and jobs. Uganda, Togo, Switzerland and other countries reported ensuring this alignment with the SDGs have then required not only adjusting existing frameworks but defining new national development plans and sustainable development strategies. Egypt even enshrined sustainable development objectives in its constitution. More effort is needed, though, to assess synergies and trade-offs between national priorities to effectively ensure policy coherence across the national agenda.
     
  3. Countries recognize the need for whole-of-government approaches. Overarching strategies, like Egypt Vision 2030 or Madagascar’s National Development Plan, were designed to enable integrated approaches to planning across the policy spectrum. Although coordination mechanisms vary widely among countries in terms of leadership and organization, most aim at involving institutions throughout the government. Lead ministries have been identified for each SDG in Samoa and Norway. Vertical coordination with local authorities has also been strengthened, especially in Colombia, Switzerland and the Philippines, which has set up a subnational coordination mechanism for SDGs. Interviews with policymakers show, though, that involving all ministries remains challenging and coordinating bodies need political clout to get things done. In France, for example, while the head of the environment ministry for the implementation of the energy transition act, the sustainable development strategy and the low-carbon strategy helps enhance consistency across these intertwined agendas, the inter-ministerial representative in charge of the coordination with all the other ministries for the SDGs may lack of the power to achieve this objective.
     
  4. There’s a strong emphasis on being inclusive. Consultations on national priorities have been conducted in most reporting countries with representatives from the whole civil society in Morocco and Madagascar, the latter having given particular attention to include disabled people and poor communities. But a few countries went a step further to empower civil society.  For instance, Finland’s coalition, entitled Society’s Commitment to Sustainable Development, is composed of hundreds of non-state actors, including 60 businesses, which endorsed their own targets to contribute to the SDGs.
     
  5. Forward-looking initiatives aim to build robust and inclusive monitoring and accountability frameworks. Indicators that are used to track development have been renewed to cover all the SDGs in Samoa and Estonia. Parliamentary scrutiny was underscored by Norway, where ministries will report on their action for the SDGs in their budget proposal to parliament, and South Korea, which has set up a dedicated consultative group of congressional leaders. As a member of the Open Government Partnership -- an international initiative for domestic reformers committed to making governments more open and responsive to citizens -- Mexico established a specialized committee coordinating 25 institutions and a platform offering all citizens updated and geo-referenced data on state and municipal activities.
     
  6. Capacity building is essential to address gaps in knowledge, institutional coordination and data management, through financial and technical support, best-practice exchanges and research. Stronger communications strategies and training are also needed to empower people in government and civil society to advance the agenda.

Building on these first experiences, WRI and its partners are developing a broader project aimed at providing in-country support and global analysis on how to practically enhance policy coherence for sustainable development. Beyond tracking specific SDGs, future High-Level Political Forums should continue to review countries’ efforts to build consistent and inclusive governance frameworks, which are a precondition for long-term progress on the whole agenda.

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