At a time of climate disruption and accelerated ecosystem degradation, rising inequalities, economic insecurity, and citizen’s disaffection with governments around the world, reconciling environmental, economic and social concerns is essential for all countries. This integration is central to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which aim to shift our societies towards shared and sustainable prosperity. As decision-makers work on solutions, it’s becoming clear that a vital ingredient for achieving this transition is policy coherence.

This key issue drew hundreds of people to join WRI at a high-level event in Brussels on June 16, during the 10th annual European Development Days, to discuss what policy coherence means in practice. While 95 percent of attendees – government officials, development practitioners and civil society actors – agreed that policy coherence is pivotal to achieving the SDGs, there was also recognition of just how large a challenge it is to achieve.

As David Nabarro, Special Adviser to the United Nations Secretary-General pointed out, policy coherence is about political coherence, to ensure that actions by a nation’s various government departments do not cancel each other out. For example, a country aiming to mitigate climate change needs to make sure it doesn’t undercut that effort by offering fossil fuel subsidies. And rich countries working to help poorer ones through development partnerships must make sure their trade policies don’t scuttle this objective. As Nabarro also noted, policy coherence matters for every country: “We are all developing countries now.” But according to Doug Frantz, the OECD Deputy Secretary-General, some developed countries are reluctant to look in the mirror to see what needs to change, for instance, in order to reform their unsustainable production and consumption habits. In this regard, Frantz was glad that the OECD got a new mandate in June, though not without difficulty, to spur and support SDG implementation of its members at home. Such a mandate is critical for high-income countries, as the OECD’s influence, data collection and interpretation abilities can all serve to accelerate action.

Policy makers stressed at the conference that meeting the SDGs implies a rethinking of the way governments make policies. They outlined four helpful steps for advancing policy coherence:


Policy coherence requires better understanding of policy interactions and how they can accelerate or retard progress towards the SDGs. More collaborative work across government departments can make it easier to recognize opportunities and address potential conflicts. Lilianne Ploumen, Dutch Minister for Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation, explained that all ministers of The Netherlands committed in a letter to their Parliament to build a whole-of-government approach to implement the 17 SDGs across all policy sectors, from economy to health to environment. Enhanced collaboration should range from early decision-making to policy planning to implementation, and can take shape as a set of overarching guidelines issued to government agencies. For example, Wade Warren from USAID recalled U.S. President Barack Obama’s 2014 Executive Order, which requires that climate resilience objectives be embedded into all U.S. development projects across the board.


Policy coherence implies looking at impacts that cross national borders. That’s why Minister Ploumen insisted two years ago that all tax treaties with developing countries be renegotiated to ensure that they include assessments of the treaties’ economic impacts.


Coherence between short-term interests and long-term needs is also critical to deliver sustainable development that doesn’t mortgage the future to pay for present needs. Sana Afouaiz, founder of the African Youth Advocate Platform, urged consideration of the views and needs of young generations that disproportionality suffer from unemployment, the impact of climate change, migration and conflicts – challenges caused and aggravated by incoherent policies.


No government can achieve the transformative SDG agenda alone. Local governments, business, academics, civil society organizations and citizens all have a role to play, whether by adopting local sustainable development solutions, shifting to sustainable business models, inventing smart technologies or adopting sustainable consumption habits. Andrea Vignolo, Executive Director of the Uruguayan Agency for International Cooperation, outlined how her government conducted a wide social dialogue to foster mobilization across all the segments of society. Multi-stakeholder partnerships will be key to joining together to build new societies.

Enhanced policy coherence is feasible when policy makers innovate and collaborate. At a time of widespread popular discontent with politics, this shift can help rebuild trust in government and collective action. Rising economic and social inequality and the disproportionate impact of unsustainable development on poor and vulnerable people are major threats for any society, and can undermine the foundations of democracy. Advancing the sustainable development agenda through policy coherence that features transparent, inclusive and accountable institutions is the only way we have to avoid the worst and build a better future.