Workshop: SDG coherence and complexity

Opportunities, trade-offs and approaches to achieving coherent SDG policies

As countries around the world work to achieve SDGs by 2030, measuring how working towards one goal impacts the others is of growing relevance. With so many various agencies working on the SDGs at different levels, implementing systems to measure coherence among the various goals is necessary for them to be realised.

“Internationally, there’s much emphasis on measuring progress,” said Arjan Ruijs of the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency (PBL) in a workshop focused on achieving coherent SDG policies. “International custodian agencies help countries implement a monitoring system. For some groups of indicators this is done in a relatively integrated way, looking at multiple indicators at the same time, for others not. We run the risk that despite this integrated agenda, implementation is done is silos.”

How to approach SDGs in a more coherent way is an open question, according to Ruijs. “Most goals aren’t new,” he says, “but reaching them simultaneously is. This requires that specific attention be paid to creating synergies and preventing trade-offs. Not all countries are prepared to do this.” 

Most goals aren’t new, but reaching them simultaneously is.

Achieving coherent SDG policies requires cooperation and coordination. “It also requires the insight that the goals are interlinked and that an integrated focus may yield efficiency gains and a siloed approach may lead to efficiency losses,” Ruijs said.

As an example, eradicating hunger requires more production and therefore more energy, as well as clearing more land, which negatively impacts goals related to the environment and climate. At the same time, synergies exist between many SDGs that can help each other progress. According to a graphic produced by PBL and shared during Ruijs’ presentation, water is most directly related to goals including life on land, climate action and clean water and sanitation, and is indirectly linked to industry, innovation, and infrastructure and decent work and economic growth. 

Opportunities and challenges
During the workshop, participants were asked by NCA moderator Diny van Est to discuss the various challenges and opportunities associated with achieving SDG cohesion. Among the opportunities cited were that SAIs will be able to stimulate governments to accomplish it, that coherence will enrich the seven-steps model, would require more cooperation and allow for presenting goals differently and for longer-term thinking. 

But these opportunities are not without challenges. The need for more resources – both financial and in terms of support of institutions related to particular sectors – were mentioned as hurdles, as well as the need for more technical expertise and the concern that too many stakeholders would be involved. 

Natural capital accounting 
Measuring coherency, synergy and trade-offs related to SDGs, according to Ruijs, requires being able to measure status and trends, learning about synergies and trade-offs, identifying which policies can be used and organising it institutionally to ensure the goals are actually met. But how can that be accomplished? 

Arjan Ruijs (Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency (PBL))

Ruijs discussed one potential means of helping SDGs do this: natural capital accounting (NCA), a method of calculating the total stocks and flows of natural resources and services in a given ecosystem or region. “The processes of identifying interlinkages among SDGs and between economy and environment are similar,” Ruijs said. “Both are integrated approaches, follow a systems-based perspective and meant to combine multiple agendas. Both look at how the economy, society and environment depend on one another. Both are data-driven and focus on searching for synergies and preventing trade-offs.” 

NCA, according to Ruijs, can help governments by raising awareness of SDGs for sufficient stakeholder involvement, allocating responsibilities between ministries and monitoring coherence, designing and implementing a system to monitor achievement of the goals and preparing plans to apply the SDGs at a national and subnational level. 

Opportunities related to this approach, according to workshop participants, include that it would mean the involvement of the Wealth Accounting and the Valuation of Ecosystem Services (WAVES) and the UN and the fact that data and coherence would bring together people and ministries. Need for additional financial resources and need for institutional change were presented as challenges. 

Dr Wasfi Al-Odwan (SAI Jordan)

The case of Jordan
Also during the workshop participants had the opportunity to hear from Dr Wasfi Al-Odwan of Jordan’s SAI about the preparedness review conducted in his country. The findings, according to Al-Odwan, revealed that although the government has developed an institutional framework to achieve coherence among the development goals, there was “considerable weakness in coordination among all involved parties.” In addition, executive responsibilities had been distributed at the ministerial level but not at the municipal level. 

The review findings indicated a greater need for more clarity when defining the responsibilities of joint implementation across government agencies sharing goals, and a need to ensure as little trade-off exists by having the government increase coordination among the goals. 

Challenges facing the auditors, Al-Odwan said, was a need to involve more stakeholders, improve communication and explanation within the SAI office and with stakeholders, and ensure the audit fits within the legal framework. In the future, he said, there is an opportunity to reach out to all kinds of stakeholders in new and different ways, focus on considering the importance of consistency when planning activities and their relationships to other activities. He also talked about moving to a more holistic assessment and diversifying the sources of information to improve task performance.

Tracy Brown
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