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Winning Across the Agenda: Tackling Policy Incoherence to Localize the SDGs

8 Aug 2018

Winning Across the Agenda: Tackling Policy Incoherence to Localize the SDGs
I recently returned from the latest instalment of the High-Level Political Forum, the annual UN meeting where governments, organizations, business and NGOs gather to dissect how much progress has been made on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Once again it was a slightly confusing festival of evidence, analysis, praise and criticism. The backbone of the meeting was provided by the formal sessions on national reports (VNRs) and on the Goals under review this year. But there were also lots of fascinating side events with more granular experiences being conveyed, often from civil society.

Taken all together, it’s difficult to discern yet whether the existence of the Agenda is helping to incrementally shift policies, regulations and institutions towards sustainable development in all its manifestations. There are lots of dark clouds; but enough silver linings to keep the optimist happy.

At UNRISD’s side event this year we concentrated on the local level—specifically, on how the social and solidarity economy (SSE), with its in-built emphasis on social and often environmental objectives, can help to implement the SDGs. We drew on UNRISD’s recent research on the social economy in Seoul—detailing how the social economy there has been nurtured, and how it contributes to Seoul’s “localized” SDGs—the S-SDGs.

It was great to see a number of other events focused on local-level implementation—including the Local and Regional Governments’ Forum. There was a particularly strong showing of mayors, including from Barcelona, Berlin, Montevideo and Montreal. The big lesson: solutions are more likely to be appropriate and sustainable when they derive from participatory processes with people who are closer to their challenges and opportunities, and who better understand their social, cultural and political contexts.

SSE is a good example of how new actors are looking for wins across the 2030 Agenda—combining the economic, social and environmental dimensions of sustainability. In the analytical discussion in UNRISD’s last flagship report—Policy Innovations for Transformative Change—we call this sort of integration horizontal policy coherence. This is about making sure that solutions can support multiple goals in different sectors. At the very least, it’s about ensuring that progress in one area doesn’t undermine progress in another. It’s not an easy thing to do, because, as ever, politics can get in the way.

On the other hand, what we term vertical policy coherence is currently taking a battering—and arguably going in the wrong direction in many countries. By vertical coherence (or incoherence) we mean how national, regional and global policy ecosystems support (or work against) each other.

It’s all very well having a growing group of local governments that are committed to the 2030 Agenda, but their room to manoeuver is partly constrained by policies that are set “above” them—at national, regional and global levels. For example, the perfect cooperative—that makes sustainable produce and treats its workers well—can’t swim against a tide of climate change, environmental degradation, unfair trade policies, tax evasion by big firms, and governments that are too weak to regulate their private sectors.

As confirmed by the civil society organizations authoring the Spotlight on Sustainable Development report for 2018, which UNRISD will help to launch in Geneva next month, there is a veritable mass of vertical policy incoherence bubbling away at the moment. Nation states are struggling to react fast enough to a globalized world where capital can skip between jurisdictions to escape taxation. Economic inequality within countries is growing at an alarming rate, with a self-reinforcing momentum. And rich countries are showing worrying signs that they are withdrawing from multilateral cooperation—on climate change, trade, and migration.

Tax policy stands out as central. For too long governments have been competing against each other in a race to the bottom, undermining their ability to invest in education, health, decent jobs, clean energy and resilient infrastructure. Multinational companies have been all too happy to play along and exploit the loopholes and inconsistencies that exist. To put governments back in the driving seat for sustainable development, and generate the resources to make it happen, far greater international cooperation is needed—on tax, but also on the other seemingly intractable challenges which stand between us and a more sustainable world.


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This article reflects the views of the author(s) and does not necessarily represent those of the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development.