Without policy coherence achieving the Sustainable Development Goals will be difficult

In July, representatives of 166 countries, civil society and international institutions gathered in New York for the High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HPLF). Their objective was to review progress towards meeting the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGS).

The gathering happens every year, but this year the political representatives were focussed on reviewing progress towards the goals on water (goal 6), energy (goal 7), cities (goal 11), sustainable consumption (goal 12), landscapes (goal 15) and partnerships for implementation (goal 17).

The target 17.14.1 in goal 17 specifically highlights the need for consistency across the development of policy and its implementation – which is currently lacking in some sub-Saharan African countries.

Much of the reporting of progress on sustainable development prioritised the headline areas of energy, water and land (which practitioners call the water energy food ‘nexus’) and climate change. Little time was given to the discussion and details of goal 17 and how to make policies across these sectors work together.

Policies for the water, food and energy sectors must be coherent to reach the sustainable development goals

African countries are some of the most undeveloped, and are poised to grow rapidly in the next decades. In almost all countries development will be centred around the nexus sectors of water, energy and food.

These sectors are directly connected and will be significantly impacted by climate change. What happens in one sector generally has an effect on the others.

For instance, in many eastern and southern African countries there is a growing reliance on hydropower for electricity generation to meet increasing demand form urbanisation. However, increasing agriculture activity or land use changes in areas where hydropower dams draw water from could limit water availability for power generation. These sectors are also highly vulnerable to climate change impacts – for instance increasing frequency and intensity of drought conditions.

Currently policies for sectors important for development are not joined-up

Despite a significant overlap between sectors, the trade-offs and opportunities that exist between them, progress on developing ways to align these sectors with each other has been limited. Policy-makers call this alignment ‘policy coherence’.

Research conducted as part of the Future Climate for Africa (FCFA) UMFULA project in Malawi, Tanzania and Zambia reveals a lack of policy coordination between nexus sectors and climate policies. Measuring how well these policies were coordinated gave a score of 46–61%. 100% marks optimum policy coherence. Findings from Centre for Climate Change Economics and Policy (CCCEP) indicate that these levels are also typical of countries of West Africa.

In presentations from 44 countries to the HLPF, or ‘voluntary national reviews’ (VNR), only five highlighted how they were supporting processes to support policy coherence across sectors. Ten of the 44 VNRs were submitted by African countries (Benin, Cabo Verde, Republic of Congo, Egypt, Guinea, Mali, The Niger, Senegal, Sudan, and Togo). Of these none included main messages on how processes to support policy coherence would be established though some did mention the need for institutional arrangements to support the SDGs.

Sector specific policies are developed in silos that must be overcome

The research conducted in Malawi, Tanzania and Zambia found that timing is particularly relevant for coherence (see figure). For example in these countries, there is a stronger link between National Adaption Plans developed in the mid-2000s and the suite of national climate change strategies or policies developed in the early 2010s. This implies that the earlier policies were used to inform those developed later.

Coherence and sectoral policy linkages in Tanzania, Malawi and Zambia

However, coherence between sectors (called ‘horizontal coherence’) is generally weaker. For instance, policies developed specifically for the water sector can be reflected in national plans which span across both the water and agriculture sectors though they have not been designed with the challenges of the agricultural sector in mind. This is because sectoral policies are developed in silos and national plans are often compiled directly from sector-specific policies.

These problems can also be exacerbated as the science and understanding of the challenges facing different sectors evolve and new policies are developed to address these challenges.  Older policies end up misaligned with more recently developed ones, or with international commitments (such as the SDGs or the Paris climate change agreement) that include this updated knowledge.

Developing countries rely on donor support but this sometimes undermines coherent policy

A specific challenge for developing countries is that some initiatives rely on aid or donor financial support and this can unintentionally affect how joined-up policies are because they too often focus on specific sectors in isolation. Support can also come with time pressures for the delivery of policy against international or domestic milestones.

For example, the Development Plan of Zambia was revised in 2013 to explicitly integrate climate change (known as ‘mainstreaming’). Revisions were carried out under the auspices of the Strategic Program on Climate Resilience, supported by the World Bank and conducted by external actors.  However, the update overlooked the creation of processes which would also integrate climate change into national plans for the nexus sectors leaving the development plan and sectoral plans which sit beneath it misaligned.

In some countries, cross-sectoral platforms have been established to discuss and support coherence but they can struggle to be effective. While there are some encouraging examples, for instance in Malawi where the Vice President championed and instigated discussions following extreme flooding in 2015 on a cross sectoral National Resilience Strategy, these have encountered challenges. In particular, infrequent meetings, and the reliance on donor funding for the functioning of the platform that is beyond the control of the members, limited its long-term effectiveness.

Widespread engagement is also often restricted by challenges in sharing or distributing agreements or arrangements outside of platform participants. This makes buy-in from sectors and the functioning of these platforms challenging in the long-term due to turnover of representatives and loss of institutional knowledge, especially in sectoral ministries.

Without policy coherence, achieving the Sustainable Development Goals will be difficult

At the end of the HLPF a Ministerial Declaration was adopted as the outcome. The statement stressed recognition that the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, are indivisible from each other.  Signatories recognised that “policy coherence and an enabling environment for sustainable development require engagement by all stakeholders and that they are key to build sustainable and resilient societies”.

The signatories also recognised that to achieve the goals by 2030 progress towards them must accelerate. The development and implementation of new policies will be essential; a central enabler will be the processes that support coherent policy design and implementation (goal 17).

Time is however increasingly limited, the actions undertaken in the next five years will determine if we are able to meet the SDGs, or the climate change targets.

As a first step towards achieving goal 17, national development plans or policies should be reviewed, updated or developed to integrate strong climate change action and meeting the SDGs as central objectives. Following this, relevant sectoral ministries should use national plans as a guide to update sectoral policies. The updating of national climate change commitments in 2020 should be a key target for these updated plans.

This updating of policies has to be supported by the development of inter-ministerial and multi-stakeholder fora that can make decisions, and are sufficiently resourced to enable cross-sectoral discussion and coordination, such as Malawi’s National Technical Committee on Climate Change. Long-term commitment and leadership in this process is critical.

If actions are not taken to coordinate the development of policies effectively across sectors the result could be a lack of buy-in from sectoral ministries, conflicting mandates, misallocation of limited resources, and sending mixed signals for investment or action which will slow down progress towards the sustainable development goals.

Refocussing country efforts on developing an effective process to support coherence is a start to supporting meeting these ideals.

Patrick Curran is a policy analyst at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment. The views expressed in this commentary are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the Grantham Research Institute.