Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are part of the new global “Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development” adopted by Heads of States and Governments at the United Nations General Assembly on September 25, 2015. It a universal policy agenda for “people, planet and prosperity.” It applies to all countries worldwide, which means that Canada will also need to integrate it into its domestic and international policies. SDGs are becoming part of the strategic framework for all governments, cities and provinces, businesses and charities, schools and hospitals. For governments it is a “policy brief from the future”; for businesses is a “purchase order from the future”; and for citizens it is a new paradigm for the 21st century society. This is why the SDGS represent a unique opportunity for transformative change in developed, emerging and developing economies.
Essentially, SDGs are a fully comprehensive meta-system of wicked problems covering all key policies for the next 15 years. They are not a “UN thing,” but a holistic package of global, national and local actions to be achieving by 2030.
SDGs open a new chapter in Sustainable Development
In only a bit more than a year, the SDGs have drawn the attention of policy makers, thought-leaders and researchers worldwide. The OECD adjusted its Framework for Policy Coherence for Sustainable Development to put the SDGs at the core. New sophisticated analytical models for understanding the SDG linkages were developed by the International Council for Sciences and the Stakeholder Forum on global partnerships for sustainable development. Knowledge platforms and hubs on the SDGs proliferate, including the Canadian “SDG Knowledge Hub” of the International Institute for Sustainable Development. There is already a mobile app (SDGs in Action) and planning simulation tools such as the iSDG.
Crafted in a manner that integrates economic prosperity and social development while moving towards preserving environmental viability, the SDGs are a bold collective move to address the root causes of poverty, social injustices and environmental degradation.
There is a total of 17 Goals with 169 Targets and their corresponding indicators. The goals span from employment to education and health to human rights to energy and climate change to infrastructure and urban development. The complexity of the SDGs ought to be addressed systemically. There cannot be cherry-picking or departmentalization because of the high level of complexity and interdependence. SDGs might also be seen as a “network of targets: in the DESA model, for instance, 60 Targets explicitly refer to at least one other Goal, and 19 Targets link more than 3 Goals. And this model still does not represent the whole complexity of the SDGs.
SDGs are being addressed in new cycles of government strategic planning and preparation of Medium-Term Budget Frameworks worldwide. The European Union is revising its policies to fully incorporate the SDGs across all member-states. The United Nations is undertaking systemic reform to introduce new capabilities for supporting the SDGs more strategically and effectively. There are numerous exciting initiatives on digital governance, strategic foresight, Big Data, citizen participation in policy-making, and innovation labs for the addressing the SDGs in innovative ways.
Not surprisingly, the SDGs are being embraced by the corporate sector. The role of business in the SDGs goes beyond Corporate Social Responsibility and philanthropy. The SDGs now introduce a practical framework for a whole new concept of business. This is known as the “5Ps” (Profit, People, Planet, Peace, Partnerships) and it builds upon existing models of Benefit Corporations, Impact Investment, Social Entrepreneurship, and Collective Impact.
The need for integrated policy and interactive governance
The issue of policy integration is probably the most challenging aspect of the SDGs. There is nothing especially new about concepts such as “breaking down the silos” or holistic and “joined-up” government. Nor is there anything new about the understanding that inter-sectoral coordination and policy coherence are critical for effective performance and policy impact. However, the SDGs create a new level of awareness of the integrated approach because their complexity and “wickedness” – accompanied by the urgency to accomplish them in mere 15 years – create unprecedented policy challenges. Each Goal is itself a “whole” and, at the same time, part of a larger “whole.” Dealing with complex systems embedded within complex systems requires a fundamentally different approach: the one in which integration takes place across all policies, strategies, policy instruments, programs and investments – while involving all stakeholders in creating a fundamentally different, shared future.
Integrated policy for coherent sustainable development cannot be provided for by fragmented governance divided into conventional sectors and industries, and split between international and national policy domains.
In this context, the current model of governance is becoming even more evidently inadequate. Horizontal policy integration that refers to traditional sectoral pyramids in governments and public sectors calls for new coordination and collaboration mechanisms. Nevertheless, vertical policy integration (intra-sectoral) seems to be even more important because it aligns policy with strategy with implementation across levels of government in federal settings. As the work on the SDGs domestically cannot be limited to isolated ministerial departments, the work on the SDGs internationally is not the domain of only ministries of foreign affairs. Simply put, there is also a need to integrate international and domestic policies because there are no political and administrative borders for the SDGs.
These challenges will not be addressed by introducing yet another layer of inter-ministerial committees and councils and by relying on conventional public “consultations.” There is a need to work on upstream policy design and introduce elements of “interactive governance” (such as collaborative platforms). We should not (and probably cannot) “break” the silos, but we ought to have them interact and communicate better, and to bring together stakeholders in normative, forward-looking policy dialogues.
The opportunity for strategic reorganization and reorientation
The level of ambition of the SDGs is so high that it is not expected that even countries such as Norway will be able to meet all Targets fully by 2030. However, the aspirational nature of the SDGs is already producing effects in countries that realize the transformative opportunities of the SDGs. For instance, the German Council for Sustainable Development published an analysis on “Germany’s sustainability Architecture and the SDGs” in 2015. It was a systemic policy and institutional review that covered the whole federal government with regard to the alignment between the SDGs and existing policies, functions, programs and services. At least 40 countries will have undergone the Rapid Integrated Policy Assessments by the end of 2017 – the methodology that helps incorporate global SDGs into national policies and strategic objectives. The UK’s SDG Scorecard focuses on the relative applicability of different Goals and Targets at national and local levels emphasizing the need for policies to become more ambitious than mere continuation of current trends and efforts.
Why are the SDGs important for Canada? First, the federal government is committed to a more prominent international role, which will not be possible without a genuine leadership on the SDGs. Secondly, and more importantly, SDGs could provide a new strategic framework at federal and provincial levels. These two goes hand in hand: without genuinely delivering on the SDGs domestically Canada might not have the credibility to lead internationally on sustainable development, and vice versa.
The strategic direction of the SDGs – and the model for the 21st century they represent – is already aligned with current Canadian aspirations and policy intentions. In a way, the global SDGs are manifestations of what Canada seems to project at home and into the world. What is now needed is concrete policy action accompanied by new partnerships and innovative governance systems. The sesquicentennial might be just the opportunity for Canada to mainstream the SDGs and start showcasing its own model of integrated domestic and international development.
Dr Nenad Rava is a Toronto-based policy consultant. He is currently focusing on Integrated Policy Design, Strategic Foresight, and Impact Investment for the Sustainable Development Goals.