Five facts on the coherence of international policies

  • 2020•05•04     Bonn

    Photo: UN Photo/Mark Garten

    If you have followed the international policy processes in recent years you may have noticed that governments are simultaneously working towards different agendas, all designed to make the world a better place. There are seventeen Sustainable Development Goals spanning a wide variety of topics from zero hunger to gender equality to life below water. There are the goals of the Paris Agreement that, among other things, seek to limit global warming and to provide financial assistance to developing countries affected by a changing climate. There are seven overall targets in the Sendai Framework to reduce risks from environmental hazards, and a collection of commitments in the New Urban Agenda to improve the resilience and sustainable development of cities. None of these goals are easy to achieve. So, what happens when governments seek to achieve them all at the same time? Our experts Mar Moure and Dr. Simone Sandholz explain.

    1. What are the Post-2015 Agendas and why are there several of them?
    The year 2015 was remarkable in the history of international cooperation. Various communities of thought and practice harnessed the generally positive disposition of country leaders to cooperate in matters urgent to the planet and global society. This resulted in the signing of key international agreements and declarations. Four of the documents that came out of that effort are the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction (SFDRR), the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (SDGs), the Paris Climate Agreement (PA), and the New Urban Agenda (NUA). All of them are unified in a shared vision of global sustainable development that is just, inclusive and safe for people and the planet, and that accounts for expected and unexpected future changes exacerbated by current megatrends (urbanization, climate change, etc.). However, each document has its own thematic approach.

    2. Why do we need to talk about policy coherence?
    Even though the different agendas all strive for a sustainable future, because their targets, indicators, reporting mechanisms and timelines are different, countries end up implementing them in parallel, which can lead to duplications, inefficiency, blind spots or even in trade-offs (e.g. activities that support one agenda end up working against the goals of another). Policy coherence of the goals of the Post-2015 Agendas reduces the flaws of parallel implementation, therefore giving us a better chance to ensure conditions that are just, inclusive and safe for people and the planet. There is also evidence that coherent action can create synergies that lead to additional benefits to the ones promoted in the goals.
    Take the example of disaster risk reduction. While this is the key topic of the SFDRR, the reduction of disaster risk and impacts is also one target of the Sustainable Development Goals, namely SDG11: Sustainable cities and communities. In this context SDG11 calls for protecting the poor and vulnerable from disasters, which at the same time is a key component of the New Urban Agenda’s strive for environmentally sustainable and resilient urban development. A well-planned disaster risk reduction project could therefore contribute to achieving all three agendas and at the same time address climate change effects in line with the Paris Agreement.

    3. Who implements the Post-2015 Agendas?
    It is country governments who agreed on the agendas, and it is their responsibility to uphold the agreements. In certain cases, for instance with the Paris Agreement, countries came up with their own commitments based on their resources and capacities. In other cases, countries committed to the full set of goals established in the documents, for instance in the SDGs.
    There are international bodies that help coordinate the global effort and facilitate technical assistance where needed, also adopting a bookkeeping role for collecting reports and managing information. Thus, UNDRR (United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction) is globally responsible (i.e. the custodian) for the Sendai framework, for example, and the UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) for the Paris Agreement. All countries have assigned country focal points to liaise with the global platforms. These are in charge of the implementation of the agendas in the country. They, in turn, need to coordinate the implementation of policies, programs and projects at the different administrative levels of the country (e.g. states and municipalities). However, due to the different foci of the agendas, there are typically different institutions responsible for different agendas, which do not necessarily have cooperation mechanisms.

    4. What are the implications for the implementation of the agendas?
    For the agendas, the typical lines of reporting internationally and at the different country administrative levels are rather hierarchical, limiting the capacity for communication with other sectors. Because of this and other country-specific conditions, it can be challenging to ensure both coherence between the agencies responsible for the agendas and across administrative levels, which not only creates inefficiencies, but can also undermine the collective goals of the agendas.
    Take this example: If a city creates a new housing development for disadvantaged groups with improved access to health facilities, this initiative simultaneously addresses several goals of the Agenda for Sustainable Development and the New Urban Agenda. But because these are implemented by different agencies, one agency might not know that another has a specific fund that could be tapped into, which would be a missed opportunity. Even worse, improvements in one area might create new risks in another, for example if the new development helps disadvantaged groups while at the same time the new constructions increase the flood risk for another part of town.

    5. How can the implementation be facilitated?
    In the long run, policy coherence is the way to go. In practice, policy coherence can mean for example to remove obstacles that make it hard for governmental agents to work efficiently and in coordination with other sectors. In the Philippines, the monitoring and reporting progress for the different documents of the Post-2015 Agendas was so complicated and demanding that local authorities were overwhelmed with this task – leaving little resources for implementation. With this realization, the government worked to harmonize –based on clear prioritization of measures— risk-assessment approaches and planning guidelines of different ministries that are used by the local government units. By harmonizing the vertical process, local authorities were better able to implement cross-cutting programs that touched on all agendas.
    In Mexico, the improved coordination of building procedures among involved institutions contributed to oversight and transparency of urban development processes. At the same time, more strict enforcement of building codes reduced the risk of harm to the inhabitants in case of earthquakes or flooding, for instance. And these are only two examples out of many promising efforts towards coherence. Even if coherence-building comes along with efforts and barriers that need to be overcome, in the long run coherence has significant benefits. To establish coherence, entry points may differ between countries, but there are low-hanging fruits that can be the starting point for future change.

    To find out more about policy coherence and incoherence, as well as the costs and benefits of each, please click here to read the results of a recent research project by UNU-EHS, GIZ and LMU. The study sought to gain a more robust understanding of policy coherence in relation to the implementation of the Post-2015 Agendas, taking Mexico and the Philippines as case studies.