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Translating the 2030 Agenda into national plans – a combined effort

The challenge of integrating the 2030 Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) into national policy frameworks is leading to renewed interest in national development planning. Indeed, the 2030 Agenda calls for each Government to “decide how these aspirational and global targets should be incorporated into national planning processes, policies and strategies” and states that “cohesive nationally owned sustainable development strategies, supported by integrated national financing frameworks, will be at the heart of our efforts”. Countries have followed a wide variety of approaches to national planning, and there are indications that there has been a recent rise in the number of countries with some form of national development strategy or plan. For instance, a recent academic study observes that the number of countries with development plans has risen from about 62 in 2006 to 134 in 2018.[1] Along similar lines, an examination of the Voluntary National Reviews (VNRs) of 142 countries conducted during the period 2016 to 2019 suggests that the majority have some form of development plan or strategy in place, or were in the process of formulating one.


The 2030 Agenda expresses the intention that the Voluntary National Reviews (VNR) and the review processes for national development plans should be closely linked, or even one and the same. Paragraph 74 of the Agenda states that “As national ownership is key to achieving sustainable development, the outcome from national-level processes will be the foundation for reviews at the regional and global levels, given that the global review will be primarily based on national official data sources.” This paragraph also established a number of principles to guide the review process, including that it should be “open, inclusive, participatory and transparent for all people”, “respect the universal, integrated and interrelated nature and three dimensions of sustainable development”, “build on national platforms and processes” and “be rigorous and based on evidence”.


Finally, the same paragraph also calls for capacity building support for developing countries, particularly groups such as least developed countries (LDCs), and for the active support of the United Nations system and other multilateral institutions. Two of the many examples of tools developed towards that effort include the Rapid Integrated Assessment (RIA) tool helping countries to assess their readiness for SDG implementation, and modeling approaches such as “CLEWs”, aimed at helping countries to develop more coherent policies in the areas of climate, land use, energy and water.


One of the lessons learned from the first cycle of Voluntary National Reviews was the need for countries to report on all their SDGs with an increased focus on interrelations between Goals.[2] The ability of countries to do this depends on the ability of their national planning system to bring together information on themes corresponding to each of the SDGs and identify areas where policies need to work better together. As just one example, what is the possible impact of a national biofuel target on agricultural markets and land use?


It is notable, therefore, that according to a recent Committee for Development Policy (CDP) study, only about half of the 2017 VNRs referred to trade-offs between Goals (using either the word “trade-off” or a number of related terms) and only 11, less than one quarter, reported on the institutional mechanisms in place to identify and address them. In addition, the paper found that SDG 17, on the means of implementation and covering issues such as finance, policy coherence, data, monitoring and accountability, had little coverage in VNR reports.[3] A CDP study the following year again found that SDG17 was frequently referenced, but that the references often lacked substance and any real coverage of SDG17 targets, showing that the reports could be significantly strengthened through the provision of more detailed information on strategies for achieving the 2030 Agenda.[4]


It is clear that while there is a rich experience among countries in strategies to achieve the 2030 Agenda – complementing information on what is achieved to how it is achieved – that information needs to be shared more widely. The UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA) is implementing a project on “Evidence-based, coherent and well financed strategies to achieve the 2030 Agenda” that is working with four Least Developed Countries (LDCs): Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Lao PDR and Tanzania. Each of these countries has a national development plan (for instance, Lao PDR’s National Socio-Economic Development Plan or Ethiopia’s Growth and Transformation Plan) in which efforts have been made to integrate the Sustainable Development Goals. These countries also have inter-ministerial coordination mechanisms, stakeholder consultation processes (such as Ethiopia’s “Public Wing”) and most have a set of national indicators based on the SDG indicators that can be used to track progress. Bangladesh published an SDG Financing Strategy in 2017, and other countries include a short section on financing in their national development plan.


Lao PDR National Workshop

Therefore, while national strategies and plans are founded on each country’s policy priorities, a number of technical capacities are needed to make them function in practice. This project is providing support in three main areas. Firstly, support to the planning process itself including stakeholder consultations for Tanzania’s VNR as well as support of Lao PDR’s network of SDG focal points – processes to ensure planning and review benefits from a wide variety of perspectives, expertise and information. Secondly, different aspects of financing the national plan and the SDGs, including international support measures (ISMs), tax cooperation, forest financing strategies and asset management plans – the latter helping countries and municipalities to better manage the infrastructure and assets they already have, and which are often in the front lines of achieving SDGs in areas such as water and health. Thirdly, on data and monitoring, the project has supported review of the statistical legislation in Ethiopia and Tanzania. This is important as national laws and “quality assurance frameworks” allow countries to access a broader range of credible data sources, such as administrative and research data, and therefore track progress against a broader range of SDG targets and national indicators, in support of evidence-based policy.


The project is runs from November 2018 to October 2021 (3 years), is implemented by DESA in cooperation with UN Regional Commissions, Country Teams,  and the UN Development Programme (UNDP) and is supported by the United Nations Peace and Development Fund, established with a contribution from the Government of China.


[1] Admos O. Chimhowu, David Hulme & Lauchlan T. Munro, the ‘New’ national development planning and global development goals: Processes and partnerships, 12 World Development (2019) 76-89.

[2] Background Note: Lessons learned from the first cycle of the HLPF and messages for 2019 HLPF Summit: What should Heads of State and Government know and how can we improve the HLPF?

[3] VNR Reports: What do they Report? CDP Background Paper No. 46 ST/ESA/2018/CDP/46

[4] CDP (2019), VNRs of implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.