Extending the Boundaries of Policy Coherence for Sustainable Development: Engaging Business and Civil Society

UN Women/Ryan Brown
President and CEO of the Global Partnerships Forum Amir Dossal signs a commitment to working towards achieving the SDGs at a Business and Philanthropy Leaders’ Forum co-hosted by the Alibaba Group and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in September 2016. The event brought leading global companies and foundations together with UN offices and representatives.

In Brief

In the context of the UN 2030 Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), as well as in the academic literature and debate, ‘policy coherence for sustainable development’ is addressed as a question of implementing and improving national policies, with the nation state(s) being constituted as the primary actor responsible for policy coherence. Global business and civil society groups and networks are mentioned, but their independent production of sustainable policies across national borders is not sufficiently recognized. Business and civil society are critical to sustainable development policy coherence, and ultimately to meeting the 17 SDGs.

Key Concepts

  • In the UN 2030 Agenda, the goal and concept of ‘policy coherence for sustainable development’ emphasize national political and legal solutions to sustainable development, and tend to overlook innovative policies in the wider transnational corporate and civilian spheres.

  • In order to find solutions to the current lack of sustainable development policy coherence, world leaders and decision makers must understand how a wider range of powerful (global) stakeholders in business and civil society are crucial to the success of policy coherence.

  • Instead of focusing on national legislation and implementation only, policies made by non-state actors that operate outside or across the borders of national legal regulation should also be considered. This includes corporate norms and compliance systems, the rise of new business models, new trends in the formation of civil society groups, the use of social media, etc.

  • Policy coherence needs to be governed by new means. The establishment of public-private partnerships can make room for policies and solutions that cut across national and functional boundaries to create solutions that anticipate societal, local, and global dependencies. A UN work program to support development of such norms and actions would encourage precautionary and responsible actions and measures.

The adoption of the UN 2030 Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in September 2015 was a remarkable achievement. In the outcome document,1 heads of state, government, and high representatives commit to full implementation: “We have adopted a historic decision on a comprehensive, far-reaching and people-centered set of universal and transformative goals and targets. We commit ourselves to working tirelessly for the full implementation of this Agenda by 2030.”

With this UN 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda combining development, poverty alleviation, and sustainability agendas, the ability to create coherence between and within each of these very broad policy areas is both a huge challenge and an absolute necessity for success.2,3 Implementation of the 2030 Agenda thus requires full attention to the links and coherence in policies between and within many sectors, policy areas, and initiatives.4 Moreover, not only countries but also various societal organizations and private businesses will need to embark on a profound transformation to achieve durable, long-term change.1 As a recent study involving a number of international think tanks concludes, the importance of engaging non-state actors in implementation the SDGs, including civil society and the private sector, is vital to success.5 The challenging question is, however, who those actors are and who should be targeted in such a strategy on policy coherence for sustainable development.

This question is challenging precisely because it requires considering who has the authority or the power to create policies on sustainability and, in effect, who is responsible for doing so. The main obstacle today is that ‘policy coherence for sustainable development’ is addressed mainly as a question of improving national policies, implementing national policies, and defining the right legal measures for governments to act. Yet, rather than being stakeholders of governments and international institutions, increasing global interaction and communication technologies requires a broader perspective on policy and governance: to recognize that policies are (also) created and governed by transnational corporate and civilian actors.6 These transnational policies are neither fully dependent on nor detached from national policy-making, but are nevertheless shaping the current political environment.

To broaden the horizon, take a step away from nationalism, and suggest a more transnational cosmopolitan view on policy coherence, three steps are required. First, the ‘policy coherence debate’ and the implied meaning of policy must be considered. Second, a good solution on policy coherence for sustainable development requires an understanding of the sustainability policies of key global economic and social actors. Lastly, one must understand how two types of actors, private companies and civil society groups, each govern sustainability and how their practices limit and support the aims of greater sustainable development.

The Policy Coherence ‘Agenda’

In spite of sustainable development entering the global agenda as early as 1986 with the Report of the Brundtland Commission,7 the field of studying policy coherence for sustainable development is by no means a long-standing independent research field. Elements have been studied in research on sustainability transitions, sustainability governance, and environmental governance, among others, but it is mostly within the field of Policy Coherence for Development that the concept has been academically targeted as an issue for development studies, in the context of development cooperation and aid effectiveness.8

With sustainable development being defined much more broadly by the 2030 Agenda than previous global agendas for development, studying the coherence of sustainable development policies can be considered a new area of study. That being said, however, the 2030 Agenda does very little to explain what is meant by ‘policy coherence for sustainable development.’ It merely states that, “We commit to pursuing policy coherence and an enabling environment for sustainable development at all levels and by all actors…” and identifies one policy coherence target, “17.14 Enhance policy coherence for sustainable development,” without providing additional details.1

In establishing global indicators for the SDGs, definitions become rather narrow, focusing on national implementation. Meeting its mandate to define indicators for the 17 SDGs and their 169 targets, the UN Statistical Commission agreed in March 2016 on an indicator for the policy coherence target which focuses solely on national policy mechanisms.1 The indicator is defined as: “Number of countries with mechanisms in place to enhance policy coherence of sustainable development.”9 It might seem banal to observe that we need to move beyond such a national focus and that an approach to measuring policy coherence that focuses exclusively on national policy mechanisms is insufficient.

Other organizations have recently defined policy coherence for sustainable development. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), for example, argues that policy coherence is, “an approach and policy tool to integrate the economic, social, environmental and governance dimensions of sustainable development at all stages of domestic and international policy making.”10 The tool aims to increase governments’ capacities to achieve:

  1. political commitment and policy statements that can help translate commitment into action;
  2. policy co-ordination that can resolve conflicts or inconsistencies between policies; and,
  3. systems for monitoring, analysis and reporting on the impacts of policies to provide evidence to inform decision-making.11

It is clear that the OECD, like the UN 2030 Agenda, sees the economies of individual states as the main (or only) actors of policy coherence. Policy inter-linkages are specified between the social, economic, and environmental pillars of sustainability, and policy effects distinguish between national and international effects.

The private sector, international organizations, civil society, and NGOs are grouped together as “other actors.”

Who are the Important Actors?

Nation-state policies on sustainable development are increasingly challenged ‘from above’ by structures of transnational capital (e.g. multinational enterprises), global media, and international institutions, and ‘from below’ by a diffusion of local resistance through the informal economy, social media, and grassroots activism. These trends have given rise to new social and economic hybrid actors – actors that are neither fully global nor entirely national. They are ‘national’ in the sense that they refer to national law and make attempts to influence state policies through lobbying.12 On the other hand, they are also not exclusively national, as their actions affect and are affected by global level interactions independently of their national affiliation, through their choices of investment, corporate policies on sustainability, grassroots activities, civil action, etc.

Trinity Care Foundation
Local leaders of a Bosch Corporate Social Responsibility initiative in India aimed at bringing mental and physical health services into schools.

In the discipline of International Political Economy, key scholars have similarly argued that a new corporate elite has emerged in global affairs, and that they are important for understanding how today’s global order has surpassed the Westphalian state-centric one.13 However, as critics have argued, such descriptions of the current order miss out on the importance of the complex interdependence that exists not only between public and private actors,14 but also between the local and global levels in international politics. Many of today’s powerful actors operate both within and beyond national political spheres as hybrid actors.

From a more solutions-oriented perspective, this problem of diversity and interdependency is recognized in the governance literature, where numerous attempts have been taken to map all levels and actors relevant for economic, social, and environmental implementation of sustainability.15 Yet, while such mappings often include a wide range of dependencies and links between levels, actors, and policies, the questions of importance tend to stand in the background, avoiding the question of who and what are the most important to success. While there is much truth to the description of complexity, politically it often works against prioritization and thus decision and change, as everything and all actors tend to be seen as equally relevant and important. In fact, we need some prioritization and understanding of responsibility in order to avoid a sense of despair amongst policy makers or to become a tool that simply justifies a ‘business as usual’ approach to sustainability issues. The same is true when talking about policy coherence for sustainable development and the role of the nation state versus other actors. If these other actors are not defined in terms of who they are and how they matter to success, the direction of progress becomes clouded.

An alternative way to approach these actors and their influence on sustainability is to study how key non-state actors, through their actions and definitions of sustainability, render some political solutions possible and others impossible. In other words: who are these powerful global actors, how do they define new possibilities of sustainable action, and how do they limit other forms of action?

To answer these questions, one must consider how transnational actors impact the understanding of national sustainability policies in particular, and concepts of policy coherence in general.  Zooming in on the role of two kinds of hybrid actors, private companies and global civil society groups, helps to define these influences.

Private Companies

Large multinational enterprises generally grow both economically and in terms of their number of employees. As they grow, they become more international, with subsidiaries or/and large markets in many countries. They develop increasingly complex value chains, with multiple suppliers and customers spread across many countries and regions of the world.

In today’s global corporate sphere, corporate decision-making is increasingly defined and implemented beyond national control. Although companies are subject to national law and engage in national policy making though lobbying and by participating in various public-private partnerships (PPPs), the role of private networks and self-initiated norm building work to detach corporate policies from national affiliations. As Michael Power explains in his seminal work on risk management, companies are increasingly setting up self-imposed norms and governance structures to manage an increasingly uncertain environment and to steer away from government interference.16

Currently, there are many kinds of corporate policy-making that affect sustainability outside the realm of nation states and legal regulation. Three of the most defining ones include: self-regulating reporting and compliance regimes, consumer/citizen mobilization, and new business models.

Voluntary reporting and compliance regimes are increasingly used as tools for self-regulation amongst companies. In this respect, sustainability reporting and reporting on Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) are important as tools for communication and tracking ways in which large companies take sustainability into account in their business operations. Another way is the increasing use of compliance systems, such as the ISO 14000 standards. These systems of reporting and self-imposed compliance have by and large become the new norms defining sustainable business. Even though CSR reporting is often criticized for being merely a reporting mechanism for large companies to show and advertise all the good things they do, rather than a core activity of the company, CSR is still an important norm that forces companies to defend and sustain their environmental and sustainability strategies and actions.17,18

Sustainability reporting has gained ground since the 2012 Rio+20 Sustainable Development Conference, with the outcome document containing a paragraph on the importance of sustainability reporting and The Group of Friends of Paragraph 47 formed after the conference as a political group with government representatives.19,20 The main actor in sustainability reporting is the Global Reporting Initiative, which produces sustainability reporting guidelines used by approximately 5,800 companies worldwide, including the majority for the worlds’ largest 250 companies.20 Other guidelines and frameworks have been prepared by the UN Global Compact and the OECD.21,22 Many companies have in recent years adopted sustainable strategies and/or grouped together with other companies or engaged in dialogues to strengthen their sustainability efforts. And some private companies have already taken initiatives to incorporate elements of the UN 2030 Agenda into their corporate strategies.

The second group of corporate sustainability policies are those relating to consumer groups and markets. Expectations from citizens towards the private sector, including but not limited to their role as consumers, is another defining factor for understanding changes in sustainable corporate practices. When groups of citizens are unhappy with the behavior of certain private companies, new technology has enabled organized campaigns on social media, which can be devastating for the public image of a private company.

Julia DPK
Anonymous logo graffiti in Amsterdam, 2011.

A third kind of activity that defines the sustainability practices of private companies is private business innovation and changes in production and consumption. This is happening through the implementation of new and innovative business models that stem in most cases from private companies, and a way to understand corporate sustainable practices. One example is the current trend towards the leasing of goods and services – a trend we see in many sectors. Well-known and established systems are for example the leasing of cars. But the leasing of other goods and services is also rapidly expanding in many countries, including leasing schemes for mobile phones, clothing, furniture, and electricity, to name a few.23 The pace of innovation and diffusion of new ideas and business models will play a key role in driving systemic transitions towards sustainability and meeting the SDGs.24

A meeting of 25 stakeholders from science, business, policy, and civil society orchestrated by the European Environment Agency identified four clusters of innovation with potential to support sustainability transitions in the systems that provide Europe’s food, mobility, and energy. These are essentially new business models that can play a key role in moving towards sustainability.24 They are the following:

  • Collaborative consumption in which consumers can obtain goods or services more effectively and efficiently, for example through leasing or sharing goods and services, rather than owning them.
  • Prosumerism, in which consumers also become producers, for example through producing and selling extra energy (from solar panels), or food produced in their gardens.
  • Social innovation entails developing completely new concepts, strategies, and organizational forms to better meet societal needs.
  • Eco-innovation and eco-design go further than purely technological innovation and incorporate environmental considerations by reducing the life-cycle impacts of a product or by increasing its reusability through design.

In regards to the private sector, it seems to be beyond doubt that developments in the practices of networks governed by self-regulation, consumers, and new business models will affect the implementation of the UN 2030 Agenda and the SDGs, despite the fact that the relationship between the private sector and governments and public policy-making is informal and often subtle.

Global Civil Society Groups

Since 1992,25 the role of major groups (women, children and youth, indigenous people, NGOs, local authorities, workers and trade unions, business and industry, the scientific community, and farmers) in policy processes has gradually increased. The adoption of the UN 2030 Agenda and the SDGs to a large extent results from a very broad consultation and involvement of such major groups throughout the process.

NGOs are probably the most widely recognized civil society groups and epistemic communities in the field of global sustainability policy. Many large NGOs are recognized and consulted by governments and international organizations. Thus, in many respects, these groups are accepted as established actors in the international system.

Another kind of global civil actors are those united via social media on often shifting topics. These are less formally organized, yet increasingly important. We see that amongst consumers who target the national origin of certain goods (e.g. from Israel), services (e.g. UBER), or companies (e.g. Monsanto), in resistance to regimes (e.g. the Arab Spring), or in surveillance (e.g. Anonymous). Common to these civil society groups is their paradoxical relation to the state, state governance, and policy-making. Like the private companies described above, these groups draw their legitimacy by claiming to be more than a state (in fact often by opposing or resisting state policies), yet each citizen is still a citizen somewhere. As many scholars have pointed out, the term ‘global civil society’ is an attempt to overcome the statist bias present in the concept of civil society.26,27 This also means that these groups gain legitimacy by speaking ‘on behalf’ of some kind of (global) public ethics, and not by being citizens in a state. Or, as Olaf Corry concludes, “‘global’ in global civil society relates to the emergence of a global consciousness, espousing the non-particularity or worldwide interests.”28 Thus, environmental NGOs speak on behalf of nature, development NGO’s on behalf of the weak, and Anonymous on behalf of privacy. And in doing so, they make politics.

This reference to a global public consciousness and ethics can be very powerful, yet it also makes the future very unpredictable and hard to govern through national policy coherence regimes. The development of a global civil society creates uncertainty about who the important stakeholders are, and how they can be represented in policy-making. This problem of uncertainty seems reinforced by the rapid change of information technologies witnessed in the past decades. ‘Globalization’ or ‘network society’ are the usual terms used to describe the trends that enable citizens to share information and to act in unity, in certain directions, in huge numbers, and within days or sometimes hours of one another.29,30

Besides installing uncertainty about the effectiveness of national sustainability policies, there are also positive effects of this development, as many of these global civil society groups work to expose the limits of current policy-making. According to Scholte, civil society groups do so by: a) giving voice to minority stakeholders; b) enhancing public awareness and education; c) raising public debate; d) creating transparency on established policy solutions; and, e) helping to monitor implementation.31 These non-governmental organizations have evolved considerably, shifting in recent years from efforts to affect government and intergovernmental processes to developing environmental standards and monitoring trends.22,32


Global economic and civil actors make up an increasingly important context for national and international policy-making – a context that must be considered when discussing policy coherence for sustainable development. The core sustainability practices of these actors should be strengthened in future approaches to policy coherence on sustainable development.

Recognizing that companies and civil society groups are hybrid actors that sometimes escape national policy and independently shape policies is key to any solution on sustainability and policy coherence. Moreover, we need to start to define those powerful stakeholders and their modus operandi on sustainability.

The informal and self-regulating nature of these corporate and civil actors makes it difficult to monitor their effects by traditional means of national regulatory mechanisms. Instead, one might suggest that we start to systematize and increase the use of organizational forms such as PPPs to facilitate and support new possibilities of sustainable action by global non-governmental groups and companies.

photothek/Ina Fassbender
The Lord Mayor of Bonn and representatives from the UNDP, the Overseas Development Institute, and the SDG Action Committee pose with the Director and Commissioner for the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development at the Global Festival of Ideas for Sustainable Development in Bonn on March 1, 2017.

As Andersen has argued, PPPs entail “promising a promise,” or that of voluntarily agreeing on making the future in the image of a desired future.33 Partnerships are thus not about the state (system) losing power, but rather about how it governs at a distance by making societal groups and organizations hold to future commitments.34 This idea of partnering can thereby be seen as a kind of meta-governance, where the state strategically governs companies and societal groups to self-regulation by appealing to the virtue of voluntary, responsible, and “appropriate” behavior. As such, steering is not only understood as something directed towards particular actors but, in the context of PPPs, a variety of perspectives (economic, social, environmental, and legal) can be brought to the table in an attempt to anticipate societal, local, and global dependencies and find better solutions. Only in this way can we make sense of ‘policy coherence for sustainable development’ in an increasingly globalized and transnational world.

Along these lines, we also need to recognize the limitations of the current UN indicator on policy coherence. The agreed indicator for measuring UN SDG goal 17.14 (enhance policy coherence for sustainable development) is, as mentioned previously, defined as the “number of countries with mechanisms in place to enhance policy coherence of sustainable development.”9 This indicator is weak, as it simply measures how many countries do something to tackle a particular issue, and does not provide any information on how much or what they do. Therefore, it has little or no value.

Instead, something like a UN work program on policy cohesion for sustainable development is needed. Such a work program should support and facilitate transnational collaboration and PPPs on sustainable development, to help secure the development of norms and actions that support precautionary and responsible measures. The recently established Partnership for Enhancing Policy Coherence for Sustainable Development could be used as a source of inspiration to develop this dialogue further.35

The corporate practices identified above should be included in such a UN work program as well, including establishing norms for different forms of private-public collaboration, creating framework conditions for voluntary reporting and compliance regimes, and by sharing information on innovation and changes in consumption and production through the implementation of new business models.

In the case of global civil society groups, key decisions are much more difficult to locate, yet no less important. The practices of global civil society movements (NGOs or less formalized groups) are based on voluntary networks and draw legitimacy from a rather vague idea of public consciousness, rather than from a representation of interest. A work program should therefore create awareness about new forms of civil action, groups, and trends in order to support policy coherence at the national and international levels. This can help to develop standards for civil society and corporate participation in the decision-making process,36 and to provide information about changes in the role of civil society as a global megatrend.


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