28 Feb

Mutual wins without mutual interests? How to solve collective action problems in the #SDGs

In September 2015, I was invited to attend and participate in the UN Sustainable Development Summit, a summit organised to launch the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) at the United Nations (UN) in New York. Aside from being a star-studded affair, the summit was a monumental moment for the global development agenda and allowed me to assess the state of global relations at the beginning of this new era.

At several high-level meetings, there were interventions made by civil society groups expressing concern at the private sector’s role in the Summit which were taken to be a sign of things to come during the implementation of the agenda. This concern came from the level of access and participation private sector stakeholders had at the Summit as well as the nature of commitments they were making to the global agenda, most notably financing, which civil society groups, try as they may, knew they could not match. Finance means power and more power to new interest groups means a smaller share of the pie for other interest groups already at the table.

This tension between civil society groups and private sector actors made me realise that for the SDGs to realise transformative change, it would need to solve collective action problems, which I define as i) outlining and aligning differing assumptions about progress, ii) negotiating interests between actors and iii) bargaining mutually agreeable commitments which actors can commit to iv) long enough to see progress.

One of the biggest lessons from the Millennium Development Goals was to improve co-ordination of the implementation of development initiatives. The SDGs agenda addresses this in theory by integrating the three ideas of development (social, economic and environmental) in one framework. In addition, Goal 17, Partnerships for the Goals, aims to co-ordinate resources and actions between partners to ensure the most effective way of implementing the agenda. Beyond these ideological and technocratic aspects, however, there has been little discussion on how to address the other barrier to collective action, self-interest.

For many, the work of outlining assumptions and negotiating interests between actors has already been done in the process of negotiating the Sustainable Development Goals. Commitment to the agenda is being done through review mechanisms which provide accountability through visibility. Review mechanisms such as the High-Level Political Forum and the Global Partnership for Effective Development Co-operation, put some degree of pressure on member states as they want to be seen to be making progress or at the very least doing something to make the SDGs a reality.

Review mechanisms are necessary but not sufficient in helping us solve collective actions and ensure commitment to the agenda. It’s important to have reiterative a process which involves the four elements I outlined earlier: outlining and aligning varying assumptions about progress, negotiating interests between actors and bargaining mutually agreeable commitments which actors can commit to long enough to see progress.

Some key questions to ask are outlined below:

  • Outlining assumptions – What assumptions do different interest groups have about the existing progress of this agenda?
  • Negotiating interests – How do we negotiate the varying interests to ensure they align on common or at the very least mutually agreeable points of action?
  • Bargaining mutually agreeable commitments – What does win-win look like and what are the trade-offs for reaching a win-win outcome? What are the external and internal constraints which we can use to increase commitment or that can threaten this commitment? How can we use them?
  • Assuming progress can be an incentive that induces further commitment, how do we create commitments long enough to see progress?

Macro-level: ‘Reconceiving the SDGs as a force for political change’ by IIED

The International Institute of Environment and Development (IIED) recently released a briefing paper, ‘Reconceiving the SDGs as a force for political change’, outlining the challenges of turning the commitments made by member states at the global levels into national policies and strategies.

The authors propose that for the SDGs to be a force for political change, the goals need to be aligned with national interests and convince decision-makers that the framework can help them improve decision-making. The authors state that political change is dependent upon three sites of power: ‘the institutions of governance, the political leadership that shapes those institutions, and the social and economic dynamics that shape.’ As such, actors looking to make progress on the SDGs at the national level must focus their efforts on these three sites of power.

The most interesting finding in this briefing paper, is that one of the barriers to integrating the SDGs at the national levels is the differing understandings between policy-makers about what development should achieve and consequently what should be prioritised. The authors explain, ‘{There is} an apparent disconnect between formal national development and spatial plans on the one hand (which may take a strong sustainable development orientation) and the policy priorities that guide immediate high-level decision making (which are likely to prioritise macroeconomic objectives).’ This makes it difficult to adopt a framework such as the SDGs which tries to align three different and at times, conflicting ideas of development. This will continue to pose a challenge (=opportunity) to negotiating collective action and the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) at Sussex University have conducted a thorough research paper anticipating future scenarios of how these types of challenges will affect progress on the SDGs.

The authors also identify the factors which can influence political leaders to act on the SDGs including public opinion. The use of local concerns to drive action on the SDGs is a smart strategy, however, the SDG agenda, as is the nature of development, requires long-term thinking if we are to effectively integrate action on these goals over the next 13 years. This is difficult to achieve within the reactive and short-term nature of politics. The question remains, whether integrating the SDGs into local issues will inspire reactive actions (in response to the politics of the day) or responsive action (in response to the future implications and ambitions of development).  I am still figuring out how to achieve both and whether this is possible but from my previous advocacy work on the SDGs, linking the SDG agenda to local issues has been one of the most effective ways to inform and spark interest from the public.

Micro-level: The Guide to Generating Political and Public Will

The IIED article takes a macro-level perspective on the topic by outlining the issues preventing collective action, within institutions and social structures. What is needed to complement this line of thinking is a more detailed exploration of how collective action problems can be identified, assessed and acted upon at the individual/stakeholder level (micro-level perspective). For this, the Guide to Generating Political and Public Will approach (PPW) created by Dr. Amber N.W. Raile, Dr. Eric D. Raile and Dr. Lori Ann Post is a really progressive and exciting policy tool. This policy tool is designed to help change-makers generate political and public will through solving collective action problems in the four spheres I outlined earlier. In particular, it can be a useful tool to help us address the conflicting priorities amongst policy-makers identified by IIED.

The PPW tool contains four steps:

  • Step 1: Identify key stakeholders in an issue area
  • Step 2: Determine existing definitions of the problem and solutions between the different stakeholders
  • Step 3: Align the different definitions of problems and solutions between the different stakeholders
  • Step 4: Use the alignment to create firm commitments and mutual accountability.

The authors use two approaches to develop the PPW policy tool: systems thinking to identify the actors, interest and context of the political change and social science tools which can be used to implement these steps.

There are a few strengths of the PPW tool which I believe are complementary to IIED’s analysis of how to use SDGs as force for political change.

Firstly, the PPW approach has a strong focus on context, the assumption being made that power is a continuous negotiation and response to different actors’ perceptions. In the PPW approach, ‘context’ is applied in three different ways:

  • The specific stage within the PPW approach (i.e. Step 1 – Identify stakeholders, or Step 2 – Outlining existing problem and solution definitions)
  • Within each step, there are various scenarios which might appear and the authors propose the most appropriate action to take and the tools to use. For example, if a challenge is to convince different groups to commit to a policy, you can use a series of strategic communication tools such as issue framing and narrative building tools to communicate a message that appeals to everyone. An excerpt from the tool is provided below:


Above: Excerpt from the PPW tool developed by Dr. Amber N.W. Raile, Dr. Eric D. Raile and Dr. Lori Ann Post

  • The PPW tool stresses context specificity. The focus is to ensure the change makers have the most effective approaches to respond to the existing context and not an ideal pre-identified outcome.

Secondly, the policy tool distinguishes between two sites of power:

  • Political will, defined as a ‘sufficient set of decision makers with a common understanding of a particular problem on the formal agenda is committed to supporting a commonly perceived, potentially effective policy solution’
  • Public will defined as a ‘social system has a shared recognition of a particular problem and resolves to address the situation in a particular way through sustained collective action.’

Defining the political and public spheres of power is something the IIED briefing paper alludes to but with a primary focus on formal actors and institutions. The social system outlined above in the PPW’s definition of Public Will makes it clear that social context is equally important as the formal political structures. In contrast, IIED briefing paper places Public Will as a social dynamic constraining the political actors’ options rather than an equal component of the change process. Nevertheless, it is exciting that both papers acknowledge political change to be a system of relationships and action between different actors as opposed to a process confined within formal institutions (i.e. governments, judicial systems, parliaments etc).

Most importantly, IIED briefing paper and the PPW policy tool make important contributions to Goal 17 as they do not assume the formal adoption of the SDGs made in September 2015 equates to formal commitment and action at the national levels. All the goals and indicators in Goal 17 start off with this assumption without considering the transition from adoption to commitment. I’m really looking forward to more discoveries in this area!

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