Martin Krolikowski (via Flickr)

Breaking down silos is the first step towards fruitful policy making

Suzanne Kiwanuka | 15 October 2018

Current policy making in international development lacks the right balance between economic, environmental and social benefits. In order to make policies sustainable, such a balance should be sought more forcefully. This entails engaging the private sector with new and innovative approaches, given its key position in the global development discourse.

Wherever you are on the planet, you will find examples of commercial policies geared towards maximizing returns on investments, neglecting possible negative side effects. In Uganda and other African countries, such profit maximizing efforts in the private sector have led to irresponsible behaviour with a long list of negative consequences. Employers taking short cuts on occupational safety, the sale of cosmetic products without regulatory screening, road constructors neglecting pedestrian safety, and industries ignoring the safe disposal of hazardous material are just a few examples.

In Uganda, agro-based industries are another example. Agro-industries prepare large chunks of land for farming. The loss of natural vegetation due to deforestation can alter the local climate and the intensive use of chemicals to stimulate agricultural production pollutes the soil, water and air. Moreover the industrial sector lacks planned and serviced industrial parks across the country, resulting in poor waste management, lack of monitoring and environmental pollution.

Although they might create employment, the negative consequences of these economic activities for the environment and health are ultimately borne by African society. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 23% of all deaths in Africa are the result of avoidable environmental hazards such as contaminated water, poor hygiene, inadequate sanitation, poor water resource management, unsafe fuel, atmospheric pollution and poor infrastructure. [1] In middle-income South Africa, 16% of all deaths are related to the state of the environment. [2] Moreover, environmental hazards tend to have the greatest impact on the poor and most vulnerable groups in developing countries.

The environment is not just increasingly compromised by economic activities, social policies are also part of the problem. Social policies are often not geared to facilitate and maintain wellbeing and a healthy lifestyle. Instead, most of them focus on restoring the sick to health and easing the burden of the disabled. Examples of include policies for welfare, social protection, and employee rehabilitation.

According to economist Karl Falkenberg, improved integration between the three pillars of society, economic, environmental and social is essential for societies to become truly sustainable. “We are living in an era”, he says, “where activities in the commercial and environmental sectors have unprecedented (often negative) effects on the social sector”. [3]

Because of the economic, social and environment silos that exist in the many policy-making processes, these negative effects have not been adequately addressed. In fact the policymakers in each silo have probably never asked themselves one critical question: ‘How does it affect other silos when I implement a solution in my silo?’

Social policies, which only repair damage emerging from other sectors, do not support sustainability. The world needs to learn from past mistakes and move towards integrated policy making. It behoves us to look more carefully at the dynamics between economic, environmental and social policies in order to avoid inordinately crafting policies in any of these sectors that negatively affects one of the other sectors. Good governance is critical to the breaking down of silos to ensure that adequate regulation and mediation exists across sectors to promote dialogue. Based on our research and policy engagement in several African countries, we have identified eight recommendations for countries to consider:

  1. Policy actors in the development arena need to understand and engage with critical sectors. In relation to this, the creation of knowledge sharing platforms for the co-construction of issues and co-development of solutions is crucial.
  2. We need to identify knowledge brokers and mediators who can operate across sectors, build relationships and negotiate holistic policies to ensure the inclusive growth of all sectors. These need to be multi-disciplinary, communication experts, scientifically grounded and policymaking savvy.
  3. Governments should ensure that policymaking processes pay attention not only to issues within each sector, but also address any potential social repercussions (health in all policies).
  4. Technology advancements should not be seen by governments as a magic bullet. Although technologies often improve services, their use in different settings should be weighed against their costs and sustainability.
  5. Inequities need to be reduced by sharing the benefits across all sectors by being carefully embedded in integrated policies.
  6. Governments need to mitigate and manage the potential negative consequences of the increasing marketization and privatization of social services in both high income and low/middle income countries, so that inequities do not drive the creation of more welfare institutions.
  7. Invariably, governments should invest the most in education, training and lifelong education.
  8. Social protection policies and initiatives, such as health insurance and welfare programmes, should be carefully targeted so that they benefit the intended beneficiaries, instead of the well-off, as is often the case.

Balancing economics, the environment and social issues should be the norm, rather than the exception, in pursuing sustainable development. The time to start working on a governance culture ‘across the aisles’ and breaking down the silos is now!

[1] WHO (2006a) Preventing disease through healthy environments: towards an estimate of the environmental burden of disease. Available from: Accessed 4th October 2018

[2] WHO (2006b), Almost a quarter of all disease caused by environmental exposure. News releases, 2006. Available from:

[3] Wright C and Godfrey L (2010). The impact of an unhealthy environment on human health in South Africa. A briefing Note 2009/04 June 2010 available online Accessed 5th October 2018.

Photo credit main picture: Martin Krolikowski (via Flickr)