Examining the Literature on SDG Interactions

Governing SDG Interactions,Knowledge brokering18 Oct 2022Martha Kapazoglou, Jorrit Oppewal

We are exactly halfway between the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), in 2015, and the target year set for achieving them, in 2030. The SDGs constitute a highly ambitious agenda, encompassing 17 Goals, 169 targets and 232 indicators, and a dizzying number of actors, including policymakers, researchers, civil society and private businesses, working towards their achievement. All these themes, actors and activities interact with each other. Progress on a certain goal in a certain region may have impacts, both positive and negative, on progress towards other goals, both in the same region and elsewhere.

Deepening our understanding of these linkages is crucial to accelerate progress. Although the literature on SDG interactions has been growing steadily, mapping the relations between different goals, there has been little empirical work on how these interactions play out in terms of SDG implementation. The NWO Research Programme on SDG interactions (Box 1) will contribute to filling this gap, through three in-depth research projects examining specific interactions in specific contexts.

The Knowledge Brokering and Synthesis (KBS) team has produced a  literature review to provide insights into the current state of knowledge on interactions between the SDGs of focus of the three research projects. The review discusses the synergies and trade-offs among the SDGs of interest, empirically identified in existing academic literature. This accompanying article will highlight the general findings and the persisting knowledge gaps.

About the SDGs Interactions Programme

The research program SDG Interactions and policy Interventions in Developing Countries is part of the Dutch Research Agenda (NWA) programme and initiated by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA).

The aim of the programme is to gain new insights into the interactions between the SDGs and their effects and impact on policy interventions. It funds three research consortia:

  1. Theme 1: SDG governance and decision-making. Beyond cherry-picking: aligning development actors and efforts for inclusive and effective governance of trade-offs and synergies between SDGs in East Africa
  2. Theme 2. Addressing trade-offs between food and nutrition security (SDG 2) and other SDGs. Improving food and nutrition security by enhancing women’s empowerment
  3. Theme 3. Climate change (SDG 13) and conflict (SDG 16). From climate change to conflict: mitigation through insurance?

The Current Literature

The literature review looks at empirical research on interactions between specific sets of SDGs (between SDGs 2 and 5; between 13 and 16; and between 2, 6 and 15). The review confirms the growing body of literature on SDG interactions. In terms of specific interaction findings, it points at the synergetic relations between SDG 2 (Zero Hunger) and SDG 5 (gender equality). In particular, many publications clearly establish the positive association between women’s empowerment and food security, particularly of children. A stronger position of women within the household leads to the dedication of more attention and resources to food and nutrition security. None of the reviewed studies identifies trade-offs between these two goals. The opposite is the case for the interactions between SDG 2, SDG 6 (Clean water and sanitation) and SDG 15 (life on land). Here, the literature identifies many trade-offs. Increased food production, for instance, may damage water resources and biodiversity. It is important to stress, however, that the trade-offs are not automatic. The literature points at different ways in which they can be mitigated, or even turned around into synergies, for instance through sustainable forest management approaches that combine landscape restoration and increased crop production.

There are also important findings related to remaining gaps in the literature.

First of all, some SDG interactions are studied much more than others. The review identified a substantial body of research on the interactions between SDGs 2, 6 and 15. Empirical studies on the interactions between SDG 13 (climate change) and SDG 16 (peace and justice), however, are not (yet) available at all, despite the growing attention in policy discourse to the potential links between them. Another notable finding is that few studies on interactions manage to evaluate the direction of causality.

Additionally, there is limited attention to uncovering the factors that can explain country-level variations in identified interactions. Although it may be useful to know to what extent certain goals, across the board, tend to present synergies or trade-offs in relation to other goals, it would be even more useful to understand why synergies are successfully harnessed (or leveraged) in one context, and not in another. Or why trade-offs are starker in one setting, compared to another.

Relatedly, very few papers provide concrete policy recommendations on how to  govern identified interactions. When offered, they tend to be of a general nature, such as pointing out that more attention needs to be paid to women’s empowerment when designing nutrition interventions. More co-creation between researchers and policymakers could strengthen the relevance of policy recommendations.

Finally, it is remarkable that none of the existing empirical literature studies SDG interactions through the lens of political economy. This echoes the findings of recent research stressing the lack of data and evidence on the political impact of the SDGs on local governance (Biermann et al.). It seems that much research on SDG interactions adopts a predominantly technocratic approach. It often starts from the premise that inconsistencies and implementation challenges can be explained by a lack of available data and evidence, leading to poor policy design, when in fact these challenges may be driven by political dynamics.

Political interactions

It is important, therefore, to increase our understanding of the way SDG interactions play out within specific political contexts. Who benefits from the status quo, or from glaring inconsistencies? What interests are served by inaction, or even retrogression on specific goals, for instance those related to planetary integrity?

Identifying and mapping interactions could thus be seen as a first step. The next one is to explore the underlying interests at play and, on that basis, devise specific recommendations on policy and strategy. In some cases, there may be scope to work with actors who have been blocking progress on certain SDGs. For instance, governments can support polluting firms to become more sustainable. In others, it may be better to fight and resist political interests that block change or promote inconsistencies.

We need a lot better knowledge and understanding of the ways in which these dynamics play out in concrete settings. Over the next few years, the findings of the research projects under the SDG Interactions Programme will help us further along on this journey. That will enable the development of insights, tools and approaches to help policymakers, civil society actors, private businesses and other stakeholders to navigate the complex systems they operate in for enhanced SDG implementation.