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From Improving Policy Coherence in Scotland

What is Policy Coherence?

Dealing with the monumental challenges of our time requires us to think holistically about local problems and crucially, see their connection to broader global issues. Making real progress on solving challenges such as poverty and climate breakdown will require us to change our approach and become better at working together.

Policy Coherence at its simplest is about just that - making sure that actions taken by one part of government, or other sectors within society, do not undermine the positive actions taken by others; and preferably, support and reinforce one another.

The choices we make at home don’t just affect us, they reverberate around the globe and impact both people and planet. In this digital and globalised age, we are better placed than ever to attempt to understand the complexities of these interconnections and inter-dependencies.

Policy Coherence can therefore be defined as the systematic promotion of mutually reinforcing policy actions across government departments and agencies creating synergies towards achieving the agreed objectives.

What is Policy Coherence for Development?

The concept of Policy Coherence for Development (PCD) first emerged in discussions among international aid donors in the early 1990s. The premise of this concept was simple: national domestic policy decisions can, and will, have an international impact. Thus, in order to fight poverty and address inequality overseas, policy makers must consider the transboundary effects of their decisions at home, and try to minimise any negative impact they might have, while also seeking to add value whenever possible.

The term Policy Coherence for Development (PCD) originally emerged from the realisation that non-aid policies of donors affect developing countries and should not distract but rather be supportive of international development goals. The PCD concept initially emphasised the responsibility of developed countries to take into account the effect on developing countries when formulating domestic policies across different sectors (trade, finance, migration, security, technology, science). It thus originates from a north-south paradigm with responsibilities for better PCD placed on developed countries to the benefit of developing countries.

The origins of the concept go back to successful European NGO campaigns of the 1990s that put a spotlight on 'dumping' of European products in developing countries, and which in 1992 led to an article in the Treaty on European Community that required EU policy makers to take account of developing country interests when drawing up new policies. Depending on the translation, this Treaty article was referred to as promoting coherence (e.g. German version) or consistency (e.g. English version). Later that same decade the OECD added 'for development' so as to clarify that 'PCD' was about ensuring that policies do not harm and where possible contribute to international development objectives.

What is Policy Coherence for Sustainable Development?

In 2015, the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) enshrined policy coherence for sustainable development (PCSD) as part of the 17 Global Goals (Target 17.14). The OECD then set out a clear vision for what policy coherence should mean in the context of this 2030 Agenda. There is now a commonly accepted definition that is vital to achieving both domestic and international sustainable development outcomes:

“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.”[1]

With the 2030 Agenda, the global community has taken the concept of sustainable development and its core elements of economic, social and environmental well-being; explicitly linked them together; and, crucially, made them universal. In other words, all dimensions of sustainable development are important for all countries and regions of the world, regardless of how developed they might be.

The five Ps - People, Planet, Prosperity, Partnership and Peace – underpin the SDGs everywhere.

As the five Ps are interdependent, any policy interventions and resulting outcomes that touch on one of the five areas inevitably affect other areas. Achieving the 2030 Agenda thus requires integrated and balanced action on all five Ps.

The OECD have been proponents for this expanded understanding of policy coherence. In an article endorsed by the UN, they explain why the concept is now about more than ensuring that domestic policies do not undermine international development objectives:

“The assumption was that domestic policies from developed countries in areas with important cross-border dimensions such as trade, investment, and agriculture could undermine development co-operation objectives and negatively impact on the development prospects of poor developing countries.

“This continues to be a key focus of the 2030 Agenda with its global aspiration to eradicate poverty in all its forms and dimensions. But eradicating poverty will be more challenging on a planet facing natural resource degradation, scarcity, and climate change. Given the complex interconnections between economic, social and environmental challenges that the SDGs aim to address – as well as their multiple global-domestic linkages – policy coherence takes on a whole new dimension.”[2]

It goes on to explain that there are three definable reasons to pursue policy coherence, suggesting that doing so helps to:

  1. foster synergies and minimise trade-offs across sectors;
  2. reconcile domestic policy objectives with internationally agreed objectives;
  3. address the transboundary and long-term effects of policies.

Why is improving Policy Coherence difficult?

Under SDG 17 (Partnership), enhancing policy coherence for sustainable development is a specific target (17.14).  However, in 2017, most of the 65 Voluntary National Reviews (VNRs) presented at the UN’s High Level Political Forum (HLPF) admitted that this is one of the most difficult challenges to implementing the SDGs.

In practice, it involves adjusting structures and decision-making processes to integrate sustainable development goals into existing institutions, requiring an administrative culture that promotes cross-sector collaboration and global action.

Scotland can build on the progress it has achieved so far and become a global leader for SDG 17.14. This is because Scotland already has the right foundations in place. However, achieving policy coherence is no easy task. The UN uses the Rubik’s Cube as a simple analogy for visualising the challenge of addressing all five Ps in an integrated manner. If we try to solve only one side of the cube we are unlikely to ever succeed, but by considering all sides simultaneously we can get closer to the solution.

In reality, achieving policy coherence across all sectors is far more difficult than solving a Rubik's Cube. It is better, therefore, to think in terms of degrees of policy coherence and, vitally, to be open and honest about the policy incoherencies and trade-offs that are sometimes inevitable.

It is this more nuanced understanding of how different policy areas (and SDG targets) interact with one another that can allow Scotland to become a world leader of Policy Coherence for Sustainable Development. There are useful frameworks to help guide us on the journey towards better policy coherence in Scotland.

How is policy coherence approached (or not) in different sectors?

Test your knowledge of PCSD

Take this short quiz to test your knowledge of PCSD after having read the Wiki!

What visual analogy is often used by the United Nations (UN) to visualise the dimensions of sustainable development? 
What are the two conditions that must be met in order for development to be sustainable?
How many sustainable development goals (SDGs) are there? 
What is the specific goal and target about policy coherence for sustainable development within the SDGs? 
What are the five P’s at the heart of the 2030 Agenda? 
How many Outcomes are there in Scotland’s National Performance Framework? Can you name any of them?
What are the five values at the heart of Scotland’s National Performance Framework?
When did First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, sign Scotland up to the SDGs?
How many building blocks are there within the OECD guidance on policy coherence? Can you name them? 
Where did the Scottish Government International Development team go on a visit in 2013-14 to learn about their approach to policy coherence?  
What topic areas link to international development with a policy coherence lens?  
Many celebrities have had their photos taken endorsing the particular SDGs that are most important to them. Can you match the celebrities to the goal they have endorsed on camera?
The Rubik's cube
1) a strong healthy and just society

2) living withing environmental limits






Kindness, dignity, compassion, respect for the rule of law, openness and transparency
July 2015
8 - political commitment, policy integration, long-term planning horizon, policy effects, policy coordination, subnational and local involvement, stakeholder engagement, monitoring/report
Climate change



International trade

Business and human rights

public procurement

National investment bank

goal 17

goal 4

goal 11

Daniel Craig

John Legend