Ignacio Martínez, Colectivo La Mundial and Universidad Complutense de Madrid, Coordinadora ONGD, Forus' member in Spain.

The 2030 Agenda as a global agreement for collective action 

During its first five years, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development has been submitted to many analyses, many of which acknowledge that it has great potential for articulating collective action to promote sustainable development. A smaller number of them point to the limitations and contradictions in it, which they see as holding back its potential for transformation. 

All these analyses are relevant and many of them are complementary for gauging and exploring the real possibilities of an agenda like this for promoting collective action from the point of view of sustainable development. 

The 2030 Agenda basically has five features that make it transformative because of their potential for fostering collective action. The first is that it is a global, universal agenda. It is not so much a totalising project that adopts a hegemonic worldview focusing on developmentalism, but rather a questioning of the standardising vision that has traditionally gone together with the idea—and the practice—of development.  

This interpretation of the 2030 Agenda, mindful of the interdependence between reality and development processes and dynamics, should lead countries and the international community to accept that their model of development has important social, political, economic and environmental implications, which in turn have universal dimensions. This is why it is so relevant to consider the principle of the shared, but distinct, responsibilities of which the 2030 Agenda speaks as a principle for redistribution adopting a universal approach. 

The second distinguishing feature—one that entails obvious difficulties and contradictions—is that it is an agenda that offers a multi-dimensional mandate for collective action. Taking this at a profound level would require a review—and reorientation—of the political, economic and environmental rationale that lay behind previous agendas whose main goal was economic growth. To a great extent, the diagnosis offered by the 2030 Agenda calls on us to re-focus our conception of development, moving away from an economic perspective and towards one that has sustainability at its core. 

Another essential feature of the 2030 Agenda is its comprehensive nature, which stresses the need to break with the compartmentalisation that has traditionally characterised political action. In opposition to this fragmentation, the agenda calls on us to integrate in a coherent way—both across the board and across sectors—a wide range of actions and policies that traditionally were conceived sector by sector and were often disconnected. For this reason, the consistency of policies for sustainable development is now an essential element of strategies for deploying the 2030 Agenda. 

A fourth important feature for understanding the 2030 Agenda is its multi-level nature. The idea of shared, but distinct, responsibilities does not only imply a fairer relationship between the countries forming the international community but also affects all agents in global society. This shows how important it is that both the search for solutions to problems and the transformation of systemic elements in today’s model for development should be approached through multi-level action. 

The matter of shared but distinct responsibilities for global society as a whole is related to a fifth key feature of the agenda, namely, that it involves multiple agents. This is a fundamental element in setting up transformative collective action, in that it develops the idea of fairer distribution of responsibilities in the response to the problems of society while also calling for more participatory and democratic decision-making processes. So adoption of this Agenda depends on the capacity for establishing alliances among a range of agents which, while fostering democratic participation, will not draw attention away from the sharing of responsibilities. 

Collective action and public policies: a difficult fit 

In addition to identifying the elements that have the greatest transforming power, analyses of the 2030 Agenda have pinpointed some of its limitations and contradictions, such as the fact that it is a voluntary agenda, which does not deal fully enough with the systemic elements of the dominant development model, and the fact that it has not set out a sufficiently ambitious framework of goals, targets and indicators. 

Without questioning the relevance of these analyses, the intention of this article is to point to an important element that has not yet received sufficient attention. This is the transposition of the global mandate for collective action proposed by the 2030 Agenda to the deployment of public policies that are consistent with sustainable development and, especially, with an approach in which sustainability is at the core. The difficulty here is to go beyond the scope of actions to fulfil the agenda—the usual way of driving implementation of the MDGs—to ensure that a public policy perspective is adopted. 

If we consider the features mentioned above—the universal, multi-dimensional, comprehensive, multi-level and multi-agent nature of the Agenda—we see a challenge for public policies. These are generally conceived on the basis of different rationales so it is very difficult for these features to permeate them in the form of a political mandate. 

Generally speaking, public policies do not consider the principle of universality—in the sense of globality, going beyond national borders—because by definition they are based on objectives relating to a specific population and are limited to the interests of that population or part of it. And many public policies neither include an analysis of impacts nor correct negative effects—externalities—for other people or for territories beyond that of the target population, and even less from a universal perspective. The universal nature of the 2030 Agenda therefore comes up against the predominance of the methodological nationalism on which public policies are built. 

Similarly, policies that accept the centrality of sustainability based on multi-dimensionality are in the minority. Although it is true that the crisis of the socio-economic model points with increasing clarity to sustainability as a condition for deploying public policies, policies that include sustainability as a key political mandate are still the exception. In fact, a large proportion of public policies, especially those that are linked to the interests and goals of a ‘tough agenda’—that is, those relating to more strategic matters in the economic and security fields—are still far from adopting this vision. 

Also, in a context of increasing interdependence and trans-nationalisation of reality, public policies face the challenge of breaking away from compartmentalisation among agents in different territories in order to act in accordance with a multi-level rationale. The design of public policies inspired by the principles of shared but distinct responsibilities is a necessary condition to overcome the friction among competencies that today limits the response given by public policies to multilevel challenges. 

Finally, when focusing on collective, multi-agent action, public policies have to deal with a challenge posed by the 2030 Agenda. This is the need to further participation and partnerships again based on the principle of shared but distinct responsibilities, although in this case the goal is to include various agents in the public policy cycle. 

Public and institutional challenges for including public policies in the 2030 Agenda 

To the extent that the 2030 Agenda is calling for a whole of government approach, it is necessary for a response to be given from the policy perspective in relation to policy coherence. However, the limitations mentioned—among others, those relating to polity and power rationales and therefore to the field of politics as a contest—mean that there are political difficulties for applying the 2030 Agenda in a wide range of governments in all areas.   

As a result, the localisation processes in the 2030 Agenda are basically finding their place in discourse and are often limited to the field of communication, thus reducing the transforming powers of the 2030 Agenda to a political communication project. 

For this reason, it is necessary to move away from discourse or superficiality towards a confluence between the mandate of the 2030 Agenda and the construction of public policies. Although the same degree of linkage cannot be expected with the 2030 Agenda in that policies are aligned with different visions, interests, goals and capacities, a political thrust towards orienting public policies to the 2030 Agenda mandate should be expected. 

This is by no means simple. It requires at least two basic elements: an institutional proposal with a clear political mandate with sufficient institutional structure and appropriate tools and capabilities; and, critically for the deployment of coherent policies, an orientation for the public policy cycle that accepts as a fundamental goal the inclusion of the sustainability of life throughout the cycle.