Harvesting synergy from sustainable development goal interactions

Harvesting synergy from sustainable development goal interactions

Matteo PederciniSteve ArquittDavid Collste, and Hans Herren


The sustainable development goals (SDGs) offer the global community a compelling vision and universally agreed-upon framework to achieve a sustainable and equitable future—but present a costly undertaking in the short term. Our research suggests that synergetic effects arising from appropriately designed policy mixes can bring significant cost savings and improve SDG attainment. Identifying and quantifying synergies requires innovative and unorthodox approaches to policy analysis such as those operationalized in our 3 pilots. The synergy assessment method and typology introduced in this paper are widely applicable, even though the patterns of synergies vary considerably between countries. Our pilot studies focus on national policy for the SDGs. Our approach is nevertheless generalizable to integrated planning at other scales and time horizons.


As countries pursue sustainable development across sectors as diverse as health, agriculture, and infrastructure, sectoral policies interact, generating synergies that alter their effectiveness. Identifying those synergies ex ante facilitates the harmonization of policies and provides an important lever to achieve the sustainable development goals (SDGs) of the United Nations 2030 Agenda. However, identifying and quantifying these synergetic interactions are infeasible with traditional approaches to policy analysis. In this paper, we present a method for identifying synergies and assessing them quantitatively. We also introduce a typology of 5 classes of synergies that enables an understanding of their causal structures. We operationalize the typology in pilot studies of SDG strategies undertaken in Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire, and Malawi. In the pilots, the integrated SDG (iSDG) model was used to simulate the effects of policies over the SDG time horizon and to assess the contributions of synergies. Synergy contributions to overall SDG performance were 7% for Côte d’Ivoire, 0.7% for Malawi, and 2% for Senegal. We estimate the value of these contributions to be 3% of gross domestic product (GDP) for Côte d’Ivoire, 0.4% for Malawi, and 0.7% for Senegal. We conclude that enhanced understanding of synergies in sustainable development planning can contribute to progress on the SDGs—and free substantial amounts of resources.

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