Countries, institutions and citizens are to drastically enhance and revamp their capacities to pursue a sustainable development path and it urges discussions about emerging challenges to defining policy and programming priorities while balancing trade-offs based on existing and anticipated, future, capacity requirements.

Sustainable development implies extending the horizon of policy-making and planning beyond short-term political cycles; adopting an inclusive approach which harness and strengthen the capacities of the private and public sector and non-state stakeholders to contribute; aligning incentives and correcting market-failures; exploring and generating win-win solutions across the three strands; fostering social, managerial and technological innovations; and scaling up solutions. And the list is not exhaustive.

This is a huge agenda in any country. Add to this that the concept of sustainable development is not and cannot be narrowly defined, it is a vision that will be constructed over the decades to come. That is also the case for the capacities required making the vision a reality, adaptability to new opportunities paired with resilience to shocks and crises will be the order of the day.

Sustainable development hinges on improving institutional structures and arrangements that facilitate inter-sectoral coordination for policy coherence and integrated planning and resource allocation based on data and evidence. Countries need to work out how best their institutional arrangements coordinate between national and local; between environmental, social and economic ministries, implementing ministries, social protection facilities and such like, including scientific institutions and non-state stakeholders.

There are now multiple experiences of different set-ups to foster cross-sector collaboration, not least related to efforts to tackle climate change issues. Units in central ministries or president/prime minister offices are likely to be required, but their mandate and effective convening capacity, through senior level backing, possibly cabinet level and parliamentary committees, as well as technical focal points in the involved institutions, will be a critical determinant of their effective capacity. Shaping specific collaborative agendas with clear deliverables and keeping the momentum is another part of the capacity development challenge.

Learning from others

Rather than a one-size fits all approach, evidence suggest that countries need to shape their own institutional responses by looking at a set of key parameters, including the effective authority, outreach capacity, political and technical backing and specificity of the agenda that will drive the strengthening of collaborative  capacities. Learning from what others have done is a key input to identifying the appropriate value of the critical parameters that will determine whether an institutional set-up will be effective.

A key issue is that effective organisations and institutions have some sort of shared identity (values, core ethics, beliefs, principles and competences) as well as a shared understanding and meaning about sustainability concepts and approaches. Defining a list of required capacities for sustainable development, as far as we can, is furthermore the easier part of the challenge.

Coming to operational clarity on the “how”, how country stakeholders can develop these capacities, and how they can support each other in doing so, and how partners can support them, is less straightforward, particular in countries with less developed social, institutional and political fabrics that can underpin what is, inevitably, an increasingly complex set of tasks that reaches beyond narrow technocratic quick fixes.

Specific and appropriate capacity development packages based on holistically designed assessments, by country typology are to be developed, that include a focus on key challenges such as

  • feeding relevant scientific and evaluative evidence into policy/planning processes;
  • innovate/imitate across domains;
  • upscale and harness public-private partnerships including these at the sub nationally as such partnerships are of vital importance on the road to sustainable development.

Fortunately, based on the evidence from many years of work and experiences on capacity development, governance, (public, private) partnerships there are a number of “hows” Development Connect builds on to support its clients.

That the lessons learned are not final nor complete only stresses the need for further, joint learning, across countries, regions, sectors and stakeholder groups. Not least thanks to modern technology and the global presence of organisations that can connect and foster collaboration we can learn faster, more, and more broadly than is has ever been possible.