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From Millennium to Sustainable Development Goals: Evolving discourses and their reflection in policy coherence for development.

de Jong, E., & Vijge, M.J.


Foundational text

The discourse of sustainable development is highly influential in global and national governance frameworks, though its meaning and operationalisation are context-dependent and have evolved over time. The transition from the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) reflects the most recent evolution in this discourse. We analyse key differences in storylines between the MDGs and SDGs and develop an analytical framework to study these, focusing on the objectives of sustainable development, the means to reach those objectives, and the relations between developing and developed countries. We use this framework in quantitative and qualitative discourse analyses of the policy coherence for development (PCD) approach of the Netherlands. This shows that global discourses are closely reflected in national-level policy frameworks. During the MDG era, the key objective of sustainable development was poverty reduction to be reached through economic growth and participation in the global trade system. The SDGs aim for a broader set of objectives across the full spectrum of the economic, social and environmental dimensions. This is reflected in the Dutch PCD approach, first through a conceptualisation of environmental and social safeguards for trade and economic growth, and later with social and environmental sustainability as equally important objectives alongside poverty reduction. While the MDGs mainly focus on national averages and the poorest, the SDGs target the most marginalised and vulnerable groups with a focus on disaggregate data. In this respect, the Netherlands was ahead of its time; already in the early 2000s it acknowledged that “there is no question of “the” developing countries”. Related to this, the Dutch PCD approach also reflects the changed conceptualisation of the relations between developing and developed countries. This changed from aid to developing countries as reflected in the MDGs, toward partnerships with them, initially for the purpose of stimulating economic growth and trade, later also aimed at environmental sustainability. The article ends with a reflection on how our research findings contribute to debates around (the effectiveness of) governance through global goals, as well as to understanding the political nature of policy coherence for (sustainable) development.

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