Beyond Aid: the Integration of Sustainable Development in a Coherent International Agenda


Article at a glance:

  • Successful implementation of the post-2015 development agenda will depend on the ability of the many diverse actors and stakeholders to adapt their behavior in support of local leadership, capabilities, and responsibility.
  • The Busan Partnership Declaration outlines an emerging consensus, premised on principles of local ownership, a focus on results, inclusive partnerships, and mutual transparency and accountability.
  • More than all other non-state actors, the private sector will drive the pursuit of inclusive and sustainable economic growth and job creation and the transition to sustainable patterns of production and consumption.

On September 25, 2015, world leaders adopted a new post-2015 international development agenda, Transforming Our World: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. This new agenda calls for a universal, integrated effort to preserve our planet and improve the lives of its inhabitants. Its centerpiece is a set of sustainable development goals (SDGs) that envision a world in which poverty and hunger are ended, the global environment is protected, and people benefit from sustainable economic progress and peaceful, just, and inclusive societies.

The Global Goals and Global Partnership

The 17 SDGs are far more expansive and ambitious than the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). They build on the history of the MDGs and also on the conclusions of the 2012 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) to convey a sophisticated vision of ending poverty, achieving peaceful, just and inclusive societies, and assuring economic, environmental, and social sustainability.

The SDGs call for strengthening the means of implementation and revitalizing the global partnership for sustainable development. The global partnership will operate in a wide variety of local contexts and involve a highly diverse array of stakeholders. It will operate through multiple channels at international, regional, national, and community levels.

Governance of this global partnership will require qualities of openness, transparency, and inclusion. The governance structure should be capable of evolving in an iterative fashion while adapting to changed circumstances. The optimum outcome might be a collection of horizontal and vertical networks with broad stakeholder participation, bound together by a shared vision of the new agenda and a shared commitment to the principles of collaborative governance of complex systems.

The Sustainable Development Goals and the Millennium Development Goals

Sustainable Development Goals Millennium Development Goals
1. End poverty in all its forms everywhere 1. Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger
2. End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture 2. Achieve universal primary education
3. Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all ages 3. Promote gender equality and empower women
4. Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all 4. Reduce child mortality
5. Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls 5. Improve maternal health
6. Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all 6. Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases
7. Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all 7. Ensure environmental sustainability
8. Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all 8. Develop a global partnership for development
9. Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovation
10. Reduce inequality within and among countries
11. Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable
12. Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns
13. Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts
14. Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development
15. Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss
16. Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels
17. Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development

The Transition beyond Aid to Effective Development Cooperation

More than anything, successful implementation of the post-2015 development agenda will depend on the ability of the many diverse actors and stakeholders to adapt their behavior. We know that development is a complex, iterative process. Important research findings emphasize the influence of history and culture, inclusive and effective institutions, political contests and political settlements, local leadership, international support that is sensitive to the local political, economic, and social context, and continuous experimentation and learning.

The Busan Partnership Declaration outlines an emerging consensus, premised on principles of local ownership, a focus on results, inclusive partnerships, and mutual transparency and accountability. Busan calls for a change of focus from effective aid to effective development within a framework of sustainable growth, a greater role for governments’ own revenues, increased government accountability, effective institutions, and regional and global integration.

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development demands a new paradigm to adapt the practice of development cooperation to the recognized complexities of the development process and to integrate divergent interests and policies in a coherent manner. Concerns have been expressed about the gap between knowledge and practice in this regard. However, there are encouraging signs of change and of determination to “do development differently.”

One disturbing aspect of this overall positive trend, though, is the persistent tendency to view development through the lens of aid relationships. The new agenda will need to promote inclusive, result-oriented partnerships that support local leadership, capabilities, and responsibility. It will become increasingly important to look beyond aid and to integrate all kinds of international cooperation that can affect development results.

Multiple Actors and Approaches

Together, an expanding array of governments, multilateral development organizations, and non-state actors are bringing an extraordinary variety of perspectives to their shared interest in sustainable development. A principal challenge for the global partnership will be to make strength of diversity and achieve optimum convergence of these different views and efforts in furtherance of sustainable results.

The role of countries that once engaged in development cooperation primarily as aid recipients has evolved. There is a significant increase in “south-south” and triangular relationships and the “rising powers” such as Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa (the BRICS) are bringing their own perspectives and experiences to development cooperation. An increasing number of private individuals, civil society organizations, and foundations are also active in development policy and operations. They control impressive volumes of resources and their advocacy is exerting notable influence in development policy deliberations.

More than all other non-state actors, the private sector will drive the pursuit of inclusive and sustainable economic growth and job creation and the transition to sustainable patterns of production and consumption. To the extent that private investment creates jobs and helps to lift people out of poverty and into the formal economy, there can be a virtuous circle of growing markets, increased investment, and expanded well-being.

Development Financing Trends and Innovations

The most remarkable feature of development financing is its diversified growth in recent years. Even as resources have increased, the new agenda is making demands for more – and for better use of – financing from all potential sources. The once dominant role of official development assistance (ODA) has been largely overtaken by other kinds of international and domestic resources. Of course, this global trend should not be allowed to mask differences among country needs. For many poor countries ODA and other official flows continue to have an essential role.

Financial flows to developing countries have been estimated in several reports. The Investments to End Poverty 2015 report by Development Initiatives is noteworthy for its clear exposition of the relative contributions of ODA ($163 billion) and other international official flows ($181 billion), international commercial and private flows ($1.88 trillion), public domestic spending ($5.3 trillion) and commercial domestic spending ($2.2 trillion) in 2013.

This analysis brings to the forefront a central question: If financing for development is made up of international transfers exceeding $2 trillion (largely from private investment, commercial loans, and remittances) together with domestic public spending of more than $5 trillion (some part of which is attributable to international transfers) and trillions more in commercial domestic spending, why is so much attention still focused on the approximately $160 billion in ODA?

The July 2015 Addis Ababa Conference on Financing for Development undertook “to establish a holistic and forward-looking framework and to commit to concrete actions to deliver on the promise of [the post-2015] agenda.” Its Action Agenda undertook to identify critical gaps, propose actions on a variety of development financing issues, and call for improvements in data, monitoring, and follow-up to strengthen mutual accountability for development results.

The Addis Ababa Action Agenda expressed a sound vision of the global framework for sustainable development. It emphasized:

  • cohesive nationally-owned sustainable development strategies, supported by integrated national financing frameworks;
  • multi-stakeholder partnerships;
  • the resources, knowledge and ingenuity of the private sector, civil society, the scientific community, academia, philanthropy and foundations, parliaments, local authorities, volunteers and other stakeholders; and
  • national development efforts supported by an enabling international economic environment.

The Addis Ababa Conference achieved six important objectives:

  • It heightened awareness of the enormous magnitude of the global costs that will have to be incurred to realize the bold aspirations of the SDGs.
  • It identified the diverse challenges faced by different countries and population groups and the need for a variety of financing sources and mechanisms, including the important role of international public finance “especially in the poorest and most vulnerable countries with limited domestic resources.”
  • It prompted commitments by participants to contribute financial and other support for sustainable development.
  • It reinforced the importance of policies, capabilities, and coordination that will attract and make the best use of all available resources.
  • It gave new impetus to the priority of increasing domestic resources to meet the costs of achieving the SDGs and it opened the way to a new, higher level of international cooperation to strengthen tax systems and related capabilities.
  • It achieved agreement on new mechanisms to facilitate implementation of the post-2015 development agenda.

Knowledge Accumulation, Sharing, and Coordination

The call for a “data revolution” in 2013 by the High Level Panel on the Post-2015 Development Agenda has received an enthusiastic response. A review of the literature confirms the judgment of the High Level Panel that the lack of good data and the limited availability of the skill and motivation to make good use of it are major impediments to achieving the SDGs

Shortcomings in data timeliness and quality have been documented in a number of reports. The Addis Ababa Action Agenda placed emphasis on the central role of national statistical systems and asserted that high quality disaggregated data is an essential input for smart and transparent decision making. It will be important for the international community to support national efforts to strengthen the capabilities of local institutions in this regard.

A number of factors combine to make evident the urgent need for a coherent plan for the data revolution. Relevant considerations include the importance of data for successful implementation of the 2030 Agenda, the many substantial differences among the actors in their estimates, the acknowledged gaps in knowledge about the facts underlying many development issues, and the complexity and difficulty of reform and institution strengthening.

One additional aspect of knowledge sharing is the need for public awareness of and broad popular support for the sustainable development goals and the post-2015 development agenda to give them lasting prominence in the broad international scene. There is a need for a comprehensive and continuing effort to promote broad international understanding and support and to persuade political, civic, economic, and religious leaders at all levels of our societies to be advocates for the SDGs.

Conflict, Fragility, and Other Factors

Achieving the SDGs will be possible only with dramatic change in fragile and conflict-affected states. By any measure, these countries have been left behind. The weak performance of fragile and conflict-affected states extends beyond the issue of extreme poverty. These countries tend to demonstrate the least progress under all the MDGs. A major issue is the persistence of fragility. Fifteen of the 26 countries identified as fragile on the World Bank’s original 2005 list and 23 of the 50 on the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) original 2007 list have continued to remain on the annual lists compiled by those organizations.

Overcoming fragility should be a principal focus of efforts under SDG 16 to “promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels.” The complex issues of peacebuilding and statebuilding will require the engagement of political and military actors and the broad inclusion of the private sector and civil society in often inhospitable environments.

The range of factors that will influence the implementation of the post-2015 development agenda is enormous. Development strategies may play only a limited role in determining how some of these issues will evolve. Nevertheless, awareness of these influences will be a necessary aspect of implementing the post-2015 development agenda. Examples include climate change, demographic trends, and global economic conditions.

The existence of many potentially disruptive factors outside the immediate ambit of the sustainable development agenda confirms the importance of building resilience into implementing strategies and actions. In addition, a strong effort should be made to assure that sustainable development implications are fully considered in policy deliberations and decisions on global issues. This implies a commitment by national and international leaders to provide opportunities for development actors to have a voice and to foster policy coherence as a necessary and desirable contribution to good governance.

Policy Coherence for Sustainable Development

The international community has broadly endorsed policy coherence as an important aspect of effective development cooperation. SDG 17 includes as an explicit target to “enhance policy coherence for sustainable development.” This target of policy coherence for sustainable development (PCSD) has become an important issue for implementing the 2030 Agenda.

There is a need for concerted action to establish effective systems for aligning existing mechanisms with the post-2015 agenda and fostering coherence in implementing the SDGs in a global context where there are many competing priorities and demands. There is a present opportunity for national leaders and the leaders of international coordinating bodies to reach decisions on how to make policy coherence an operating principle in the global effort to achieve the ambitious SDGs.

Concluding Observations

This paper’s review of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development suggests a number of priorities for its implementation:

  • Adoption of the 2030 Agenda provides a unique opportunity to extend the global consensus beyond identification of goals to broad appreciation of their importance on the global policy agenda and agreement on the means for achieving them.
  • A threshold challenge will be to broaden and deepen awareness of and support for the global goals among a broad cross section of political leaders, civil society, and business communities throughout the world.
  • Demonstrated solidarity in mobilizing support for the SDGs can help to establish momentum for the broader work of revitalizing the global partnership for sustainable development and shaping the architecture of a complex system with a common purpose to guide implementation of the new agenda through coordinated networks that facilitate monitoring, communication, and learning and promote trust and confidence.
  • Successful implementation of the new agenda will require that international cooperation proceed in new ways that transcend the traditional aid-centered paradigm, with increased emphasis on local priorities, capable local systems, and context-appropriate approaches.
  • Financing for development must overcome the tendency to regard official development assistance as if it were the principal instrument of development cooperation. It is necessary to include all available sources and types of financing, expand domestic resource mobilization, and guard against diversion, while conserving resources and increasing efficiency and effectiveness.
  • A comprehensive approach to development finance needs to give appropriate emphasis to the essential role of development assistance as a tool for increasing domestic resources and commercial international flows and for helping the poorest countries which lack access to other financing to overcome the major obstacles they face to ending poverty and achieving sustainable development.
  • The sustainable development agenda needs to be cognizant of many factors which will have an impact on progress toward achieving the SDGs, including those extraneous to usual development strategies such as global population trends, technological change, international markets, and risks of pandemics, natural disasters, and conflict.
  • The SDG target to “enhance policy coherence for sustainable development” implies giving due weight to sustainable development objectives in the formulation, implementation, and monitoring of all relevant policies – not just development policies. This is essential for managing policy conflicts and fostering synergies between sustainable development and other policies.

Vigorous, determined and creative implementation of the sustainable development agenda in a spirit of solidarity, cooperation, and mutual accountability merits all our best efforts.

This article is based on a research paper James Michel prepared for the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). The full paper can be accessed on the CSIS website at

James Michel is an independent consultant in international development cooperation, and a Senior Adviser to CSIS. He previously served in a number of senior positions during a long career of public service with the United States Government and with the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Michel’s government assignments included service in the Department of State and USAID, as US Ambassador to Guatemala, and as Chair of the OECD Development Assistance Committee. After leaving government service in 2000, he was senior counsel to Tetra Tech DPK, an international consulting firm. He returned to USAID in 2009 and 2010 to assist in the Agency’s management during its transition to new leadership, serving for a second time as Counselor to the Agency. In that role he supported USAID’s participation in deliberations on the President’s global development policy, the Secretary of State’s Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review, and the USAID reform program. Since his most recent government service he has worked as an independent consultant.

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