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Drawing the links between foreign policy and the SDGs

On 25 September 2015, Heads of State and Government from the 193 Member States of the UN gathered to adopt the 17 SDGs.

Achieving the 2030 Agenda is essential to peace and stability worldwide, and is becoming an important point of reference for foreign policy. As European Sustainable Development Week launches across Europe, European embassies in Berlin are engaging with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and raising awareness about the entire sustainable development agenda among foreign policy communities.

Today, European Sustainable Development Week gets underway across Europe. Aiming to promote action on the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the week’s various activities highlight sustainability as an issue that concerns everyone, from citizens to local policymakers to business. The ambitious, universal and transformative targets are relevant to all of humankind and, as such, can only be met by working together.

Foreign policy is an important player too, not only for implementing SDG 16 (peace, justice and strong institutions) but also for making progress across the entire multi-coloured spectrum of goals. For instance, if water is not sufficiently available to meet basic human needs and underpin socio-economic development (SDG 6), that impedes development and fuels displacement and conflict risks, posing significant risks for stability and prosperity. In turn, foreign policy can transform water conflicts through active water diplomacy. Transboundary cooperation initiated by diplomats is often essential for regional stability, and a precondition for sustainably and equitably managing the water-energy-food nexus.

Deforestation and unsustainable land management (addressed under SDG 15) undermine millions of livelihoods, and contribute to resource-related disputes and social grievances. Over the last 60 years, 40 to 60 % of internal armed conflicts in Africa have been linked to natural resources and these pressures are compounded by inefficient land tenure systems. When pursuing peace – i.e. building up institutions, capacities and norms in conflict-affected or post-conflict countries – foreign policy can factor in these land issues by promoting land reforms and participatory management, investing in land restoration, and facilitating cooperation across borders and ministries. Furthermore, foreign policy communities can adapt their general security strategies and migration policies, and thus establish measures to prevent the emergence of tensions in the first place.

Some countries have started incorporating the SDGs into their foreign policy strategies, either as part of their peacebuilding activities or within conflict prevention. For example, Switzerland has adopted this approach, given its aims to prevent the long-term causes of violent conflict through both bilateral and multilateral international cooperation.

The SDGs’ strong links with external action priorities, such as conflict prevention, have been recognized in the Sustaining Peace Agenda. Research has provided insights on natural resources, climate change and fragility, as well as on environmental peacebuilding, and established a solid foundation to understand these links. Of course, foreign policy initiatives in those areas were advancing well before the advent of the SDGs. Yet, to date, the discourse on the positive and negative impacts of the SDGs on peace and stability has been dispersed. We are still only at the beginning of understanding the foreign policy implications of the Agenda 2030.

During the European Sustainable Development Week, ten European embassies based in Berlin will engage with the SDGs. At the initiative of the German Federal Foreign Office, the embassies are organising events on single goals relevant to their country under the slogan “Diplomacy for Sustainability”. For instance, the Embassy of Hungary is convening a meeting on water and biodiversity, with representatives of foreign and development ministries to discuss sustainable development in the water sector, water management and the challenges of biodiversity in natural waters (SDG 15). Other embassies are looking at other goals, including SDG 14 (marine life), SDG 11 (sustainable urban development) and SDG 7 (clean and affordable energy).

The activities this week in Berlin are a welcome step towards assembling foreign policy makers behind the SDGs, increasing knowledge, exchanging on threats and solutions, and engaging new players in the debates surrounding the Agenda 2030.