Strengthening Capacities for Sustainable Development and Its Implementation: An analysis of actors' roles, implementation challenges & gaps, and capacity needs

Working Paper

Forty years have passed since the first real conference on the environment and humans took place and it has now been twenty years since the concept of sustainable development (SD) entered the lexicon of the international development and policy arenas. During that period, several significant international agreements have laid out grand projects and narratives for the global realisation of sustainable development, but progress on these agreements has been rather inconsistent at best. Reviews of progress on these international SD agreements now refer to the “persistent implementation gaps” in SD. Some of the reasons for these gaps are in part related to the actual levels of political will around sustainable development, but when we see that 178 countries originally adopted Agenda 21 and over 100 countries have prepared National Sustainable Development Strategies one would expect that lack of political will is not the main factor of influence. Another issue of key importance that must be considered is the lack of skills, capacities, and know how to actualise sustainable development through policy, planning and practice.

It is this lack of skills, capacities and know how and furthermore how to effectively address this which is at the heart of this discussion paper and IGES’s goal of strengthening its role as a capacity developer. During FY2013, the PMO capacity development team undertook an extensive literature review to help contextualise our work in the field of SD capacity development and aid in the framing of an effective capacity development strategy for IGES. This discussion paper reviews several aspects related to SD capacity development to help identify the approach IGES should adopt for work in this and to position the types of value-added contribtuions we could provide.

Section One of this paper reviews several of the important international SD processes as well as their application and implementation at regional, national and local levels. This section also addresses some of the “persistent implementation gaps” in SD. Section Two examines several of the key actors in sustainable development across various levels from international to local actors, the roles they play and their capacity needs. Section Three moves from the focus on SD processes and actors to begin to consider the strategies and approaches for strengthening capacities for these actors and effective SD processes. This section reviews the recent historical emergence of the concept of capacity development and then examines how several key international actors approach and frame their work to support capacity development. In this section, a supplemental piece is also provided on two important methods for capacity development planning and programme design, i.e. stakeholder analysis and capacity needs assessment. Finally, in Section Four, the findings of the previous sections are reflected on to consider what lessons IGES can glean from this review.

Successful implementation of SD will require well designed and formulated CD strategies and approaches. Some of the potential gaps existing in the SD Implementation system that IGES programme design and development should take into consideration include: ensuring effective leadership on SD, holistically addressing the dimensions of SD (i.e. horizontal integration), streamlining SD through policy-planning-practice cycles (i.e. vertical integration), practical approaches for SD governance and decision-making, tools for SD planning, and ensuring wider stakeholder support and participation in SD processes. In relation to framing IGES own capacity development strategy, what we find is that due to the need for capacity development programmes to be highly context-relevant and context-specific, it is difficult to narrowly define a single capacity development approach an institution can apply in all situations. It is better for an institution to focus on clarifying what roles and functions it can clearly serve as a capacity development provider, rather then specifying a single track in how it will approach this work. The aim of such CD work should be to strengthen an individual’s or organisation’s ownership and leadership in effectively managing their SD roles and responsibilities.