Integration: will the UN Forum on Forests lead the way?

Ahead of the UN Forum on Forests meeting in New York, IIED's Jonathan Reeves argues that achieving the Sustainable Development Goals – particularly for forests – depends upon integration and compromise, and asks whether the political will exists to lay aside egos and break down institutional barriers.

Jonathan Reeves's picture
Insight by 
Jonathan Reeves
01 May 2015
Deforestation in Bhutan: forests are a prime example of how an integrated approach to policymaking can prevent benefits in one area undermining wellbeing elsewhere (Photo: Curt Carnemark/World Bank, Creative Commons via Flickr)

Deforestation in Bhutan: forests are a prime example of how an integrated approach to policymaking can prevent benefits in one area undermining wellbeing elsewhere (Photo: Curt Carnemark/World Bank, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Integration is critical to the success of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). This has been widely recognised, yet the framework of goals and targets currently on the table does little to promote integrated implementation. Instead "integration" has become little more than a buzzword, the meaning of which has become hazy at best.

Integration – achieving balance across the three dimensions of sustainable development and systematically addressing 'interlinkages' across sectors, policy areas, place and time – can help to identify those infamous win-win-win scenarios. It can also help identify where trade-offs are required. 

Without an integrated approach to policymaking, the pursuit of one policy objective can undermine the ability to achieve others, and short-term economic gains in one place can undermine the wellbeing of people elsewhere and of future generations. So much of sustainable development is about finding a workable compromise between different interests (PDF).

One key aspect of an integrated approach to policymaking is ensuring coherence across the different governance frameworks. This is particularly true when it comes to the SDGs on forests, where the goals and targets on forests overlap with the global aims and ambitions set out in REDD+ and the Global Objectives on Forests (GOF).

As forestry policy experts gather in New York for the 11th session of the United Nations Forum on Forests (UNFF), there is an opportunity to take a big step towards such an integrated approach. A new IIED briefing looks at how this integrated approach could be achieved by taking a modular approach to SDG implementation, designing innovative indicators, and agreeing common indicators across different governance frameworks, with a focus on forests.

The modular approach to SDG implementation: a practical tool for integration

The modular approach to SDG implementation developed by IIED and its partners involves bringing stakeholders together (at global, regional, national or sub-national levels) to build 'SDG modules' for the policy areas of each ministry, agency or equivalent institution. They can also be built for any other major policy areas subject to dedicated governance frameworks. 

They are made by identifying the targets from across the SDGs that encompass the outcomes that stakeholders consider most important for the given policy area to contribute to and the enabling conditions (rights, incentives, capacities and so on) that they consider necessary to achieve these outcomes.

The idea is that the linear structure of the columns of targets under the 17 SDGs is twisted into an integrated structure of overlapping modules that better reflects the interconnected complexity of the real world, and allows these institutions and their stakeholders to clearly see where they need to cooperate and with whom in implementation of the SDGs.

This could be a powerful tool to break down institutional and sectoral barriers at all levels. Without adoption of such a tool, my worry is that UN agencies and ministries will be allocated an SDG, or a set of SDG targets within one SDG (like those mentioning forests under SDG-15), and told to go away and implement them. And they will set about this, pretty much, without talking to anyone else.

Harmonising international goals, targets and indicators for forests

Constructing an SDG forest module involves selecting targets from across the 17 SDGs that cover areas that link to forests – either where forests can contribute to sustainable development outcomes (for example through climate change mitigation, adaptation and resilience, income and employment, biodiversity protection) or where the targets relate to the critical enabling conditions needed to allow these outcomes to be achieved (for example good governance, fair markets, social justice, inclusive and integrated land-use planning). 

A global SDG forest module could be used to frame definition of REDD+ enabling conditions, safeguards and multiple benefits. It could also be used by the UNFF as a revised set of Global Objectives on Forests. It should also be consistent with Aichi Biodiversity Targets and commitments made, including by the private sector, in the New York Declaration on Forests.

Such modules must also be adapted to regional, national and sub-national contexts – working with people at the local level to recognise their priorities. We asked three experts to illustrate SDG forest modules for Africa, Asia, and Latin America and the Caribbean – the similarities and differences in the themes emerging from these analyses made for fascinating discussion at an international workshop on 'Enabling forests to score sustainable development goals' we co-organised in Lima last November.

To harmonise processes further and increase the amount of comparable evidence of what works and what doesn't in practice, the SDG modules should then have a common set of indicators used by all governance frameworks, funds and initiatives.

While such coherence perhaps sounds idealistic, the potential has already been recognised by some policymakers. Heru Prasetyo, the then head of Indonesia's national REDD+ agency speaking at the Global Landscapes Forum in Lima last December, for example, explained that when it came to managing Indonesia's forests, the SDGs and REDD+ were the same thing and that Indonesia was exploring a common set of indicators at the state level.

With more of this kind of 'pull' from the ground and a 'push' from UNFF and the SDG indicators process in New York, integration – for so long an apparent mirage on the road to sustainable development – could become a reality.

Importantly, defining an SDG forest module encompassing enabling conditions, safeguards and outcomes (or 'multiple benefits'), and using it to guide implementation not only of the SDGs but also REDD+, provides a mechanism for ensuring that REDD+ does not incentivise carbon savings (measured in a particular way) at the expense of other agreed sustainable development priorities.

Applying the modular approach in other policy areas

There are also other imminent opportunities to adopt a modular approach and common indicators to reap rewards for sustainable development.

The United Nations' Zero Hunger Challenge and Sustainable Energy for All initiatives, for example, could show leadership by first adapting their targets to fit those of the SDGs and second defining (overlapping) SDG modules for food and energy from targets across the SDGs in recognition of the fact that sustainable food and energy security cannot be achieved from within the narrow spaces of these respective policy silos.

Frameworks and initiatives in these cross-cutting policy areas would then need to be aligned, using common indicators. 

Seizing these opportunities will require setting aside egos and breaking down institutional barriers. Governance bodies will need to be prepared to relinquish complete control over their areas of expertise and work together. 

It means picking up these complex, politically sensitive processes by the scruff of their necks and lining them up, side-by-side, so that they function in an effective way for the people and the planet they are intended to serve.

There will of course be technical issues to be resolved, but it's primarily a question of political vision and will: it's time for the leaders of these processes to walk the integration talk.

Jonathan Reeves ( is a senior researcher with IIED.