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Synergies in SDGs: How holistic monitoring can support global goals

I recently attended a workshop at the Vitol Foundation presenting initial results of a multi-disciplinary research team from UCL mapping synergies and trade-off between SDG 6 and the other SDGs.


The UN sustainable development goals (SDGs) promote human rights, equality and empowerment – especially for women and girls – peace and prosperity.

There are 17 goals (and 169 targets) harmonised across economic, social and environmental dimensions of sustainable development. They range from ending hunger and malnutrition to providing universal access to energy and conversing the environment.

The impacts of the interventions and investments of the programmes I support as a monitoring and evaluation specialist typically relate to SDG 6 – Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all (WASH). Explicit outcomes evaluated are typically presented as separate and disparate from the other 16 goals.

Explicit interlinkages

I recently attended a workshop at the Vitol Foundation presenting initial results of a multi-disciplinary research team from UCL mapping synergies and trade-off between SDG 6 and the other SDGs. The research highlighted how the SDG 6 call to action and associated targets is linked to every single SDG by multiple synergistic impacts and interlinkages of targets. The research spelt out the explicit interlinkages, showing these goals as not separate and dispersed, but united through both positive synergies and negative trade-offs.

Integrated approaches

Sophie Tremolet from The Nature Conservancy illustrated this through their work in fully integrated approaches to water resource protection (SDG 6) at the basin scale. The conservation activities, like protecting forests and restoring land quality, funded by community tax levys, improves water quality and reduces water treatment costs downstream. By stacking the benefits, the financial case for the protection and restoration of ecosystems is increased. Sandile Mbethi from eThekwini, South Africa, described government provision of sanitation to 90,000 households with dry toilets (waterless). The eThekwini area has been underserved since apartheid and so, this intervention, contributed to a much broader socioeconomic goal. As he noted, limited monitoring and evaluation beyond a WASH perspective prevented measurement of human development impacts.

Weaving the story

Accountability of the different SDGs is ambiguous. The breadth of the goals and targets means that everyone has their part to play and no single person can be accountable for eradicating poverty (SDG 1). From a WASH perspective, the Joint Monitoring Program manages data specifically for SDG 6. tracking such data at country, regional, or global level is daunting and complex, yes, but it is possible. But how would one start to quantify the results against targets of SDG 6 to reducing poverty? To fully engage with the ambition of the SDGs, to realise the inclusivity and breadth they aimed to deliver, I believe that we must aspire to weave together a story that the data is to trying to tell us.

Streamlining monitoring

At the workshop there seemed to be strong support for organisations exploring these synergies in their own frameworks. Not only that, such an exploration would also open the conversation around more damaging trade-offs – essential for any attempt to make monitoring more holistic.
The SDG tracker developed by the Our World in Data attempts to disrupt the organisational and disciplinary silos. This kind of tool seems to be a great starting point for recognising the synergies at an organisational level and for breaking free from disciplinary silos to consider more holistic impacts and engage with the global goals.

Reaching goals together

To exploit these synergies and pursue such an ambitious agenda one would have to contend with poor quality data; coordinate monitoring and collection of data from different data ‘sectors’; and react to negative trade-offs. There is clearly a proposal for streamlining monitoring against targets and SDGs with the strongest synergies. In this way we can stack the benefits and work together to reach the goals together.