The ongoing Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) process aims to set an agenda for the 2015 and beyond. The SDGs’ predecessors, the Millennium Development Goals, have been criticized for being too sector-focused and failing to recognize the interactions with potential conflicts between targets. Many SDG proposals to date have followed a similar pattern, which is problematic as they do not encourage robust and sustainable solutions to interlinked development challenges. A ’nexus’ approach can help deepen integration of goals and targets across sectors as it clarifies how they interact.

The nexus approach is guided by three core principles: to ensure access to resources for the most vulnerable, promote efficiency in resource use, and to ensure sustainability. This aligns well with the vision for the SDGs set out in the Rio+20 outcome document, The Future We Want, and the Outcome Document of the UN General Assembly’s Open Working Group, which proposes goals and targets that address access, efficiency and sustainability.

SEI’s Nina Weitz spoke on ‘A nexus perspective on the SDGs’ at the UN Water Stakeholder Dialogue, an event that took place at World Water Week in Stockholm on Wednesday 3 September. 

 Q: How could a water-food-energy nexus approach benefit the process of defining SDGs?

A: The nexus approach offers a way to systematically spot how goals and targets interact, so it can help us to avoid conflicts and overlaps between them, which could in turn lead to unsustainable and inefficient use of basic resources. The SDGs can only lead to sustainability if they reflect the fact that many areas of development, along with essential ecosystem services, rely on the same finite resources. We need to understand the pressures on a resource that result from different targets in order to see what is sustainable. The SDG framework proposed by the UN Open Working Group (OWG) in July does a poor job of communicating systems thinking and how action on one target could impact the achievement of others.

A nexus approach can also support the SDG negotiations. If countries carry out nexus assessments at national level they can get a better sense of their own limitations and priorities, which they can then bring to the intergovernmental process.

 Q: Is there a risk that an integrated nexus approach could further complicate the already challenging process of developing sustainable development goals?

A: It’s true that the set of 169 targets and 17 goals proposed by the OWG is already overwhelming, and trying to map out interlinkages between them may seem to add yet another unwelcome layer of complexity. However, it’s important to note that the complexity is already there; a nexus analysis helps to describe it, and that’s a first step towards addressing it. Using a nexus approach we can spot and eliminate redundancies and contradictions, and arrive at a more concise and workable framework, as well as more robust implementation. I’d say that not handling the interlinkages is a riskier strategy and likely to create more complex challenges down the line.

Q: The UN General Assembly set up the OWG so that country delegations could draft a proposed set of SDGs for wider intergovernmental negotiations. That process wrapped up in July. What is your comment on the outcome?

A: The OWG’s proposals are ambitious and certainly comprehensive, but there’s a lot of work left to do to make them actionable and sustainable.

Q: With a year to go before the target date for adoption of the goals, are you optimistic that the necessary improvements will be made to enable action on the nexus challenges?

A: The importance of addressing interlinkages is well known, and was highlighted in the Rio+20 outcome document. It was also discussed in the OWG but I think in the end they struggled to come up with a framework that broke out of traditional sectoral silos, and have now proposed a framework that includes a mix of sectoral and “systems” goals. The proposed goal and targets on sustainable consumption and production is an example of a “system” goal, addressing a development challenge rather than a sector. In the end, though, most important is that implementation respects interlinkages and recognize that action on one target may have externalities in other areas; implementation mechanisms may actually communicate this better than the list of goals itself.

Q: The ambition of the Sustainable Development Goals is to engage all countries – both rich and poor – in the quest for a sustainable future. What different implications could a universal SDG have for poorer and richer countries?

A: In line with the idea of making the goals universal but differentiate action, the nexus plays out differently in different countries. For example, in the area of food, a low-income country would prioritise ensuring access to food, while an affluent country might prioritise making food production systems sustainable and reducing food waste and losses. Both would work to improve agricultural productivity. The key point is that country circumstances will define which actions can better contribute to the achievement of all SDGs – coordination and collaboration will therefore be essential.

You can also see Nina talking about the nexus and the SDG process next week in the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) event ’Tackling trade-offs in the food-water-energy nexus: lessons for the SDGs’.To register for the event or watch the live stream, visit the event page

ODI is a partner with SEI in the Independent Research Forum (IRF2015), which provides independent critical thinking, integrated analysis and awareness-raising on the SDGs and the post-2015 development agenda.

Read the SEI Discussion Brief ‘Cross-sectoral integration in the Sustainable Development Goals: a nexus approach’»

Learn more about SEI’s work on the SDGs»