The Millennium Development Goals laid out an ambitious agenda to improve living standards in poor countries. Now, with the Sustainable Development Goals, world leaders are aiming to set a broader agenda for 2015 and beyond: a set of universal goals that engages countries at all income levels to ensure the long-term well-being of humankind. Put another way, while the MDGs aimed to lift people out of poverty, the SDGs aim to also keep them out of poverty by ensuring that development is both socially and environmentally sustainable.

Long-term sustainability requires acknowledging that many of the resources that support development – water, land, materials – are finite and are also needed to support vital ecosystem services. Development can only be sustainable if it works within those constraints, over time and across sectors and locations. This is where the MDGs fell short: they identified sectoral goals – and targets under them – with little consideration of how efforts to attain a goal in one sector would affect (or be affected by) efforts in another sector, or whether the total demand for key resources could be met by existing supplies without degrading the resource base and underlying ecosystems.

Many SDG proposals to date have followed a similar pattern. Yet a different approach is gaining support as well – one that aims to integrate goals across sectors to make the SDGs more cost-effective and efficient, reduce the risk that SDG actions will undermine one another, and ensure sustainable resource use. A proposed “Integrating Approach” by the Government of Colombia has helped catalyse the discussion, and the UN Open Working Group on SDGs is actively exploring integration challenges.

This brief aims to support SDGs integration by showing how the water-energy-food nexus can provide a framework for systematically assessing cross-sectoral interactions. It shows how to identify interactions among goals, and examine different types of interactions: for example, how the achievement of targets under one goal might affect targets under another goal, or how individual targets might serve multiple goals. It also proposes “nexus targets” – targets that cut across sectors – as helpful entry points for developing an integrated framework beyond water, energy and food objectives.

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Read more about SEI’s work on the SDGs.

IRF-logo-smSEI is a member of the IRF2015 – a collaboration of 11 international research institutions providing critical thinking, integrated analysis and awareness-raising for a post-2015 development agenda. This publication contributes thinking to this debate. Further work can be found on and all 11 partner websites.