SD strategies are an important step from grand rigid planning schemes to flexible strategy processes, accompanied by a transition from clear-cut sectoral authorities to cross-cutting competencies, from pure hierarchies to an amalgamation of hierarchies and networks, from top-down control to process and policy assessments, and from knowing to learning.

Definition of Sustainable Development Strategies

According to Agenda 21 (Chapter 8.7), a National Strategy for Sustainable Development “should build upon and harmonize the various sectoral economic, social, and environmental policies and plans that are operating in the country”. By specifying the purpose of SD strategies, the next sentence clearly refers to the Brundtland Report’s classic definition of sustainable development (SD): Country-driven NSSDs should “ensure socially responsible economic development while protecting the resource base and the environment for the benefit of future generations” (Agenda 21, paragraph 8.7).

History of Sustainable Development Strategies

SD strategies go back to Agenda 21, an important policy document for sustainable development that was adopted at the Rio world summit in 1992. Agenda 21 was not only the first document that specified the character of SD strategies (see the definition above), but was also the first document that called on all countries to develop such a strategy together with a broad variety of stakeholders.

As Agenda 21 contains no submission date, only a few countries (among them the UK, Finland and Ireland) developed an SD strategy in the 1990s. Instead, several countries either already operated or were working on an environmental policy plans. However, most of these environmental plans did not come up to what the UN had called for, namely “a coordinated, participatory, iterative and cyclical process of thoughts and actions to achieve economic, environmental and social objectives in a balanced and integrated manner” (UNDESA, 2001b, paragraph 3). Thus, in June 1997 the so-called Rio +5 summit agreed that the formulation of SD strategies ought to be completed in all countries by the year 2002 (UNGASS, 1997, paragraph 24).

In June 2001, the Gothenburg European Council reiterated this call by inviting “Member States to draw up their own national sustainable development strategies” (European Council, 2001, 4). Consequently, most EU Member States adopted their SD strategy prior to the Johannesburg World Summit for SD in late 2002. Thus, the Gothenburg European Council proved to be another major driver towards SD strategies in Europe.

In June 2006, the European Council adopted a renewed EU SD Strategy. This decision provided further impetus for the SD strategies across Europe, in particular in the new EU Member States. For an overview of the development of SD strategies in Europe, see Table xy in the ESDN Quarterly Report on “Objectives and Indicators on SD in Europe”.


In order to make sure that SD strategies live up to their ambitions, the UN and the OECD formulated respective guidelines. The guidelines describe SD strategies as ongoing strategic processes, combining aspects of formal planning and incremental learning. According to the Resource Book for SD strategies,

Being strategic is about developing an underlying vision through a consensual, effective and iterative process; and going on to set objectives, identify the means of achieving them, and then monitor that achievement as a guide to the next round of this learning process. […] More important than trying unsuccessfully to do everything at once, is to ensure that incremental steps in policy making and action are moving towards sustainability – rather than away from it, which is too frequently the case.” Thus, SD strategies “move from developing and implementing a fixed plan, which gets increasingly out of date […] towards operating an adaptive system that can continuously improve”.

Overall, the guidelines for SD strategies put a strong emphasis on procedural and institutional aspects of an iterative governance process in which networks ought to play an increasingly important role. By synthesising several guideline documents and research findings on SD strategies, the ESDN Office has identified the following principles and governance challenges that should be addressed by SD policies in general, and by SD strategies in particular:

Governance Challenges of Sustainable Development Strategies
(1) Common vision and strategic objectives
  • An SD strategy should define a common long-term vision for SD;
  • The vision for SD should be operationalised with strategic objectives that are SMART, i.e.:
    • Specific (ideally stating a quantified target);
    • Measurable (with SD indicators, see below);
    • Achievable (neither too easy nor too demanding);
    • Realistic (to be achieved with the given resources and political circumstances);
    • Time-bound (indicating a start date and target year).
(2) High-level commitment
  • An SD strategy should be backed by high-level political commitment (from the entire government, from influential lead institutions).
(3) Horizontal integration
  • The integration of economic, environmental and social issues should be taken into account:
    • In the SD strategy document (e.g. by highlighting links and trade-offs between the three dimensions of SD);
    • In the governance of the SD strategy (e.g. by establishing inter-ministerial bodies that are responsible for implementing the SDS).


(4) Vertical integration
  • An SD strategy should be in line with priorities and implementation activities at other levels of governments (EU, national/federal, regional, local).
(5) Participation
  • Different stakeholder groups should be involved in the development and implementation of an SD strategy (participatory activities can be informational, consultative or decisional, and they can make use of different tools and mechanisms, such as permanent Councils for SD, ad-hoc stakeholder dialogues, informative/consultative internet actions, etc.).
(6) Implementation mechanisms and capacity-building
  • The objectives of an SD strategy should be addressed with
    • Provisions and mechanisms of implementation (budgeting, annual or bi-annual work/action plans) in which political responsibilities are clearly defined;
    • Adequate institutional and/or personal capacities or capacity building activities that are necessary to achieve the objectives.
(7) Monitoring, evaluation and strategy renewal
  • The effectiveness of an SD strategy in achieving its objectives should be
    • Monitored continuously with a set of SD indicators (mostly quantitatively); and
    • Reviewed/evaluated in regular intervals (mostly qualitatively).
  • Monitoring and reviewing results/reports should be considered in the continuous adjustment and the cyclical renewal of an SD strategy so that evidence-based policy learning takes place.