PhD defence: Integrating global sustainability governance: How the Sustainable Development Goals impact institutional and policy integration at the global level


Can goals change the world? In September 2015, the United Nations (UN) unanimously adopted the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to "transform our world" by 2030. With these highly ambitious goals, world leaders pledged to "end hunger", "achieve gender equality", "protect life on land", and much more. Importantly, the SDGs emphasise the need for more collaboration, the breakdown of 'silos' in global governance, and to achieve the SDGs in a balanced and integrated manner. This call for both institutional and policy integration in global governance is long-standing, but remains highly challenging. The SDGs - as the most central and ambitious global agenda so far - have given a renewed impetus to this call. Yet, empirically, we know very little about the effects of global goals. Can non-binding, highly ambitious goals really steer global governance?

In this thesis, Bogers investigates the steering effects of the SDGs on international organisations. Specifically, she assesses whether - since the advent of the SDGs - institutional integration among and policy integration within international organisations has increased. Bogers' methods are both quantitative and qualitative. She relies primarily on a large dataset of scraped websites of 276 international organisations, and assesses the contents of and hyperlinks between websites. To complement this data, she also conducts a discourse analysis and analysis on Twitter data.

Her findings can be summarised in four key points. 

First, while many international organisations use the SDGs on their websites, the SDGs are not yet a fully global framework. Many international organisations use the SDGs on their websites, and this increases over time. However, the SDGs are mainly used by the larger organisations and by UN entities, while many of the smaller and more regional organisations do not or barely use the SDGs.

Second, policy integration overall is increasing, but the integration of environmental topics with socio-economic topics is lagging behind. As mentioned, the call for more policy integration is long-standing, and indeed an increase in policy integration is observed in Bogers' study. However, mainly socio-economic topics (ending poverty, decent work, innovation and infrastructure) are integrated with one another, while the integration of environmental with socio-economic topics occurs much less frequent. Bogers does observe an integration of different environmental topics (climate action, clean water, life under water and life on land) with one another.

Third, while policy integration is overall increasing, the SDGs appear not to be an influencing factor in that increase. The international organisations that use the SDGs more, do not subsequently show an increase in policy integration. It is rather the other way around: those international organisations that already showed higher levels of policy integration, also use the SDGs more. Thus, while the SDGs are used to frame efforts towards policy integration, they do not spur it. 

Fourth, the SDGs facilitate institutional integration within policy domains. This also means, conversely, that institutional integration between policy domains has decreased. Thus, contrary to political expectations of the SDGS to "break down silos", silos around the 17 issue areas of the SDGs and around the economic, social and environmental dimension of sustainability have strengthened.

Integrating these results, Bogers concludes that the SDGs have been somewhat successful as a 'shared language' given their extensive use throughout the majority of international organisations. Yet, this has not resulted in increases in institutional and policy integration that the SDGs called for. Rather, the SDGs have had little to no impact on policy integration, and have had an effect on institutional integration that is opposite to political expectations.

Start date and time
End date and time
Academiegebouw, Domplein 29, Utrecht
PhD candidate
Maya J. Bogers
Integrating global sustainability governance: How the Sustainable Development Goals impact institutional and policy integration at the global level
PhD supervisor(s)
prof. dr. F.H.B. Biermann
dr. R. Kim
dr. A. Kalfagianni
More information
Full text via Utrecht University Repository