The concept of National Sustainable Development Strategy (NSDS) was proposed in 1992 in Agenda 21 (§ 8.7) where countries were called upon to integrate economic, social and environmental objectives into one strategically focused blueprint for action at the national level. The NSDS “should be developed through the widest possible participation”. And it “should be based on a thorough assessment of the current situation and initiatives”. In the Programme for the Future Implementation of Agenda 21 adopted at the 19th Special Session of the General Assembly (23-28 June 1997), member States reaffirmed the importance of NSDS and set a target of 2002 for the formulation and elaboration of NSDS that reflect the contributions and responsibilities of all interested parties.
However, by 2002, based on national reports received from governments, only about 85 countries had developed some form of national strategies and the nature and effectiveness of these strategies varied considerably from country to country. The Johannesburg Plan of Implementation (JPOI) adopted at the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD), through paragraph 162 b, recommitted member States to “take immediate steps to make progress in the formulation and elaboration of national strategies for sustainable development and to begin their implementation by 2005.”
During the preparatory process for the 2002 WSSD, the International Forum on NSDS was held in Accra, Ghana in 2001, which led to the launch of the Guidance in Preparing a National Sustainable Development Strategy. It defined National Sustainable Development Strategy (NSDS) as “a coordinated, participatory and iterative process of thoughts and actions to achieve economic, environmental and social objectives in a balanced and integrative manner”. Most importantly, NSDS is a call for an institutional change. It aims at a transition from the traditional static putting-a-plan-on-paper exercise towards the establishment of an adaptive system that can continuously improve. It should be a process which “encompasses situation analysis, formulation of policies and action plans, implementation, monitoring and regular review. It is a cyclical and interactive process of planning, participation and action in which the emphasis is on managing progress towards sustainability goals rather than producing a ‘plan’ as an end product.”
Every country needs to determine, for itself, how best to approach the preparation and implementation of its national sustainable development strategy depending upon the prevailing political, historical cultural, ecological circumstances. A "blueprint" approach for national sustainable development strategies is neither possible nor desirable. The particular label applied to a national sustainable development strategy is not important, as long as the underlying principles characterizing a national sustainable development strategy are adhered to and that economic, social and environmental objectives are balanced and integrated.
Today, when incorporating the 2030 Agenda for sustainable development and its 17 SDGs into national context, although countries do not necessarily label them as “national sustainable development strategies”, all the underlying core principles are deeply embedded in the national implementation of SDGs worldwide. As seen at the Voluntary National Reviews at the High Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development, issues such as country ownership and strong political commitment, the integration of economic, social and environmental objectives across sectors, territories and generations; broad participation and effective partnerships, the development of capacity and enabling environment, as well as the mobilization of means of implementations remain at the center of policy debates at all levels.