Experts gathered to consider lessons learned from the first four-year cycle of the UN High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF), which concludes in July 2019. In the context of an intergovernmental review of the HLPF scheduled to take place during the 74th session of the UN General Assembly (UNGA), participants exchanged views based on their experiences with the HLPF to date and made suggestions for improving the voluntary national reviews (VNRs), the SDG thematic reviews and multi-stakeholder participation, among other topics.
The HLPF was established in 2013, through UNGA resolution 67/290 on format and organizational aspects of the HLPF. To clarify the HLPF’s follow-up and review function, in 2016 the UNGA adopted resolution 70/299, which set out the specific themes of the Forum for 2017, 2018 and 2019, as well as the set of SDGs to be reviewed in depth in those years. By that resolution the UNGA also decides to review progress on the two resolutions’ implementation during the 74th session (2019-2020) “to benefit from lessons learned in the first cycle” of the HLPF. By the end of this first cycle, the HLPF will have reviewed progress on all 17 SDGs.
The expert group meeting to consider such lessons learned was organized by the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA) and held from 6-7 May 2019, in New York, US, under Chatham House rules. The discussion covered: the role of the HLPF and opportunities for its improvement; the voluntary national reviews (VNRs) of SDG implementation in countries; HLPF theme and thematic reviews; multi-stakeholder participation; and plans for the 74th session’s review of the HLPF.
HLPF Role and Opportunities for Improvement
Participants remarked that the HLPF is the unique global platform provided to UN Member States, UN entities and stakeholders to exchange on the 2030 Agenda and SDG implementation. On areas for HLPF improvement, some said the Forum tries to achieve too much given the eight days allocated to it. To address this, they suggested: extending its duration; “de-burden” it by creating flexible meeting spaces outside of the UN premises; and/or making better use of discussion time.
One participant said the broad scope of the HLPF allows it to draw on a complete range of inputs, including sectoral ones. Many asked for a better use of these inputs, such as reports produced by UN agencies and stakeholders, and outcomes from regional and expert meetings. They suggested to: provide more detailed guidance on the types of inputs that could feed into the HLPF; conduct a more systematic analysis of inputs; and go beyond uploading these inputs on the HLPF website, to increase their visibility. It was also noted that discussions at the Forum should be based on facts and data and make the most of existing reports such as UN Secretary-General reports and the Global Sustainable Development Report (GSDR), as well as the outcomes of evaluations and other processes. Some noted challenges related to data and data disaggregation, and someone suggested to identify areas where countries need support on SDG implementation, in order for these areas to be highlighted during the HLPF and attract partnerships.
On HLPF outcomes, one delegate remarked that the Ministerial Declaration is usually “flat” because it has been pre-negotiated and informally agreed before the Forum. Some called for a more action-oriented Declaration that better involves stakeholders in its preparation, and for the Declaration to better reflect regional assessments of SDG implementation.
Participants identified several benefits related to the VNRs, such as: encouraging countries to move towards a whole-of-government and whole-of-society approach; helping to anchor sustainable development at the highest level of governments to ensure ownership; catalyzing partnerships; and providing an opportunity to be informed about the standing of both developed and developing countries in terms of SDG implementation.
Several participants said VNRs should be seen as a continuous process, not as a “one-shot” exercise. Some noted that countries presenting their VNR for the second or third time at the HLPF could report on the impacts of their previous VNRs on SDG implementation, and follow-up on the implementation of initiatives outlined in their first VNRs. Some also called for updating the VNR voluntary common reporting guidelines, as there are no specific guidelines for countries that are presenting their review for a second or third time.
Many participants noted the need to avoid a “beauty contest” at the HLPF and called instead for honest VNRs that reflect on progress, gaps and challenges. To drive greater coherence, speakers called for linking VNRs and national plans, and for aligning VNRs to regional priorities, with one participant suggesting a regional presentation of each VNR before the HLPF.
On financing implementation at the national level, some referred to the SDG Fund, and noted the need to link VNRs with countries’ financing strategies. It was reported that some countries have started to reflect the SDGs in their budget, such as Finland for which ministries have been asked to specify how much is given to the 2030 Agenda’s implementation under each sector.
On accountability, a participant remarked that accountability “starts at home” and can be operationalized through an inclusive VNR process. Among other examples, it was noted that Finland has committed to report every four years to the HLPF and every year to its parliament, and Germany has conducted three peer reviews of its sustainable development strategy. One person indicated that independent assessment reports of VNRs have been prepared by a coalition of stakeholders for the 2016, 2017 and 2018 VNRs, while others called for publishing civil society reports on VNRs simultaneously with the government’s VNR report, and to include them as part of follow-up and review process related to the 2030 Agenda. The discussion also underlined the importance of evaluation, and of Supreme Audit Institutions (SAIs) in assessing SDG preparedness and implementation.
A group of friends on VNRs will review VNR reports and highlight best practices and challenges to support peer learning.
On peer learning, some remarked that the feedback countries receive on their implementation effort is as equally important as presenting the VNR as such, with one expert suggesting that peer learning at the HLPF could benefit from written questions to VNR countries that would be followed up with written replies from these countries. Participants were informed about the establishment of a Group of Friends on VNRs at the global level, which consists in an informal group of countries that will review VNR reports, and support peer learning by highlighting best practices and challenges, among other tasks.
Many noted the benefits of peer learning, with some arguing that this should take place at the regional level since countries from the same regions share more similar realities. Others remarked that a peer learning exercise between countries from different regions, such as Finland and Colombia, had allowed both countries to share experiences and had benefited both countries. A participant suggested to explore “peer drafting” in which governments work together on their VNR reports, and some called for ensuring “safe spaces” for governments to do peer learning and share challenges.
Participants also discussed existing review processes, such as the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Development Assistance Committee (DAC) Peer Review process, the Universal Peer Review Mechanism (UPR) under the UN Human Rights Council (HRC), and the African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM). One participant shared lessons learned from the OECD DAC Peer Review process, including the need for: a clear theory of change; a clear methodology; clarity and transparency on roles of stakeholders and on ways to engage them; and a Secretariat that is well-resourced and engaged. Another said the UPR is a heavy and time-consuming process that would not be ideal in the context of the VNRs, and others said the voluntary nature of the VNRs should be maintained.