SDGs review needs to go local, advocates say

The High-Level Political Forum has met for the last time ahead of the finalization of the Sustainable Development Goals. But the sessions left unanswered many questions on how exactly this body will monitor progress on the goals.

Part of the ministerial sessions at the 2015 High-Level Political Forum, which here included addresses by Norwiegan Prime Minister Erna Solberg, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Rwandan President Paul Kagame, 6 July. (IISD/ENB (

NEW YORK — “Post-” was the operative prefix at a major political body that concluded this week at the United Nations. This was the 2015 meeting of the High-Level Political Forum (HLPF), and the discussion was all about the Post-2015 Development Agenda, which will not be a done deal until 2016.

The stakes for the HLPF’s sessions were significant: It’s this body that will be tasked with monitoring progress on the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), to be formally agreed upon in September. How exactly it will do that remains up in the air.

By this time next year, the U. N. General Assembly will almost certainly have approved 17 SDGs as well as 169 related targets. A commission of statistical experts will also have hashed out a set of indicators to measure how well countries are meeting those goals and targets. But at present, just halfway through this landmark year, it is too soon to arrive at strong conclusions about an agenda that has not been officially adopted.

Such was the sentiment among cautious delegates at the HLPF. The forum itself is a successor to the Commission on Sustainable Development that has guided the international agenda on this issue from its birth at the U. N. Conference on Environment and Development — the widely known Earth Summit of 1992.

There is nearly unanimous consensus that the 17 proposed SDGs and 169 targets will not change — affirmed by “Transforming Our World: The 2030 Agenda for Global Action”, the formal post-2015 document whose final draft was released Wednesday. Yet at this week’s HLPF sessions, nearly every official statement was prefaced with a qualification about the presumed, expected or eventual SDGs.

As a consequence, the exact role of this forum, which included three days turned over to ministers, remains somewhat unclear. Indeed, delegates were heard calling this year’s session little more than a “placeholder”.

Key mission

Nonetheless, the HLPF’s mandate is a critical one. Not only is it tasked with reviewing progress on the SDGs each year, but every four years it will bring together heads of state and government to remind world leaders about the vital global task of sustainable development.

Yet after more than a week of plenaries, there remains no real consensus on how the goals will be reviewed. “It’s hard to explain to colleagues how central the HLPF is going to be in the long run of implementation, monitoring and reviewing,” said Janne Tallas, Finland’s deputy permanent representative, summing up the sentiments of many.

Part of the problem is a structural one: The SDGs, officially speaking, do not yet exist as a binding framework for global development.

“How will the discussions be organized? Will we review each SDG goal by goal?” asks Maruxa Cardama, executive director of the Communitas Coalition, which advocates for proposed Goal 11, the urban SDG.

These basic questions were not settled and will likely become the core focus for next year’s forum. The SDGs will have been inked by that time — but with just a few months having passed, there will likely be little to review.

As a result of this timing conundrum, which produced a dress rehearsal for which there was not yet a final script, little can be assessed of this year’s HLPF other than its rhetoric.

In the drumbeat of statements about the importance of the SDGs, some key trends stood out. Science and technology, for example, received a considerable boost, with an entire session dedicated to increasing the role of that community in the HLPF review process. The issue was also the centre of this year’s flagship Global Sustainable Development Report, which was put together by the United Nations and which fed directly into the HLPF process.

The impending approval at this month’s Financing for Development conference of a technology facilitation mechanism (TFM) is one indication of the stock that national governments are placing in the ability of science and technology to help countries achieve the SDGs. “TFM constitutes a historical demand of developing countries, and we expect it to benefit from the support of civil society,” said Sergio Rodrigues dos Santos, Brazil’s minister counselor.

From regional to local

For those who advocate for a stronger role for cities and local governments in the implementation of sustainable development, the HLPF did not set the bar very high. That’s even though Istanbul Mayor and United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG) President Kadir Topbaş addressed the opening session.

“As the level of government with much of the responsibility for meeting any development targets, I would like to bring to you today the commitment of hundreds of thousands of local governments worldwide to address these responsibilities,” he said.

Like all U. N. processes, however, the SDGs are driven by member states — representatives of national governments, who often see themselves as the smallest unit of measurement for sustainable development. In turn, they group nations into regions and then regions into a global perspective.

Indeed, an entire session was dedicated to the importance of regions in achieving sustainable development. Participants looked at tools such as the Africa Peer Review Mechanism or the International Organization of Francophonie’s network of peer review among French-speaking countries.

For UCLG’s Emilia Sáiz, such approaches miss an important point. “While everybody thinks that it is a breakthrough to talk about three levels of involvement in the post-2015 agenda — national, regional, global — they are missing the key level which will make all the others move, innovate and commit,” she said. “[That’s] the local level — the communities, the local leadership, both elected and not.”

Meanwhile, as HLPF delegates debated the right approach to monitoring and review of the SDGs, Sáiz believes that local governments have had the answer all along. “A constituency approach might be in this case more relevant than a goal approach,” Sáiz said. “The current set of goals cannot be looked at in silos. That is both the challenge and the beauty of this universal agenda before us.”

Echoing SDGs co-facilitator Ambassador Macharia Kamau, Sáiz added, “We, local governments, have said this from the beginning: Focus on the who, not only on the how.”

For example, the last day of the HLPF saw a presentation by a group called Rede Nossa São Paulo, a civil society organization that established a system of targets and indicators for Brazil’s largest city. “Our platform, which is now being used by 276 municipalities including 22 capital cities, is being adapted to the SDGs,” said Zuleica Goulart, mobilization coordinator for the organization.

“Rede Nossa São Paulo’s work is fundamental to the SDGs,” declared Rodrigues dos Santos, the Brazilian minister. “We can’t talk about global implementation and global process unless we look at how this is going to play out at the subnational level. It’s not just a matter about civil society having a voice — in our opinion they can bring real, innovative solutions.”

But the forum is not yet designed to recognize those local approaches, according to UCLG. Their assessment is bleak but optimistic. “Is the HLPF up to it?” Sáiz asked. “No, of course not. Nobody is yet, but we are on the good path to find solutions.”

Civil society’s opportunity

The HLPF also led to some serious soul-searching among civil society, especially what are known as the Major Groups and other Stakeholders (MGoS).

This structure is a result of the 1992 Earth Summit, the outcome document of which recognized nine sectors of civil society who were then given formal recognition within the United Nations. In the two decades since, these nine “major groups” and other stakeholders who were invited to join the table at the Rio+20 follow-up conference (held in 2012) have become a fixture at the U. N. They have allocated seats in plenary sessions and the right to make statements alongside heads of state and government.

As member states sought to figure out how they would review the next 15 years of global development, civil society has also pondered its role. Civicus, the World Alliance for Citizen Participation, surveyed civil society groups that have been involved in the Post-2015 Development Agenda to query their knowledge of the HLPF and its workings. An understanding of the forum was hardly unanimous and indicated that much work is needed to raise awareness on the issue.

Hanna Hansson, who presented the CIVICUS survey, acknowledged that the formal structure of MGoS has become an entrenched interest group at the United Nations. “We also looked into how to improve constituencies that aren’t in New York and draw not just from big organizations based in the Global North,” she said.

Despite a lack of awareness at this early stage, some longtime civil society advocates within the U. N. system believe the HLPF has transformative potential.

The U. N. resolution that created the HLPF “is the most fantastic resolution passed by the General Assembly in its 70-year history, offering more rights to civil society,” said Jan-Gustav Strandenaes, an adviser to Civicus. “HLPF is absolutely a novelty, with an implicit power to modernize the U. N. if its potential is used wisely.”

Interestingly, such reformist statements were not greeted as radical in member states’ quarters.

“This is a real and rare opportunity to change the U.N,” said Tallas, the Finnish diplomat. “Success at the U. N. is measured in decades. The U. N. moves at the speed of glaciers.”

Tallas continued: “Civil society: The ball is in your court. It is your time — your opportunity to make yourselves relevant, make your voices count, put things on the agenda and push things forward.”

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