SDGs review offers potential preview of how to track New Urban Agenda

The U.N.’s key mechanism for tracking progress on the new Sustainable Development Goals meets 11-20 July. What insights does it offer for the Habitat III process?

“Leave no one behind” has been a mantra for United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. In his final year in office, the world body will spend the next week and a half discussing how to ensure Ban’s wish, as ministers, scientists and activists converge on U. N. Headquarters in New York.

The occasion is something called the High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development, a generic name that disguises a robust opportunity to track progress on — and, potentially, to hold world leaders accountable for — improving lives under the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Adopted last year, the SDGs are an ambitious global framework aimed at reducing poverty, increasing access to health care and education, protecting the environment and encouraging sustainable growth.

The world is currently in its first year of obligations under the SDGs, and will be meeting at the High-Level Political Forum (HLPF) on 11-20 July in order to report on initial progress precisely under the theme of “Ensuring that no one is left behind”. This year, 22 countries will undergo a voluntary review of their efforts to achieve the SDGs, though at this early stage they are expected less to present detailed statistical evidence of forward progress and more outlines of the policy efforts they have undertaken to get there, ideally by the SDGs’ targeted timeline of 2030.

[See: Cities turn to implementing the SDGs]

Meanwhile, this year will also see another major development event at the U. N., the upcoming Habitat III conference on urbanization. Like last year’s landmark agreements on disaster risk reduction (Sendai), development financing (Addis Ababa) and climate change (Paris), the Quito conference will deliver another tool for achieving the vision of SDGs — what’s being called the New Urban Agenda.

That draft document is currently being debated at the United Nations. Importantly, one of the major sticking points is specifically on how to track progress — something that the SDGs have consecrated in the HLPF. Indeed, one proposal currently under discussion would bring these two processes directly together.

On the one hand, there have been suggestions to elevate the World Urban Forum, the biennial conference organized by UN-Habitat, into a reporting platform on the New Urban Agenda. On the other, some have proposed that the HLPF already offers a logical venue, especially in light of calls for the U. N.’s development work to function in concert rather than in silos.

[See: Cities poised to play a bigger role in SDGs review process]

“We should see the New Urban Agenda as a scaffolding to implement the SDGs at local levels, so aligning their monitoring processes makes perfect sense,” said Jessica Epsey, programme leader at the U. N. Sustainable Development Solutions Network, a technical group. “It will also help to minimize the monitoring burden on countries and will help attract national political attention to urban concerns.”

Nuts and bolts

The HLPF is a meaty nine days in part because of the breadth of issues that it covers: The SDG agenda is extremely wide-ranging, after all, from oceans to the atmosphere and everything on land in between. Officially, the goal of the July sessions is to conduct voluntary reviews and adopt a ministerial declaration that will point the way forward for other countries to make good on their global commitments.

“We should see the New Urban Agenda as a scaffolding to implement the SDGs at local levels, so aligning their monitoring processes makes perfect sense.”

Jessica Espey
U. N. Sustainable Development Solutions Network

The presence of ministers is where the “high level” reference comes from in the event’s name. Those confirmed thus far have portfolios on topics such as the environment, energy, planning, sustainable development and foreign affairs. Two countries — Norway and Togo — are slated to send their prime ministers.

[See: Are we ready to implement the SDGs?]

In addition to the voluntary review, there will be a host of discussions on themes relevant to SDG implementation. Key among them is the idea of a “science-policy interface”, a term that refers to the nexus between technology and public policy.

There has been a proliferation in recent years of technology for development. These included bottom-of-the-pyramid innovations such as solar cook stoves and water filters the size of a straw, as well as the application of complex software for data collection that can help policymakers track where a country’s inhabitants lack reliable electricity or clean drinking water.

At the same time, the arms race in consumer technology has also widened the gap between rich and poor, prompting the U. N. to reflect on how technology has, in fact, left people behind and what can be done to change that dynamic. This issue is covered extensively in last month’s Global Sustainable Development Report 2016, the first of an annual series.

[See: Can geospatial technology lead to a development ‘data revolution’?]

Indeed, the run-up to the HLPF has produced a flurry of reports. The secretary-general’s office prepared two, a general progress report toward achieving the SDGs that also came out last month and an April report on the issue of sustainable consumption and production, the topic of a 10-year initiative spearheaded by the U. N. Environmental Programme.

The U. N. Economic and Social Council also reported on its first follow-up since last year’s Financing for Development conference in Addis Ababa, which tackled the crucial question of how to pay for the implementation of the SDGs — a figure that some have placed in the trillions of dollars over the next 15 years.

Finally, the HLPF is considered the most inclusive and participatory forum in the U. N. for non-state actors like NGOs, civil society groups and local governments. They, too, have seized on this opportunity to prepare talking points on the HLPF, while SDG advocacy groups have produced a full-fledged parallel report, “2030 Spotlight”, alongside the documents coming out under U. N. auspices.

Urban dimension

If the HLPF is to serve as the venue for how countries track their progress toward the New Urban Agenda, it stands to reason that Habitat III’s main issues — urbanization and the future of cities — will be on the agenda in the coming days. Cities are indeed present, if hardly in overarching themes.

“A chapter of the ‘2030 Spotlight’ offers 10 key points for the New Urban Agenda. These include pointed proposals not currently part of the Habitat III conversation: an end to public-private partnerships, sustainability standards in public procurement, tax justice and minimum working standards for municipal employees.”

That will change, however, as the HLPF is slated to take up sustainable cities and human settlements as a principal theme in its 2018 edition, following the identification of that topic as a top 20 issue for the sustainable development agenda. (Meanwhile, the next iteration of the World Urban Forum will take place in February 2018, to be hosed by Kuala Lumpur.)

[See: How will we keep track of city actions under the New Urban Agenda?]

In the meantime, urban issues intersect with next year’s broader SDGs discussion on a number of fronts. The new Global Sustainable Development Report includes a focus on resilient infrastructure, a topic with city and human settlement implications.

“Contributing experts noted a need to further disaggregate the analysis between rural and urban contexts to be able to provide more specific policy recommendations,” the report states. “In rural areas, infrastructure investments are essential to connect individuals to livelihoods and opportunities. Urban areas provide easier connectivity, but tend to present challenges such as fragmented governance structures, congestion and high disparities in access to services, especially in informal settlements and peri-urban areas.”

The secretary-general’s SDGs progress report, meanwhile, acknowledges that by 2030, 6 out of 10 people on the planet will be urban dwellers. “Despite numerous planning challenges, well-managed cities and other human settlements can be incubators for innovation and ingenuity and key drivers of sustainable development,” it notes. But this optimistic tone is tempered by grave concerns over the availability of affordable housing, proliferation of slum-like conditions, solid-waste disposal and air quality.

[See: How to globalize the sustainable city]

Urban sprawl is also singled out for its deleterious effect on climate change. “Unplanned urban sprawl undermines other determinants of sustainable development,” the report argues. “For example, for every 10 per cent increase in sprawl, there is a 5.7 per cent increase in per capita carbon dioxide emissions and a 9.6 per cent increase in per capita hazardous pollution.”

The report on sustainable consumption and production incorporates an urban dimension as well, via its green building and construction programme, which was launched at last year’s UN-Habitat Governing Council. However, there is little to say just over a year into the programme, with this chapter mostly describing initial planning and advocacy campaigns.

A chapter of the “2030 Spotlight”, meanwhile, offers 10 key points for the New Urban Agenda. These include pointed proposals not currently part of the Habitat III conversation: an end to public-private partnerships, sustainability standards in public procurement, tax justice and minimum working standards for municipal employees.

Local authorities

Finally, the HLPF agenda itself will feature voices that will speak to the importance of urbanization in the sustainable development battle. Istanbul Mayor Kadir Topbaş will give a keynote address on 13 July during the session entitled “Vertical cooperation —  local authorities and national governments working together for implementation of the 2030 Agenda.”

[See: SDGs review needs to go local, advocates say]

Topbaş is a regular on the U. N. circuit thanks to his role as president of the United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG) network, which on 19 July will co-host a side event on localizing the SDGs alongside SDSN and several other cities and resilience organizations.

Many of these groups channel their international advocacy through something called “major groups”, a set of non-state actors formally recognized by the United Nations. At the HLPF, these stakeholders are given unprecedented access and the right to intervene in discussions, a prerogative normally reserved only for member states.

As part of this inclusive approach, each major group was asked to prepare some insights ahead of the HLPF. That document, released in May, includes a reflection from the local authorities major group that makes the only public link between the SDGs and Habitat III.

“For us, the 2030 Agenda is an important milestone on the way to the Habitat III conference and the adoption of the New Urban Agenda,” the document states. “In a rapidly urbanizing world, the New Urban Agenda is also an opportunity to strengthen the implementation of the 2030 Agenda.”

[See: The SDGs don’t adequately spell out cities’ role in implementation]

Still, some key cities groups have expressed disappointment over the lack of prominence given to local authorities in the HLPF’s focus on implementation. One entity, the UCLG-organized Global Taskforce of Local and Regional Governments, has announced its intention to “express disappointment at the limited attention paid to local ownership and implementation in the declaration and offer to promote in-depth voluntary reviews of SDG progress at subnational level to contribute to the global reporting process and the HLPF.”

This tension, and its future implications, is certain to receive ongoing discussion as the HLPF sessions move forward in the coming days.

The HLPF’s official programme can be found here. A full list of side events can be found here.

Stay up to date on all Habitat III news! Sign up here for Citiscope’s weekly newsletter. Citiscope is a member of the Habitat III Journalism Project; read more here.

Get Citiscope’s email newsletter on local solutions to global goals.

Back to top

More from Citiscope

Latest Commentary