Improving the Accountability Cycle: Recommendations for Stronger VNR Guidelines
Photo by IISD | Lynn Wagner
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To enable a robust assessment of SDGs progress, a clear and participatory reporting process for SDG implementation needs to be in place.

Together 2030, through a partnership with World Vision International, has conducted a series of consultations with its members and collected recommendations to improve the current set of VNR guidelines.

Voluntary National Reviews (VNRs) are central to the institutional mechanisms proposed to review the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and track their progress. Two years into the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, after two review cycles at the UN High-level Political Forum for Sustainable Development (HLPF), sixty-four countries have presented their VNRs: 22 in 2016 and 43 in 2017, with Togo having presented twice. After the 48 volunteer countries present their VNRs in 2018, more than half (54%) of all UN Member States will have undergone at least one round of review, and 8 Member States will have volunteered to be reviewed at least twice at the global level.

To enable a robust assessment of SDGs progress, a clear and participatory reporting process for SDG implementation needs to be in place. A key organizing aspect for the VNRs is the common guidelines template expected to be used by all countries when crafting their reports. Proposed by the UN Secretary-General, upon the request of Member States, the first set of voluntary common reporting guidelines for VNRs was published in January 2016. After two rounds of VNR presentations, a revision and update of those guidelines is needed in order to provide better guidance to volunteer Member States, enhance the potential for information sharing and peer learning and facilitate collective policy review and route correction.

Together 2030, through a partnership with World Vision International, has conducted a series of consultations with its members and collected recommendations to improve the current set of VNR guidelines.

A summary of the main messages from the recommendations report follows below:

  • Common Guidelines should be commonly followed: The experience of past VNRs, including our review of the VNR main messages for 2017, demonstrates the need for a more coherent approach by Member States to the structure of the VNR reports. The lack of a more common structure across the reports undermines review and follow up by limiting the capacity for comparison of shared challenges and good practices.
  • The Guidelines should support and protect the indivisibility and integrated nature of the SDGs and break a current trend of limited or selective SDG reporting in VNRs: We are concerned by the fact that most Member States are not reporting on all SDGs in their VNRs. The VNR guidelines need to be reviewed in order to ensure respect for the “universal, integrated and interrelated nature” of the SDGs (para 74b of the 2030 Agenda). Under no circumstances should the Secretary-General’s guidelines foster, promote or signal that partial reporting of the SDGs is expected and/or accepted. Whenever data is not available, Member States should explain why and indicate their plans to fill any gaps.
  • Interlinkages beyond siloed themes: The guidelines should encourage governments to reflect on how the interlinked aspects of the SDGs are being implemented and monitored at the national level. This section is extremely important and should be supported by concrete examples, outlining the country’s efforts towards integration and how they contribute to the three dimensions of sustainable development.
  • Leave No One Behind and reaching the furthest behind first: The current guidelines provide little guidance on how Member States may address vulnerable and marginalized groups. Whilst some countries have somehow addressed this in their reports, it will be challenging to review progress for vulnerable groups such as children, persons with disabilities and others without a clear indication in the guidelines and a strong commitment from governments to report on that. We recommend the addition of a new section to the VNR guidelines, asking Member States to provide details on how the concept of ‘Leaving no one behind’ is being implemented and to report on efforts to identify and make those ‘left behind’ statistically. Moreover, Member States should be requested to report on how their policies, plans and programmes are being adapted to reach the furthest behind first.
  • The Outcome reflects the process: The VNR guidelines should ask for details on which processes were established in preparation of the national report, including opportunities for wide stakeholder participation, challenges experienced, and best practices in stakeholder engagement. Feedback from civil society in VNR countries over the last two years and the outcomes of surveys conducted by Together 2030 show that access, quality and processes need to be improved to generate meaningful participation.
  • Spell out which stakeholders have been engaged: On para 74d of the 2030 Agenda, Member States agreed to undertake open, inclusive, participatory and transparent reviews for all people supporting the reporting ‘by all relevant stakeholders’. The guidelines should request governments to report on how they are enabling clear, open, coherent, transparent and regular spaces for the participation of stakeholders in the planning, implementation, follow up, monitoring and evaluation of the 2030 Agenda at all levels.
  • From local to global and back to local: VNRs and the accountability cycle: The VNR guidelines should be more explicit on details requested regarding plans for following up on main findings after the HLPF presentation, as part of a multi-layered review system. Countries should be requested to indicate their plans for debriefing on the outcomes of the VNRs at the national level (after the HLPF) as well as their plans to volunteer again at the global level.

We hope those recommendations can inform the revision of the current set of VNR guidelines and that Member States volunteering to present in 2018 consider them when setting up inclusive, transparent and participatory preparatory processes for crafting their national reports.


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