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The ambitious mandate of the HLPF is not yet matched by its ability to provide political leadership and guidance.

This is especially needed now for the decade of action and delivery.

The intergovernmental review of the HLPF now underway at the UN is an opportunity to enable it to lead an evidence-based, coherent and action-oriented agenda.

The ambitious mandate of the UN High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF) is not yet matched by its ability to provide political leadership and guidance. This is especially needed now for the decade of action and delivery. The intergovernmental review of the HLPF now underway at the UN is an opportunity to enable it to lead an evidence-based, coherent, and action-oriented agenda. The current political climate will not make that easy.

Building on key findings of existing assessments including surveys and studies (among many others see Amanuma et al. 2019; Beisheim 2018; de Burca 2019; Hege 2019; DESA-EGM 2019; DESA-Survey 2019; HLPF 2019), we outline proposals for three areas that could be improved through the present review process: evaluation and analysis of data; policy coherence; and political guidance. (A more detailed treatment of some of these proposals can be found here and here).

Finding Strengths and Weaknesses

The HLPF is responsible for the follow-up and review of the SDGs. Given the centrality of the 2030 Agenda and its SDGs to the UN’s entire work on major global challenges, the 2013 resolution launching the HLPF gave it a suitably ambitious mandate:

  • political leadership, guidance and recommendations;
  • follow up and review progress in implementing the SDGs;
  • enhancing integration of the three dimensions of sustainable development in a holistic and cross-sectoral manner, including through coordination and coherence across the UN system and at all levels of governance;
  • a focused, dynamic and action-oriented agenda;
  • ensuring the appropriate consideration of new and emerging sustainable development challenges;
  • enhancing civil society participation and evidence-based decision making; and
  • providing a platform for partnerships.

Assessments of the lessons learned during the HLPF’s first four-year cycle since the adoption of the 2030 Agenda identify several strengths, including its provision of a platform for peer learning and the high level of participation in the Voluntary National Reviews (VNRs) as a key mechanism for promoting bottom-up, country-driven processes to implement the SDGs.

These same assessments identified several weaknesses. Chief among them are the need to: 1) improve evaluation and analysis of evidence-based inputs to better draw out policy lessons; 2) better promote interlinkages and coherence; and 3) provide targeted leadership and action-oriented recommendations. Although a major overhaul of the HLPF’s organization and format is unlikely, several viable steps can better match its ambition with results.

Better Evaluation of Data

Leading up to each annual HLPF session, review procedures and statistical reports from UN bodies as well as further expert and stakeholder reports generate useful data, including on who is being left behind. Similarly, the VNRs produce valuable data on implementation in specific contexts, as do regional fora. However, preparations for the HLPF do not include adequate analysis and evaluation of this data to ensure that it can inform policy-relevant discussions at the HLPF. More often, “reports” are presented rather than “reviews” that reflect analysis and evaluation. As of 2019, the one-day Integration Segment of ECOSOC is held directly prior to the HLPF to process inputs – but one day is not enough for this task.

Taking place jointly with the HLPF review is a review of the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). The HLPF’s annual sessions take place under the auspices of ECOSOC. The ECOSOC review provides a political opening to remedy much of the data evaluation problem by adjusting the ECOSOC calendar and the reporting arrangements of its subsidiary bodies. Member States could decide, for example, to hold an HLPF ‘Spring Meeting.’ Doing so would not require adding overall meeting time – a politically unpopular proposition – but instead would split the number of meeting days to better fulfill the HLPF’s mandate. The Spring Meeting could be used to evaluate the main messages of the Secretary-General’s yearly SDG report, the VNRs and reports from the UN system, including its regional bodies. The results could feed into the negotiations of the Ministerial Declaration in June, which would then be well placed to include substantial recommendations for discussion at the HLPF session in July.

A “Sherpa” for each main panel of the HLPF – which correspond to the theme-related and SDG reviews that year – could be designated to curate an all-year preparatory process and bring relevant findings to the attention of panelists. The Sherpa could be, for example, one of the Independent Group of Scientists who prepare the Global Sustainable Development Report, or an experienced diplomat with high-level expertise and standing in the particular field. She or he could then help with the selection of qualified panelists, ensure they consider the UN’s preparatory work, and guide the process to ensure panelists discuss policy-relevant recommendations.

Other innovations can maximize learning opportunities. Since 2018, DESA has been organizing “VNR labs” where participants discuss interlinkages and country experiences with a focus on a specific challenge or topic. Building on this idea, others have suggested similar events at regional meetings where countries with common circumstances can learn directly from each other. We suggest encouraging such labs to focus especially on transformative implementation measures already proven to be successful and highlight challenges that require partners or additional resources. Then DESA could follow up with efforts to connect national governments with partners, or foster connections in other fora to match supply and demand, for example with technologies, financing or investment.

Aiming at Policy Coherence

At their core, the SDGs require integrative and coherent policies that account for interlinkages – among individual Goals and targets, and in particular among the environmental, social and economic dimensions of sustainable development. The 2019 Global Sustainable Development Report (GDSR) is potentially game-changing in providing a scientific basis on which to address co-benefits and trade-offs to achieve transformative change. The HLPF can utilize this report to improve coherence, while also drawing on other analytic work including the OECD’s recommendations on policy coherence and their case-study work on governance as an accelerator for the SDGs.

Member States could decide to adopt the GSDR’s logic of identifying “entry points” and “levers” for the theme-based and SDG reviews. For example, each annual HLPF session could be organized around two of the six entry points laid out for the six transformative pathways that the GSDR discusses. SDGs that are central to the selected combination of entry points could be reviewed in-depth, while focusing on relevant interlinkages to all other SDGs, (see Chart 1 on page 12 here). Criteria for the combinations in each year could be:

  • distance to SDG targets (i.e. entry points with the highest distance to the associated SDG targets could be considered early in the HLPF four-year cycle);
  • alignment with relevant other international processes;
  • coverage of all three dimensions of sustainable development each year;
  • the overarching theme should reflect relevant interlinkages.

The HLPF panels could be tasked with discussing the four levers identified in the GSDR, i.e. governance, economy and finance, individual and collective action, and science and technology, attributing concrete tasks and responsibilities to the change agents needed across sectors. This would allow greater coherence in the selection of themes and SDGs reviewed, following a systems approach to cover all SDGs and their interlinkages each year, while still mobilizing the respective communities of practice.

Political Leadership and Guidance

Splitting the HLPF session into two segments can also go a long way to enhance political leadership and guidance, one of the principal areas where governments and stakeholders have said the HLPF needs to do better. The earlier and more integrative reviews enabled by this change would assist the negotiation of an action-oriented Ministerial Declaration, providing a basis on which Member States could agree on recommendations that guide countries and mobilize resources. Good preparatory work would also permit more time for the ministerial segment in July to decide upon accelerated transformative action, measures to improve coherence, and initiatives to mobilize actor coalitions and additional resources.

The official process for the HLPF and ECOSOC review launched this week with the first informal meeting of Member States. The co-facilitators want to finish the process by June 2020, but this will depend a lot on how ambitious member states want to be; so far, positions are far apart. Rather than radical reform, the proposals here are in the spirit of ensuring the HLPF builds momentum to live up to its mandate. Doing so is needed to keep the support of civil society and many member states who recognize that moving beyond business-as-usual is necessary to achieve the SDGs. Such momentum is especially crucial given the 2030 Agenda and SDGs are rare exceptions to the current strains on multilateralism. An HLPF review that supports their delivery through enabling effective action by coalitions of the willing presents a key opportunity in this difficult political environment.

The authors of this guest article are Marianne Beisheim, Senior Associate in the Global Issues Division at SWP (German Institute for International and Security Affairs), and Steven Bernstein, Professor of Political Science and Co-Director of the Environmental Governance Lab at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, University of Toronto.


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